Evicted by Matthew Desmond (2016)

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I’m not sure what was most shocking about this book and its comprehensive story of eviction: the squalid conditions that many urban poor live in or the shockingly high rents they pay for these conditions or the percentage of their income that goes toward rent (sometimes as high as 80+%) or the number of people evicted every single day. I couldn’t read more than 40 pages in one sitting because this was just too depressing–and yet, I couldn’t stop reading because this is too important.  Desmond’s study of eviction centers around 8 families in Milwaukee over a period of a year and a half during which he lived in a trailer park and a rooming house among some of the poorest people in the most dire circumstances. I kept thinking back to my dad’s advice while I was looking for my first apartment out of college: “never spend more than 25% of your salary on housing.” So that became my benchmark, and yeah, on a teacher’s salary, it took some effort to find something affordable in the city neighborhoods where I wanted to live. But with a bit of luck and lots of friends, I always found something nice without ever breaching that 25% threshhold.

Yet, Desmond’s research found something very different: rents that were as high or higher in downtown Milwaukee’s worst slums than its suburban counterparts, rents that continued to rise even as wages stagnated or declined, families evicted multiple times in a single year because they had to choose between food and rent, landlords with the power to fix nothing and yet evict if a tenant were to register a single complaint. It’s a landlord’s’ market and they can do whatever they want. Arleen, one of the eight families Desmond profiled, at one point called over 90 apartments looking for something affordable. I’m certain I would not have that kind of persistence to find housing.

Desmond is honest about circumstances.  True, Arleen is on welfare and cannot provide for her two boys, but they have no father in their life and no child support. Crystal makes some bad decisions and cannot control her temper, but she is also a product of drug addicted parents and a life in foster care. Scott, who lives in the trailer park, was once a nurse but he became addicted to pain killers and then heroin.  Sometimes it’s poor choices and sometimes it’s unavoidable circumstances, but regardless, it’s hard to imagine that in a country with such incredible affluence, anyone could live like these people do.

For an excellent and comprehensive review of not only this book but of poverty and housing in America, see this NY Review of Books by Jason DeParle. Evicted is a must read, even though it may leave you feeling drained and powerless to effect change.  Step one is understanding the issue, and Desmond certainly helps us do that.  He also proposes some solutions, though other studies have suggested even these may not produce much change. One thing is certain: people should not live this way.

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