Each month, when I pay my mortgage, I experience three distinct thoughts: 1) damn, that principal never seems to go down; 2) I am fortunate to own a nice home with a reasonable mortgage I can afford; 3) I am grateful to be rid of rent payments and the endless hassles that attend tenancy.
While those thoughts haven’t changed over the past years, the third one acquired greater resonance after I finished reading the new book by Harvard University sociologist Matthew Desmond, Evicted, in which the author chronicles his two years embedded with eight poor families in Wisconsin. In a starred review, we called it a “groundbreaking work on the central role of housing in the lives of the poor” and a “stunning, remarkable book—a scholar’s 21st-century How the Other Half Lives—[that] demands a wide audience.”
If those assessments sound hyperbolic, they’re not. Desmond’s book—a “gripping, novelistic narrative exploring the ceaseless cycle of ‘making rent, delaying eviction, or finding another place to live when homeless’ as experienced by adults and children, both black and white, surviving in trailer parks and ghettos”—is visceral, page-turning, occasionally moving, and consistently depressing, even devastating. I rarely cry while reading, but Evicted brought me to tears countless times. As our reviewer noted, the families’ “frantic experiences—they spend an astonishing 70 to 80 percent of their incomes on rent—make for harrowing reading, interspersed with moving moments revealing their resilience and humanity.”
To be sure, high-risk mortgages and other banking chicanery are serious issues in today’s economy, but Desmond provides an important service in exposing the brutal cycle of eviction throughout the United States, which is a “growing, often overlooked housing crisis” affecting millions of people. This vital sociological study exposes failure and heartbreak on a variety of levels, from housing authorities and local and federal government to the criminal justice and penal systems.
Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction and managing editor.