Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, book review

Evicted tells the story of poor Milwaukee residents as they attempt to keep a roof over their heads

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The Independent Culture

Deindustrialisation, poverty, drugs, crime and racism may have scarred the contemporary American city, but at least the agonies of urban life have been well-chronicled. Recent books by Alice Goffman, Sudhir Venkatesh and Terry Williams have revealed in fine-grain detail the lives of those barely hanging on in the cruel city.

The Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond continues this tradition, but focuses on an issue that he claims is of fundamental importance, yet too often neglected: housing, and in particular, the private rental market. Post-war US housing policy has shifted from building and maintaining housing projects for the poor, towards providing limited "vouchers" that can be used with any rental provider. As Desmond shows, the impact of this has been disastrous.

Evicted tells the story of a small number of poor Milwaukee residents as they attempt to keep a roof over their heads in the midst of chaotic lives. The book draws on fieldwork in 2008-9, during which Desmond lived in the midst of those whose lives he chronicles, in an overwhelmingly white trailer park and in an overwhelmingly black neighbourhood.

All the people profiled in the book suffer from a multitude of problems, including drug addiction, disability, under-education, mental illness, child abuse, single parenthood, unemployment and under-employment. Desmond makes a strong case that housing is fundamental, not just in exacerbating all the other problems, but in any attempt to address them. And the biggest problem of all is eviction, which has catastrophic effects.

Take Arleen, a single mother. Dependent on pitifully small benefits, the vast majority of her income goes on rent for the broken-down apartment she shares with two of her children. Evicted shows in excruciating detail her struggles to avoid arrears, her eventual eviction and her desperate struggles to find a new place to live. Not only does her history of having been evicted make it near-impossible to find a renter willing to take her; her homelessness inevitably affects her children, who have to move schools and often go hungry. It is heartbreaking to follow her as she drags her kids around, contacting landlord after landlord, as she loses most of her possessions once she can no longer afford the storage charge, as she seeks the help of relatives, friends, anyone.

Desmond's acute observational skills, his facility with reported dialogue and his ability to wrench chaotic stories into clear prose make Evicted a vivid, if sometimes gruelling, read. There are traumatic stories: one character loses her baby in a house fire, another is imprisoned for a robbery committed in a moment of desperation. This is not a book with heroes and villains; Desmond's portrayal of the slum landlord Shereena is scrupulously fair and he doesn't neglect the occasional fecklessness of the evicted.

Evicted wears its academic credentials lightly. Desmond widens his focus at points in the narrative to look at the broader picture, and there is an essay at the end discussing the policy implications. What is clear is that this is a problem that affects a lot of people, with one in five renters spending half or more of their income on housing and over one in five black women having been evicted.

Desmond's policy suggestions – such as expanding housing voucher eligibility – will not sound that radical to British ears. In fact, reading the book from a UK perspective it is easy to be relieved that things are not as bad over here (Desmond himself lauds what he sees as the wide eligibility criteria of UK housing benefits). Yet with UK house prices unaffordable, a dearth of council housing and a Government committed to austerity, Evicted serves as a warning as to what happens when a society refuses to recognise the fundamental human right to shelter.

Allen Lane, £20. Order at £17 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop