Evicted.

I have two new Insider posts on the Verlander trade and the Justin Upton trade.

Princeton sociology professor and ethnographer Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a stunning work of first-person research that examines a major socioeconomic problem from the ground level, rather than the top-down, data-driven approach I expected from a book in his genre. Desmond spent several months living among the inner-city underclass in several neighborhoods in Milwaukee in 2008 and 2009, shadowing tenants and landlords, witnessing evictions and forced moves, accompanying residents to rehab, AA meetings, even to court, recording what amounted to over 5000 pages of transcribed notes and conversations, to produce this devastating and utterly human portrait of people who simply do not exist to the house-secure classes.

Desmond’s aim here is clear: eviction is more than just a temporary loss of shelter, but a massive disruption to the economic and psychological well-being of entire families, a process that can lead to job loss, substance abuse, and crime, and a scarlet letter on a person’s record that can make it harder to obtain future housing and employment. The vulnerable class of the working or semi-working poor are victimized repeatedly by a system that takes the majority of their income, often over 75% of it, to cover rent for substandard housing, then punishes them if they fall behind and are evicted in a process that overwhelmingly favors the landlords. Tenants are often afraid to assert their rights, if they have any, or to report building code or maintenance violations for fear of retaliation. Once evicted, families may end up having to pay exorbitant fees to place their limited possessions in storage, with no access to their things, until the almost inevitable time when they can’t afford the monthly cost and lose what little they had.

Desmond accompanies several single residents and entire families on their journey through multiple evictions and the Lodge, a homeless shelter readers will know all too well before the book is complete. The access these people gave him is remarkable, as he captures their words at some of their most vulnerable and depressed moments, often witnessing their stuff being carted out to the curb in trash bags by Eagle Movers, who apparently maintain a truck (or two?) just for the purpose of serving landlords who are evicting residents. He also relates a firsthand account of housing discrimination – and explains in an afterword how the Fair Housing Authority did nothing with his formal complaint. (And that was under a Democratic administration; I doubt it’s any better today.) He also spends significant time with two slumlords – although he refuses to refer to either as such – to give their perspective, usually in their own words, even explaining how one, Sherrena, was “proud” of her landlord status and her collection of properties, even though Desmond makes it very clear that she is a nightmare landlord whose failure to maintain safe conditions in her buildings should probably have landed her in court.

By spending so much time with poor residents, Desmond also makes it clear what critical needs are not addressed when most of someone’s income – often income from disability payments – goes to cover the rent. Going without food, or without enough food, is an obvious outcome. But such tenants often have no heat or hot water, or sometimes can’t cover the gas or electric bills. Medical care is often entirely out of the question. Buying a new pair of shoes for a child, a mundane event for even middle-class families, is an enormous achievement. One of the few success stories in the book, Scott, a former nurse who lost everything when he became addicted to painkillers, has to borrow from his parents to cover the cost to get into a rehab program and begin taking methadone. Many other people Desmond follows don’t have even that bare safety net of a parent or relative to help cover a payment – or, in the case of one single mother, her safety net repeatedly refuses to help.

Desmond saves his prescriptions and recommendations for the epilogue, choosing instead to let the individual narratives tell the reader the overarching story of a system that traps these American untouchables in a cycle of poverty from which it is very difficult to escape. It’s easy to say, as so many politicians like to do, that the solution to poverty is to make poor adults go to work. That facile, elitist answer ignores the realities of work for the underclass: Available jobs barely pay enough to cover the rent, evictions and other related actions (police are often involved, with Milwaukee employing sheriffs specifically for this purpose) can count against someone on a job application, and missing time to try to find new living space can cost such a person his/her job. Affordable – or “affordable” – housing is often located far from work, with poor public transit options in many or most cities. We get repeated examples of people evicted because of the actions of someone else. One woman is evicted because the police were called to her apartment by a neighbor because her partner was beating her. Another loses what sounds like a perfect apartment because her young son got in a fight and her babysitter asked neighbors if they had any weed. And landlords get away with this because tenants don’t fight back, enforcement of what few rights they have is scarce, and there’s a line of people waiting to get into every apartment the evicted vacate.

In that epilogue, Desmond offers ideas and potential solutions, including universal housing vouchers that can be used anywhere, without discrimination, the way that recipients use food stamps. He speaks of reasonable housing as a fundamental human right, which is how western European governments and societies view it, arguing that “the pursuit of happiness” is impossible without adequate shelter. Desmond also pushes solutions that are, at best, antithetical to the capitalist underpinnings of our society, including broader rent control, without sufficient consideration of the economic consequences of such policies (rent control programs can stifle construction and push landlords to convert rental properties to non-rental ones). He seems to advocate for more public housing, but doesn’t discuss how we can expand the housing stock without repeating the problems of previous housing projects, many of which became unsafe and were razed within 20 years of their construction. His proposed solutions should spark discussion of how to solve the American housing crisis – or, at least, a discussion that there is a housing crisis at all – but seem like they will trade current problems for new ones rather than creating comprehensive solutions that at least consider how the market will react to major policy shifts. That’s a minor issue in a remarkable work that is dedicated more to exposing these problems to the wider audience, to bringing people in distress out of the shadows and into the public consciousness, because without that there won’t even be a conversation about how best to help them in an economy that still places a high value on the rights of private property owners.

I listened to the audio version of Evicted, which is narrated by actor Dion Graham, whose voice will be familiar to fans of The Wire. Graham does a masterful job of bringing the various characters to life with just subtle changes in tone – and treats these people, who are largely less educated and less articulate than, say, Graham himself is, with respect. It would be easy to caricature these underprivileged tenants, but Graham’s renditions infuse them with the quiet dignity they deserve, so that the listener may feel sorrow or pity for them, but not scorn.

Next up: Thomas Stribling’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Store. I’m about 60 pages in, and while the story is moving along, the casual racism in the writing – Stribling was from Alabama, set the novel in Florence, and has it taking place shortly after the Civil War – is appalling.

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