A BOOK RECOMMENDATION FOR THE SECRETARY OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT AND THE REST OF US…
Matt Desmond’s Evicted, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner in the non-fiction category, is a riveting ethnographic account of life on the margins, a stunning portrait of America’s underclass, and a convincing reminder that poverty is a condition for a sizeable portion of our population.
In the aftermath of his ethnographic studies that have resulted in policy proposals for addressing the problems of the urban poor, Desmond has been called upon to talk about his research strategies. In the final section of his book, he details the methods that he used to produce the materials for Evicted. In short, he “embedded” for more than two years in Milwaukee’s poorest of neighborhoods – a shabby trailer park on the city’s south side and the black “ghetto” on the near North Side. He lives among his subjects, earning their trust, listening in on and recording their conversations, participating in their card games, joining their modest celebrations, driving them to their doctor and social service agency appointments, and occasionally lending them money. His fly on the wall approach yields some startling stories of heroic struggles for survival against long odds.
This is a work that may remind you of journalist Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here (1992), an examination of the lives of two pre-adolescent African-American boys living in the Cabrini Green Housing Project and Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets (2008), Sudhir Venkatesh’s account of his seven years following a crack dealing gang in the impoverished Robert Taylor Homes on Chicago’s South Side. Both Venkatesh’s and Desmond’s book are the culminations of research done for doctoral degrees in sociology done at the University of Chicago (a pioneer in the study of the urban condition) and the University of Chicago respectively. Beyond the Beautiful Forevers (2012), Katherine Boo’s study of “life, death, and hope” in a squalid Mumbai neighbor, also comes to mind. All of these works are the opposite of “hit and run journalism;” all contain remarkably vivid stories that only remarkable patience coupled with acute powers of observation and deep empathy can yield.
Often Desmond’s book reads like a Dickensian novel, capturing not only the particulars of the setting (the clogged toilets, the peeling wallpaper, the meals made from discounted chicken parts) but also the human interactions. Carefully editing the hours of tape recorded conversations, Desmond provides many “cinema verite” dialogues of the kind dramatized in TV programs like David Simon’s The Wire.
Desmond also skillfully weaves together the raggedy stories of his principal characters: an opiate addicted white male nurse from Iowa who struggles to reclaim his license to practice and his life, a crack-addicted black man with two prosthetic legs (the results of amputation due to frostbite) trying to raise two teenage sons, a black woman who has had five children with three fathers who lives with the two youngest, a 20 year old bi-polar woman who has lived in numerous foster homes and finds that sporadic church attendance helps to control her anger, a white trailer park women who using her food stamps indulges her appetite for lobster and self-love knowing that the rest of the month she’s have to eat instant oatmeal.
What unifies all of these stories is these citizens’ near constant search for decent housing. Desmond addresses what he identifies as a shortage of stories about private market housing arrangements. While public housing has been the subject of numerous studies, the private market, in which many more citizens participate, has been unexamined. His subjects live precarious lives, many on the brink of eviction because they can no longer afford the rent, because some misdeed has angered the building owner, because the building is earmarked by the city for demolition, because the ownership of the building has changed. The amount of time and energy spent in locating a suitable place – suitable because it’s both clean and affordable – is enormous. The search competes with work and child care schedules. The search often involves misrepresentation to the potential landlord, white lies told about past evictions, criminal records, number of relatives, anything that would stand in the way of sealing the deal and insuring for a year a roof over one’s head. The searches are often unpredictable in their outcome: 50 phone calls may yield no results while a chance encounter on a bus with another home-seeker produces an alliance by which the partners can afford a place.
When a place is found, it’s likely to gobble up 70-80% of the renter’s income, well beyond the rule-of-thumb 30% figure. More money for rent means less money for staples, for school supplies, for birthday presents and Christmas gifts. Frequently renters face the choice between making the monthly rent or paying a utility bill. Housing instability produces other forms of instability: multiple school transfers, placement of furniture in expensive storage facilities, and overall mental distress.
Desmond is well aware of American social and economic history, a history which shows that the demand for and value place on land and home ownership has resulted in the greedy exploitation of others. He draws a direct line between the relationship between Jim Crow era plantation owners and their black sharecroppers and the asymmetrical landlord-renter relationships in the 21st century American city like Milwaukee, a city that he is more representative of urban American that San Francisco, a success story, and Detroit, the poster child of urban failure.
Thus, he devotes time to the portrait of two property owners whose clients are the principal focus of his study. The first is Sherrena Tarver a hard-driving black woman, a former teacher who believes that renting her properties, although filled with numerous headaches, is a pathway to wealth and the means by which she and her boyfriend can occasionally enjoy a Caribbean cruise. Tarver, whose wealth is estimated at $2million, operates three dozen rental properties from which she earns $12,000 a month free and clear. It’s “good in the hood” for an urban entrepreneur. The second is a Jewish man who owns the trailer park in which Desmond lived for more than four months and who drives almost daily to his property from Skokie, a near suburb of Chicago. Neither are melodrama villains; each demonstrates a willingness to cut a renter some slack, to forgive a transgression, to enable the client to stay in the unit beyond the eviction date set by the court. The tough Shereena especially demonstrates unexpected degrees of compassion and forgiveness.
Desmond is impatient with the binary explanations for the condition of the urban poor. He demonstrates that both the Democrats and the Republicans are right (and wrong in their insistence that their explanation is the best and only one). Democrats choose to look for explanation in the structural features of American society; poverty and its allied problems exist because work has disappeared, because of institutional racism, because of white flight to gated communities in the great sort of the American population. For many liberals the poor are virtuous victims. Republicans choose to look to the rejection of personal responsibility and misguided government programs that have produced debilitating dependency. For conservatives, the poor are immoral parasites. While Desmond’s sympathies are clearly liberal, he does not try to sweep under the rug the bad choices that his subjects make, especially their rejection because of ignorance or misplaced pride, opportunities for self-improvement.
Although hardly naïve about the intractability of some of the urban housing problems, he has an elegant solution that could ameliorate the suffering. He advocates a universal housing voucher, one that would affirm each citizen’s basic right to housing and the benefits that come from stability. Such a program could be financed by the elimination of the home mortgage deduction which he sees as government assistance tipped heavily in favor of the affluent rather than the poor. We don’t normally think of the mortgage deduction as a hand out. Other strategies, like the implementation of New York City style strict rent controls, would also be helpful.
The Pulitzer Prize and our attention is well-earned. These are compelling stories about fellow citizens about whom we give very little attention as we drive on expressways situated on the boundaries of their neighborhoods. Beyond that, this is a timely book. There’s no reason to think that conditions have changed since 2009 the primary year of Desmond’s information gathering. Indeed, urban poverty rates and other indicators of dystopia (infant mortality and murder rates) have slightly increased. The response of the new administration is to open further the gaps in the safety net (Speaker Paul Ryan calls it a hammock) and to shift money from social programs like Planned Parenthood to the further militarization of urban police force that will probably mean even more dramatic eviction scenes.