Matthew Desmond’s ethnographic study of the housing crisis among the poor in Milwaukee has won multiple awards, including the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s easy to see why. Desmond lived in a trailer park and then in an inner-city rooming house, getting to know the renters and their landlords and learning about the crises that led to eviction and how difficult it was for the evicted to get back on their feet.
The book follows eight families through the struggle to find and keep secure housing. These aren’t perfect people. Some have addictions, some commit acts of violence, and others just make big errors in judgment, but the mistakes and their penalties create a situation that these families cannot seem to escape, even when they do everything right. Once you’ve been evicted, it’s hard to get another home because that eviction sullies your record. The landlords who will rent to people who’ve been evicted often charge high rents for terrible homes that they don’t bother repairing. And what happens if a tenant reports the landlord for the shoddy conditions? Another eviction.
There’s so much in this book to get angry about. For instance, 911 services can charge landlords a fee if their tenants make “nuisance” calls. And those fees give landlords a reason to evict. So women are afraid to call 911 in cases of domestic abuse because they could lose their homes! Another problem is that is perfectly fine to refuse housing to families with children, meaning mothers (fathers, too, but usually mothers) get turned down repeatedly.
The families and individuals in this book—some with children and some without—tend to drift from home to home, finding housing only to get kicked out, sharing with neighbors or even virtual strangers, staying in shelters. Rarely did they end up entirely on the street, but they still lack the stability that’s needed to maintain a job, good health, and a general sense of well-being. Children have to change schools frequently, if they go to school at all.
Desmond tells these stories with detachment, avoiding the first-person until the epilogue, where he explains his methods. He provides extensive notes for the research he cites, and he also indicates in the endnotes when he’s describing in incident he didn’t observe himself. The research appears to be meticulous, and it’s only near the end of the book that he steps back to talk solutions. For most of the book, he focuses on showing the scope of the problem.
Because Desmond spends so much time with the people he writes about, he’s able to present a multi-faceted view of their lives, showing how they dream of doing better and sometimes manage for a short time. And he doesn’t pretend that they get everything right, but he puts the mistakes in context, as when he tells the story of one woman, Larraine, who spend almost all of her food stamps for the month on a lobster dinner. It was a celebratory dinner on her anniversary with her late husband, and, for her, it was worth it. Desmond writes,
People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those in the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure. They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobsters on food stamps.
Reading this, I found it hard to begrudge Larraine some lobster on her anniversary.
Toward the end of the book, Desmond starts talking solutions, focusing mostly on housing vouchers that would enable tenants to pay no more than one-third of their income on rent. I don’t know if this is the best solution, but the book makes clear that something needs to be done. The housing crisis affects not just those who lose their homes but also those in their neighborhoods. Neighborhoods require investment from residents, people looking out for each other. And that includes landlords. The landlords Desmond talks to are trying to make a living, which is fair, but the system allows them to get away with unfair practices that amount to exploitation. Getting at the root problem in a way that is fair to both landlords and tenants is a challenge, but it’s an essential one to tackle.
This is an excellent book, even if it left me rather overwhelmed with the scope of the problem. I’m not sure what I can do with the knowledge, but I hope that at least it will help me be a more informed citizen. When you read books like this, what do you do with that knowledge?