Some books need to come with a warning. Or a caution. Like, “Do not read this book if you want to be comfortable” or “Warning: Book may make you squirm.”
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond is not a beach read or an entertaining tale. In fact, just looking at the book is intimidating. A 400-page hardcover with 50 pages of end notes is nothing to take lightly. Then again, neither is housing insecurity. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for my review.)
Desmond’s book shines a light on a housing problem that gets little to no attention: eviction. And though thoroughly researched and at times, academic, the book tells stories of real people living in substandard housing conditions in Milwaukee. Desmond frames their stories with facts and context, and the result is a book that is sometimes hard to read but one that tells a necessary story and offers a practical response.
Although the stories in Evicted take place in an urban setting, the causes and circumstances are not unique only to large cities, nor is it only a big-city problem.
What I appreciate most about the book is that it not only shows us the problem but calls us out to take action. I think some of my favorite words in the whole book are these:
Whatever our way out of this mess, one thing is certain. This degree of inequality, this withdrawal of opportunity, this cold denial of basic needs, this endorsement of pointless suffering–by no American value is this situation justified. No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching, can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become. (p. 313)
Desmond argues that providing secure housing for those who are most vulnerable to eviction is a key component to reducing the effect of other social issues.
… a good home can serve as the sturdiest of footholds. When people have a place to live, they become better parents, workers and citizens. (p. 295)
We have affirmed provision in old age, twelve years of education, and basic nutrition to be the right of every citizen because we have recognized that human dignity depends on the fulfillment of these fundamental human needs. And it is hard to argue that housing is not a fundamental human need. Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart. (p. 300)
Some of the living conditions Desmond describes are heartbreaking and shocking. Apartments without working appliances, clogged toilets, no running water going unrepaired for a variety of reasons. And to be fair, Desmond’s research includes talking with and shadowing landlords. He acknowledges that they have rights, too.
There are two freedoms at odds with each other: the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home. (p. 308)
I’ve never been a landlord, but we’ve been renters for years. We know some of the difficulties of finding affordable housing and dedicating a large percentage of our income to rent. This book probably won’t be popular with landlords, even good ones. I know people who own property who have been left with property damages and issues as a result of tenants’ actions. Evicted doesn’t offer excuses for situations like these, but it does illustrate how problems compound when housing becomes insecure. And it offers hope for change and evidence of a turnaround in one tenant’s life because of secure housing.
As a former journalist, I’m impressed by Desmond’s research and how he embedded himself in the culture of Milwaukee’s urban poor. Although he says in the end notes that he is not meant to be the star of this work. In the telling, he fades into the background. But what he sees, hears and experiences is valuable for us all.
You might read Evicted and hate it. I actually hope it disgusts you at least a little bit. Because it shows us some ugly things about the way we treat each other. But I also hope it opens your mind a little to how you can be part of the solution.