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Critique: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Home, a place of stability and protection, is the centerpiece of the American dream. Eviction from home, historically a rare event, has become strikingly commonplace in recent years. The stress from the constant threat of homelessness has become a new normal for poor renting families, who spend more than half their income on housing. In this groundbreaking book, Matthew Desmond masterfully strikes a balance between the facts and powerful personal insights into eight families living on the edge.
As the stories unfold, we are introduced to renters and landlords with intertwined stories of wins and losses. Their stories provide a focused lens into the chaotic system that they operate in, a system where defining right and wrong may not define justice.
Through the engaging individuals we’ve gotten to know, we begin to understand their struggle to stay in their homes. We see the painful process of eviction and its ripple effects — possessions gone, except for the few things the renters can carry and the clothes they wear. And now, they fall further behind, with another “demerit” that makes it harder to qualify to rent again or even obtain public assistance.
As their stories continue, we see the mounting complications from living on the edge. A few bad decisions or a little bad luck create a gravitational pull that is hard to escape. Desmond makes the case that eviction is now at such a scale that it is America’s problem. “Every year in this country, people are evicted from their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands but by the millions.”
EPILOGUE: HOME AND HOPE
“When people have a place to live, they become better parents, workers and citizens.” Desmond posits that housing is a basic right of Americans and discusses policy changes that could address the problem.
The details of policy are endlessly debatable, but the reality of the situation is not. These eight families illustrate the reality for millions of Americans and the cities they live in. Everyone who has a stake in elevating the quality of life in our communities will benefit from a deeper understanding of the challenges our society faces from eviction and its aftermath.
As Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, who writes about the marginalized, says on the book jacket: “This is an extraordinary and crucial piece of work. Read it. Please, read it.”
Reviewed by Lisa Lamkin, FAIA, a principal with BRW Architects