28) Evicted by Matthew Desmond
Bit of a backlog on updating the reviews, but thought I would get this one in first. It’s a painstaking and detailed book about America’s housing crisis and its role in he widening inequality in that country. It is, by turns, enlightening and insightful but also bleak, unremitting and depressing. Desmond, who lived in a trailer park and in the centre of Milwaukee to inform his work, follows eight or so families through various trials and tribulations in the city, as they struggle to have and maintain a roof over their heads. He then bolsters the narrative and qualitative insight with in-depth evidence from quantitative analysis and statistical data sets, both Milwaukee-specific and national.
There is no doubting this is a significant achievement (& one that has won both the MacArthur ‘genius’ award and the Pulitzer Prize) – the accretion of detail builds layers of understanding about the sheer unfairness and Kafka-esque bureaucracy of the housing and eviction business in America. It is an extractive business that allows landlords to go to Jamaica on holiday and coolly plan the rebuild of a burnt-out house with insurance money, even as a child is lost in the fire. It is a business which leaves women (primarily poor women of colour, with children) lying about their circumstances to try and even get to see a property. And a business in which it is better not to report a domestic violence incident because having too many reported crimes (or ‘nuisances’) in a limited period will see you evicted from your home. And it’s a business in which no-one represents the tenants’ rights, or thinks through the overall costs of eviction – in health, in housing, in welfare, in food and more. It is difficult to escape the feeling that Arleen, Vanetta, Doreen, Crystal, Pam and the rest simply do not have a chance.
So in terms of laying out the problem in great detail, and in really getting under the skin of eviction in all its gritty misery, Evicted does a first-rate job. No-one reading it can go away without a significantly increased understanding of the realities of living with a constant cloud or shadow over you, or how living in ‘scarcity’ fundamentally affects your entire life. Having said that, I don’t think this is as well-written or compelling in terms of narrative or emotional attachment to characters as the likes of Janesville or The Unwinding, both of which gripped me more and had more of a sense of coherence. Perhaps Desmond didn’t want that – in that the housing system is chaotic and never-ending, so this book feels a bit like that too: it just stops where it stops. But I think it also betrays the fact that he is first and foremost an academic, not a writer.
I would still commend it, though – and for UK readers, this is a view at how the poverty premium is playing out here, and how things spiral from misfortune or a few bad choices. Although Desmond praises UK’s housing benefit (compared to existing US voucher schemes) in his epilogue, it is not hard to draw comparisons with buy-to-let slum landlords in some of the poorer towns in our country – and how rents are outpacing benefits everywhere. The ‘housing first’ movement is one example of redressing the balance and putting housing at the centre and at the start of how we think about addressing poverty: and health, and employment, and nutrition and community and all the other facets of what makes a happier life.
BUY IT NOW: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City