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Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City Paperback – February 28, 2017
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An Amazon Best Book of March 2016: It’s the rare writer who can capture a social ill with a clear-eyed, nonjudgmental tone and still allow the messiness of real people its due. Matthew Desmond does just that with Evicted as he explores the stories of tenants and landlords in the poorest areas of Milwaukee during 2008 and 2009. It’s almost always a compliment to say that a nonfiction book reads like a novel and this one does – mostly because Desmond gets very close to the “characters,” relating their words and thoughts and layering on enough vibrant details to make every rented property or trailer come alive. You can almost forget that these are actual people with actual problems until he delivers a raw jolt of reality: the woman who’s evicted because her boyfriend beats her up; the tenant whose baby daughter dies in a house fire; the tenant who pushes a “friend” out a window for using all her cell phone minutes; the landlord who refuses to fix stopped-up pipes, so tenants allow garbage and sewage to pile up in the property.
Through both personal stories and data, Desmond proves that eviction undermines self, family, and community, bearing down disproportionately hard on women with children. In Milwaukee, being behind on rent gives landlords the opening to serve an eviction notice, which leads to a court date. On the face of it, it may seem easy to side with the landlords—of course tenants should pay their rent. But as Evicted pulls back layer after layer, what’s exposed is a cycle of hurt that all parties—landlord, tenant, city—inflict on one another. Whether readers agree with Desmond’s conclusions for how to break this cycle in order to strengthen families and neighborhoods, it’s obvious by the end of Evicted that there is no easy fix, and that people—some addicts, some criminals—will slip through the cracks. But it should be just as obvious that we must still try.—Adrian Liang --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
One of President Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2017
"Astonishing... Desmond has set a new standard for reporting on poverty."
—Barbara Ehrenreich, New York Times Book Review
"After reading Evicted, you’ll realize you cannot have a serious conversation about poverty without talking about housing.... The book is that good, and it’s that unignorable."
—Jennifer Senior, New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2016
“This book gave me a better sense of what it is like to be very poor in this country than anything else I have read… It is beautifully written, thought-provoking, and unforgettable.”
“Inside my copy of his book, Mr. Desmond scribbled a note: “home = life.” Too many in Washington don’t understand that. We need a government that will partner with communities, from Appalachia to the suburbs to downtown Cleveland, to make hard work pay off for all these overlooked Americans.”
—Senator Sherrod Brown, Wall Street Journal
“My God, what [Evicted] lays bare about American poverty. It is devastating and infuriating and a necessary read.”
—Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist and Difficult Women
“Written with the vividness of a novel, [Evicted] offers a dark mirror of middle-class America’s obsession with real estate, laying bare the workings of the low end of the market, where evictions have become just another part of an often lucrative business model.”
—Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times
“In spare and penetrating prose... Desmond has made it impossible to consider poverty without grappling with the role of housing. This pick [as best book of 2016] was not close.”
—Carlos Lozada, Washington Post
“An essential piece of reportage about poverty and profit in urban America.”
—Geoff Dyer, The Guardian’s Best Holiday Reads 2016
"It doesn't happen every week (or every month, or even year), but every once in a while a book comes along that changes the national conversation... Evicted looks to be one of those books."
—Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review
"Should be required reading in an election year, or any other."
“Powerful, monstrously effective... the power of this book abides in the indelible impression left by its stories.”
—Jill Leovy, The American Scholar
“Gripping and important…[Desmond's] portraits are vivid and unsettling.
—Jason DeParle, New York Review of Books
“An exquisitely crafted, meticulously researched exploration of life on the margins, providing a voice to people who have been shamefully ignored—or, worse, demonized—by opinion makers over the course of decades.”
—The Boston Globe
"[An] impressive work of scholarship.... As Mr. Desmond points out, eviction has been neglected by urban sociologists, so his account fills a gap. His methodology is scrupulous."
