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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Book Review: Broke: Hardship and Resilience in a City of Broken Promises by Jodie Kirshner

Did you read and love the amazing book Evicted? First of all, you should. And then this is the perfect follow-up. In a similar fashion, Ms. Kirshner looks at Detroit, and its perfect storm of job losses, property value tanking, crime rising, infrastructure crumbling, and the spiral that creates.

From afar, we all might think why do people stay there, but she follows a half-dozen residents to fully explain that. It's hard to just abandon a house that your family has owned for three generations. Especially when you can't afford to fix it up or--more crucially--to move. People forget, moving is expensive. Also it's hard to leave a neighborhood you once loved, where your kids grew up, where you once had hopes and dreams. The few remaining residents aren't losers who didn't get out while the getting was good--they're warriors, the last bastion of hope for this city. They're maintaining entire blocks single-handedly. They're alerting friends and family of abandoned homes they can move into and protect from vandals (yes, they're squatters, but is that worse than the house being literally ripped apart for its pipes and water heaters?). Some even see hope and opportunity. With the housing values so incredibly low, people who never could have afforded to buy a house before, now might be able to. Although the legal hoops make getting a conventional mortgage seem like a walk in the park. (And no, you can't get a traditional mortgage in Detroit. It doesn't matter how good your credit is, or how much money you have in the bank. No underwriter will insure it, so no bank will lend it.) Admittedly, also some carpetbaggers have arrived, both in the form of out-of-towners who have romanticized Detroit as a noir land of opportunity, and of absentee landlords, often flippers (but not the kind of flippers who fix up the house first).

But these personal stories serve to illuminate the larger picture. This could happen to any single-industry city. If something bizarre happened to the internet, this could happen to Silicon Valley. And it has happened to a lesser scale to other rust belt cities, from Buffalo to Cleveland (where my sister pays 1/5 the rent I do for a very similar apartment.) Diversification is the best bulwark against devastation, and then smart management if that's too late. Hopefully a city's state won't screw it to the extent Michigan did Detroit (in fact, I think Ms. Kirshner lets Michigan somewhat off the hook for some of the financial shenanigans that went on there. I think the state could have been pilloried some more and they'd have deserved it.) It's a cautionary tale, but also hopefully a story that will increase empathy for those not in booming coastal cities, for those who are struggling are often victims of circumstance and bad timing. This is an eminently readable, important book about a very American problem.

This book is published by St. Martins Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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