Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Book Review: Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Every American should read this book.

It's horrifying, how close a large swath of Americans are to homelessness. In this book, Mr. Desmond follows eight families. Some with families, some with mental or physical health issues, all with financial issues. For some it's something as simple as a broken car. Or hours at work getting cut. And just one missed paycheck is all it takes when you're living right on the edge.

It's a heartbreaking story. And riveting. For some of them, you have hope. Some, while they waver on that razor edge, could just as easily fall on the good side if just one thing went their way. But it never seems to. When you're already living in a bad neighborhood, the law of averages doesn't seem to be on your side.

A couple of surprising things that I learned: rent in the bad neighborhoods isn't much less than in the good neighborhoods. So you can pay a reasonable rent for a terrible apartment in an awful neighborhood. It might not seem on the surface to make sense, but many of these renters have multiple evictions and possibly also some convictions on their record. Most landlord won't rent to them. They don't have many options (one mother in this story called over 100 apartments listed for rent before finding something. I can't even imagine. Finding this place was hard enough with a broker and I only looked at about 10 apartments over 3 days.) Which means the bad landlords have them over a barrel. The renters have no options therefore the landlords don't have to fix the place up. And by that I mean, they don't need to have any working appliances in the apartment. Not even a fridge and a stove. The plumbing might not work, there can be holes in the windows, and the heat might not work in a Milwaukee winter. And you might say that's not up to code and sure, the renters could call the code inspectors. They can come and make the landlord fix things up. But guess what will happen? The tenant will be evicted. So how does that work out for the tenant? They really have no options. So they are paying 30% of what I am to live in a slum. I was also shocked to learn that until the late 1980s, it was perfectly legal to discriminate against renters with children (and is still commonly done although now not illegal.) So the families who need housing the most have the hardest time finding housing. Have a kid drastically increases your chances of having an eviction in your lifetime.

I could not put this book down. It's on the longer side and I whipped through it in just about two days, while on an Alaskan cruise. I found the author's note at the end, explaining the methodology and his level of embeddedness with the tenants and landlords he writes about, to be the most fascinating part. I came to genuinely feel for many of the subjects and I wish I could know what's happened to them today. A couple of people weren't as sympathetic, but sadly, that was mostly due to mental disorders.

While I think the reform of welfare was well-intentioned, I also think it had unintended consequences and needs to be revisited. I also personally remember living in low-income housing right after college, and not making enough money at my full-time retail job (1 over minimum wage) to qualify to live there. I had to get a previous job to lie and say I still worked there part-time, in order to move into the apartment. I found it baffling there was no correlation between the minimum wage, and the minimum income needed to live in federally subsidized low-income housing. Still do. And I feel incredibly grateful to the luck that I was born into the economic strata I was, with the accompanying benefits that ensure I will never come that close to edge. It's important that those of us who are fortunate, even if we are financially struggling, appreciate that our struggles are not of the razor's edge variety. And I am grateful to Mr. Desmond for opening my eyes to a horrific problem in our society today with no solution in sight. Read this book. Now.

I got this book out of the library on my cruise ship, Oceania Regatta.

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