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Bridge Beat

Mar 29, 2017

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Author: Matthew Desmond

Book Review by John Fox

“Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty”

Through the course of his book “Eviction”, author Matthew Desmond, weaves together the interconnecting stories of several Milwaukee families struggling with poverty and the challenges of finding affordable housing, as well as the landlords who are renting apartments and trailers to them. He does so treating each family with dignity and honesty, not shying away from either the systematic barriers they face or their own personal challenges.   The result is a disturbing look into American – and for the most part, Canadian – poverty.

We meet families – usually mother led - who are paying 80 to 90 percent of their income in rent. When it is paid, they already know that they will not be able to pay the utility company, and that they will be going to the food banks to eat. But then, as it does for all of us, life throws a curve ball – a child needs new shoes, a parent passes away, a pay day loan is taken out, you name it, and the delicate (probably impossible) balance is broken leading to late rent and eviction. To tenants and front line workers in the housing sector, this is familiar territory: poverty piles on.

The author offers important insights into the impact of eviction. The passage I quoted above, which is from the book’s concluding chapter, is, I think, the thesis of this book: Eviction is a cause of poverty. He emphasizes the impacts of dislocation: can a mother who is spending all of her time trying to find housing – contacting 80-90 landlords – really ensure her kids get to school and do their homework? Can a family who barely make the rent also cover the cost of the move? What if your previous landlord put your belongings in storage – can you afford to get them back? Do you have the time, energy and knowledge to mount a defence to the eviction?

And it is not just the personal that is impacted. A striking section of the book is a story about a woman named Doreen. Doreen is leader in her community and is there for everyone. She is the glue that holds her community together and is part the “eyes on the street” that makes a community safe – wherever that community may be.  I met leaders like Doreen when I was at Toronto Community Housing working on the revitalization of Lawrence Heights. Strong, intelligent women committed to their community, their children and other people’s children. Their leadership is based on a trust that has taken years to build. When Doreen is evicted, her community loses her leadership. But her new community does not gain a leader.

I appreciate the author’s struggle balancing the needs of Landlords. Though they are not sympathetic characters, he deals with their pressures head on. If the private sector is to continue to provide housing to poor people, it must be a viable business. The question he poses is just how viable does it have to be? In his chapter “the ‘hood is Good”, the author lays out slumlord economics. It’s not easy, but it’s not a bad living either. The tension between government programming and Landlord economics leads directly into the author’s main proposed solution.

The author favours a rent subsidy or voucher program, noting that such a program will fail if the additional money available to tenants is sucked up in rent. His point here is that if a home is a key ingredient to better social outcomes (getting a job, better fed, staying in one school etc), then it should be the subject of intense public policy focus. In the US, he points out, it is not. The book was published before Donald Trump was elected, or his budget. It is not likely to get better soon. As Canadians, we can take comfort in the fact that we are developing a National Housing Policy, due out later this year.

In short, the book is thought provoking and at times heartbreaking. It reminds us that home is central to our lives and forces us to wonder what, if anything, is possible without a safe place to live.  

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