Nonfiction Pulitzer: Evicted

Pulitzer announces Matthew Desmond as this year’s Pulitzer for Nonfiction winner. Here’s what we said about the book a year ago.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

By Matthew Desmond

Harvard Professor Desmond takes readers inside one of the contributing factors to poverty in America, our nation’s low-income housing crisis. Decidedly unacademic in approach and tone (though based on extensive primary and secondary research), he focuses on the lives of handful of tenants and landlords, both black and white, in Milwaukee, personalizing as much as one can in a book the plight of our inner cities left without a thriving middle class and the overwhelming need for affordable housing.

Most people who read this book probably have come into contact with substandard housing or public housing projects, most of the latter disappearing in the creep of gentrification (just look to Manhattan and Chicago for examples), by driving by them on an expressway. So the value of Desmond’s granular individualized approach that gives readers a taste of what it’s like to be urban poor in America today, to be constantly short of money and uprooted regularly by eviction, will prove an education. After a while, though, following the stories and trails of his subjects as they search for more money, for aid, for some compassion (which they usually find among themselves), and locating new quarters while burdened with a record of evictions, convictions, and a myriad of personal problems, becomes exhausting. The whole thing proves demoralizing and, unfortunately, seems hopeless, even though Desmond offers a solution at the end, a universal housing voucher program, and shows how a few of his subjects did manage to free themselves of the this vicious cycle of poverty.

Included also, embedded within the chapters detailing the personal troubles of both tenants and landlords, are discussions of the psychology of poverty, a history of American ghettos, approaches to solving the housing problem, a history of housing vouchers, the work of eviction court, and more.

You might wonder about the slumlords. Are they really monsters? Actually, many might not impress you as such. In fact, a few try to work with their tenants, perhaps not out of the milk of human kindness but more under the thesis that a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. As Desmond illustrates in a head spinning chapter, “The ‘Hood is Good,” slum landlords can make considerable profits off tenants who pay most of the their meager incomes for less than substandard housing. Married couple Sherrena and Quentin, two very shrewd operators who pounced when the housing market collapsed, know how to squeeze incredible profits from buildings that sound as if they should be condemned, enough to make them millionaires. Oddly, then, they might not strike some readers as bad people, just people on the make.

Most Americans would agree that fellow Americans, even the poorest, have a right to a decent life for themselves and their children; that it would benefit the nation if they did. The truth is, as this book and others, such as Linda Tirado’s personal account of being poor in America, Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, attest, we have yet to find an effective way to help the poorest among us to succeed. w/c

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