—Wall Street Journal
Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction Finalist
Winner of the 2017 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award
Winner of the 800-CEO-READ Book Award — Current Events & Public Affairs
Winner of the American Bar Association's 2017 Silver Gavel Award
One of The Los Angeles Times' 10 Most Important Books of 2016
A New York Times Editors' Choice
One of Wall Street Journal's Hottest Spring Nonfiction Books
One of O: The Oprah Magazine's 10 Titles to Pick Up Now
One of Vulture's 8 Books You Need to Read This Month
One of BuzzFeed's 14 Most Buzzed About Books of 2016
One of The Guardian's Best Holiday Reads 2016
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Strangely, though Desmond interviewed 30 landlords he only focuses on two. One is Tobin, a mobile home park operator on Milwaukee’s south side, which is largely white and Hispanic. Tobin indeed makes a lot of money but that is because he does not have to maintain or repair 95% of the “dwellings” in his park. Tobin rents out a concrete slab with utility connections and the tenants buy or bring their own trailers and pay their own utilities. As owners they are responsible for the exterior and interior condition of their dwelling. Only 5% of the trailers are owned by the park and rented to tenants as a living unit. So Tobin is a landlord only in the sense that you might have a landlord this summer when you drive your Winnebago to a Jellystone Park and pay rent for the parking pad and utility hookups.
Then we have Sherrena who with her husband runs about 18 buildings (mostly two-family flats) in the African-American neighborhoods on the north side of Milwaukee. In a chapter titled “The ‘Hood is Good” Desmond blithely accepts Sherrena’s boast that she has a net worth of $2 million and nets $10,000 a month in rental income. Desmond is honest in portraying the many difficulties Sherrena has in collecting rent from her struggling tenants but he doesn’t do the background research (available from local court records) about the many thousands of dollars in unpaid rents and damaged units which sort of cut into profits a little bit.
As to her supposed net worth of $2 million, that averages out to $111,000 for each of these 18 ghetto properties - certainly far more than some of the real dumpy ones are worth – but the author does not research the amounts of the recorded mortgages against these properties (ranging between $64,000 and $119,200) which further greatly reduce the claimed net worth. That would have been revealed in the many foreclosures filed against Sherrena’s properties which started within a year after Desmond’s visit to Milwaukee.
So when this book came out in 2016 the curious reader might want to know: if the ‘hood is good for the landlord how much better has it gotten since the author did his study in 2009? Research so far shows that not one of Sherrena’s properties remains in her ownership. Starting in 2010 many were bulldozed, went into city ownership via foreclosure for nonpayment of real estate taxes or today sit as haunting, blighted eyesores. A few were foreclosed by lenders, were fixed up and are under new ownership.
Evictions by Sherrena ended in the year 2010. So did her non-existent profit. She joins many small-time under-capitalized landlords who have gone bust in Milwaukee and elsewhere since the Great Recession started in 2008 with the bursting of the housing bubble.
Please note that I still give the book 4 stars. Its significant defects in reporting on the “profit” aspect of its subtitle are outweighed by the important and detailed research on the effects of eviction in creating and perpetuating poverty. A better and expanded housing voucher program for low income tenants is much needed. Landlords nationwide should join Matt Desmond’s call for its implementation.
As a result of this, poor families are always one crisis--really one unexpected expense--away from being evicted. The ramifications of being evicted on one's emotional, financial, and physical states are profound. First, once someone gets evicted, finding any kind of housing becomes extremely difficult--one of the ladies called 90 apartments before she found one that would take her and her two kids. You can place blame on these struggling families if you want to, but the fact of the matter is it's extraordinarily difficult for them to succeed, or even to just get by.
I found this book very interesting--to say I enjoyed it would be wrong because much of it is depressing. It made the problems of the urban poor personal. I quite liked some of them and I was rooting for them--"Please, let this landlord call her back!" I felt bad when Vanetta went to prison for armed robbery after her hours were cut, and I cheered when Scott finally got clean. I read it all the way through the endnotes, which are also quite interesting and provide some insights or background info. I really wanted to find out how all the families were doing today (the book takes place in 2008-2009) because I became attached to them and had come to care about them. Unfortunately the author doesn't tell you what became of them, although if I had to guess I'd say their lives continued on in more or less the same vein.
A word on the swearing: this is a well written, professionally done sociological study. The author only uses swears when he's quoting one of the people he interviewed. If you were desperate, poor, depressed and angry, you, too might be given to curse words.
If you enjoy sociological and/or cultural topics, if you care about equality in America, if you are interested in how grinding poverty affects families, pick this up. I learned a lot.
When I got my feet back on the ground and bought my first house we used to have a mail box right out front. At the end of the month I used to write my check for my mortgage at night when I did my bills and go to the mailbox and put it in. I used to look up at the stars, close my eyes, and thank God that I had a place to stay for another 30 days. Although many years have past the scars of that time never left me and never will and I am glad. A reminder of what could happen. All of these people have my sympathy because I have been there myself.
Powerful and relevant-well worth the time.