With the tools of a trained ethnographer, the skills of a literary writer, and a deep-seated compassion, Matthew Desmond follows the lives of eight Milwaukee families as they struggled between 2008 and 2009 to turn grinding poverty into stable poverty. He also recounts the activities of their landlords, making Evicted (Crown, $28) a compelling and troubling story of “two freedoms at odds… the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.” Desmond puts these narratives into perspective with statistics, noting that in 2008 tax benefits to homeowners amounted to $171 billion nationally, while direct assistance to the poor for housing was $40.2 billion. In Milwaukee, the nation’s fourth poorest city, rent often consumes 88% of a monthly welfare check, and even the cheapest, barely habitable apartments—clogged drains, no stove, no hot water—may cost just $270 less than a decent place. Eviction, rare even in the Depression, is now a daily occurrence. Meanwhile, though “it took a certain skill to make a living off the city’s poorest trailer park,” it is indeed possible, as it is for an inner-city landlord renting to tenants on or below the poverty line to amass a net worth of $2 million. Desmond explores these disparities in detail and links the crisis of affordable housing to unemployment, crime, racism, poor health, and other socio-economic ills. But what’s most impressive here are the stories. One woman calls some ninety prospective apartments, her standards getting lower as her desperation rises. A seventh-grader attends five different schools in one academic year. Children “sleep” in chairs in overcrowded rooms. Evictions are cheaper for landlords than maintenance, and people can be evicted for nearly anything—or nothing; a call to the police about domestic abuse, for instance, can get a family kicked out as a “nuisance,” and every eviction on someone’s record makes the next apartment harder to come by.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City - Matthew Desmond
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Published: Crown - March 1st, 2016
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Published: Crown - February 28th, 2017