Reviews from Audible: Evicted

As economists now drive the national conversation across policy spectra, sociologists can’t get no respect. When in 2014 the Obama Administration announced the My Brother’s Keeper initiative aimed at helping young Blacks, no sociologists were consulted. This is a shame because the sort of insights ethnographies spark are invaluable, putting micro and behavioral economists to shame in understanding what drives human behavior. Of late, no book has proven that quite as tangibly as Matthew Desmond’s recent bestseller, Evicted.

Great cover.

Desmond spent most of 2008 and 2009 in poor rental units and trailer parks of Milwaukee. He made friend with black and white families on the lowest margins of renters who couldn’t get public housing as well as their landlords. It’s not easy to keep the characters straight, but in the end, it’s not all that important or frustrating. Evicted’s triumph, rather, is conveying the overall sense of precarious living that pervades his subjects.

Initially I thought that he wasn’t that good a writer. At first, Evicted like seems overly sparse affected fiction writing, but maybe a third of the way through the book starts to deliver the most crushing chapter closers I’ve read since Bloodlands. After an infant dies in a fire, he returns with the landlord to the house.

The snowy ground was blackened with ash. Scattered about were roof shingles, long pieces of wood, the skeletons of furniture and other household items — a gnarled junk heap all charred and coated with hardened foam from the fire hoses. Water had frozen into thousands of icy bulbs that appeared to drip off the tips of surrounding tree branches. Doreen lowered her eyes and saw, on the house’s front porch, six white lilies tied with a cream ribbon. Spring in the dead of winter.
I painted a composite of image searches of low income rental housing in Milwaukee.

Later, he writes about the inner monologue of a judge sentencing one of his subjects, a single mother who committed a robbery out of desperation, in rejecting her pleas for probation.

“No,” the judge repeated. “And quite honestly I don’t know that it got any better after last time, maybe a little worse, and the fact that she’s kicked around and moved around.”
What the judge was saying in essence was, we all agree that you were poor and scared when you did this violent, hurtful thing. If you were allowed to go on working five days a week at Old Country Buffet, refilling soup pots and mopping up frozen yogurt spills, none of us would be here right now. You might have been able to save enough money to move to an apartment that was deleaded and clean, in a neighborhood without drug dealers and with safe schools. with time, you may have been able to get Bo-Bo the medical treatment he needs for his seizures. Maybe you could have even started taking night classes to become a nurse, like you always wanted. Who knows, maybe you could have actually become a nurse. A real nurse with a uniform and everything. Then you could have really given your kids a childhood nothing like one Shortcake gave you.
If you did that, you would walk around this cold city with your head held high, and maybe you would eventually come to feel that you were worth something and deserving of a man who could support you other than by lending you his pistol for a stick-up. Or at least one who didn’t break down your door and beat you in front of your children.
Maybe you would meet someone with a steady job and get married in a small church with Kendal standing proudly up front by the groom and Tembi as the poofy-dressed flower girl and Bo-Bo as the grinning, toddling ring bearer, just like you always dreamed it, and from that day on your groom would introduce you as “my wife.” But that’s not what happened. What happened was your hours were cut, and your electricity was about to be shut off, and you and your children were about to be thrown out of your home, and you snatched someone’s purse as your friend pointed a gun at her face. And if it was poverty that caused this crime, who’s to say you won’t do it again? Because you were poor then and you are poor now. We all see the underlying cause, we see it every day in this court, but the justice system is no charity, no jobs program, no Housing Authority. If we cannot pull the weed up from the roots, then at least we can cut it low at the stem.

There was too little policy and history interspersed throughout the book. You get very little of it before page 250 or so as most of the stats and studies Desmond saves for an epilogue. I acknowledge that I am weird and am more interested in this than the human drama, but a broader policy/sociology focus would have given his occasional sociological observations (“she wasn’t poor because she spent lavishly, she spent lavishly because she was poor”) more heft. That said, the stories and policy together did convince me more than a white paper could have of housing’s critical importance to well-being.

I went to a housing court for a few hours in Brooklyn. There was a guy there doing a survey for the city who asked me if I could answer a few questions. I said that I was there because I had read Evicted, and he said, “yeah man, all the time you see folks without lawyers going up against landlords with representation who end up signing stuff that screws them in the end.”

Mom when reading this said she was glad the slumlords profiled weren’t Jewish.

It was a poor choice to go with an African American narrator for the Audible version. The dude who played Rupert Bond from the Wire didn’t do a great job of acting voices to make it easier to tell the subjects apart. But more importantly, if you didn’t do any research on the book you wouldn’t realize that the author was a white man until you hit the epilogue. Since he acknowledges that his race had huge impacts on the relationships he forged during his time in Milwaukee, it seems disingenuous to have a black man adopt the author’s voice.

I tried but failed to find a memorable Rupert Bond quote.
Matthew Desmond, white.

So should you read Evicted? If you’re at all interested in housing policy or poverty in America then this book is a no-brainer. If you like character-driven non-fiction and are willing to wade through 75 pages until the story and writing picks up. This

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