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The Readers

Third Tuesday of the month, 5:00 p.m., in the homes of its members. Co-Chairmen Jack Cobau (313-885-1650) and David Morrow (313-640-9756).  Contact for a copy of our current book list.  All SMC members are welcome to join our discussion, whether or not you have read the book.

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

Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, a National Book Critics Circle Award, Carnegie Medal, and PEN / John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction. Desmond is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, and the William Julius Wilson Early Career Award. Former President Obama and Bill Gates listed Evicted as one of the best books they read in 2017. A Contributing Writer for the New York Times Magazine, Desmond was listed in 2016 among the Politico 50, as one of “fifty people across the country who are most influencing the national political debate.” After receiving his Ph.D. in 2010 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he joined the Harvard Society of Fellows as a Junior Fellow and is now a Professor in the Department of Sociology at Princeton. He is the author or co-author of three other books and has created the Eviction Lab at Princeton, the first nationwide database of evictions. The New York Times profiled the Eviction Lab in a front page story on April 7, 2018.

To do fieldwork for his book, in 2008 Desmond moved to Milwaukee, first to a predominantly white trailer park on the south side of the city and later to a small apartment in the black ghetto on the north side. He got to know the tenants and collected eviction stories of eight families.. By focusing on the human stories and avoiding academic jargon, Desmond makes his book read like a novel. As he narrates these stories, he incorporates social and economic data on the plight of the urban poor.

Desmond traces the modern eviction crisis to the loss of manufacturing jobs in Milwaukee and the resulting stagnation in family incomes. Although the recession led to a steep decline in real estate values, rents continued to rise. While wages, welfare, social security, food stamps and other social safety nets did not increase, poor renters saw the percentage of their incomes going to rent rise to 60, 70 or even 80%. Arleen, (all names were changed) one of the tenants Desmond followed, paid 88% of her benefits to her landlord, leaving less than $20 for all her other monthly expenses such as food for her children. Such a budget pratically guarantees that the tenant will fall behind on their rent. According to Desmond, Wisconsin, landlords have no duty to make repairs to a dwelling when the rent is overdue. Such tenants whose plumbing backs up or appliances need repair must pay the expense themselves, which usually means the repairs are not made.

Desmond also profiled several landlords, including Tobin, the owner of the mobile home park, and Sherrena, who owned numerous buildings on the north side. Tobin was an aggressive rent collector, but even though nearly a third of his tenants were behind on their rent, he only evicted a few each month. He tried to work out deals with the others, and fixing their trailers was never part of the bargain. He liked to “sell” some of them their trailers, knowing they couldn’t move them, and lease the pad, meaning he had no obligation to maintain such trailers. Sherrena also tried to work with her tenants, but if she felt she had been lied to, she would have them put out quickly. Both Sherrena and Tobin accumulated substantial wealth from their properties despite the evictions. As Sherrena said, “the hood is good.”

The author argues that housing should be seen as a right and that much more needs to be done to reduce the millions of evictions that occur each year. He sees eviction as an overlooked contributor to poverty and misery in American cities, a disruptive act that has adverse consequences on tenants, particularly the children, for years. Studies show that the evicted suffer a higher rate of depression and suicide, even years later. Many landlords will not rent to someone with an eviction on their record, and others won’t rent to minorities or families with children, despite fair housing laws. The author acknowledges that the extremely poor frequently make bad choices and gives a number of examples in his book that result in evictions. Desmond notes that less than a third of poor tenants that qualify for housing assistance receive any. He promotes universal housing vouchers as the best solution, noting that the cost would be a fraction of the cost of the mortgage interest deduction given to homeowners.

The Readers felt that Evicted was an impressive work of scholarship, well written and researched, with copious endnotes. The cumulative effect of reading so many stories of poverty and misery could be depressing, and some Readers elected not to finish the book.

Join us on May 15th at 5 pm for our discussion of A Hero of France by Alan Furst. We will meet at the home of Harry Thomalla at 771 Blairmoor Ct, Grosse Pointe Woods. RSVP to (313) 882-7644.

Grosse Pointe Senior Men’s Club Readers 2018 Book List


Have questions or need directions or copies of the books?  Call either:
David Morrow: 313-640-9756 or Jack Cobau: 313-885-1650

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