Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond

25852784Understanding fair housing, how poverty is impacted by race–and how that goes back generations–as well as how difficult it can be to try and overcome the darkest of dire circumstances . . . seems like a heavy read. To be honest, it is a heavy topic–but Matthew Desmond makes it feel accessible in Evicted. The book follows eight people involved in Milwaukee’s rental housing market–tenants and landlords alike. The narrative is often shocking, heartbreaking, and angering in turn. I was somewhat amazed at how deeply ingrained race is–for both black and white tenants and landlords. (Naive of me, I know.)

This is a huge issue that has monstrously deep roots and will not be fixed overnight. And trying to sum up the topic in a book review is a tough task! I will, however, say that I agree with other readers and reviewers who have called this book “essential reading” for those looking to understand more about the topic of fair housing. I will also note another thing that repeatedly struck me while reading Evicted: just how often the selfish and self-centered side of human nature makes itself known. To see kind gestures repaid with a harsh lack of gratitude, contempt, or a response of “that’s not good enough” or “it’s not worth much” often felt like a punch in the gut. Will the problems illuminated in this book be solved by thinking more of others and less of lining our own pockets? Certainly not . . . but neither could it hurt.

Highly recommended reading.

About the Book
In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.

The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, “Love don’t pay the bills.” She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas.

Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced  into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality—and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.

Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.

About the Author
Matthew Desmond is an American sociologist and urban ethnographer. He is currently the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and Co-Director of the Justice and Poverty Project. The author of several books, including the award-winning book, “On the Fireline,” and “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Desmond was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant in 2015 for his work on poverty in America.

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