This book has a lot to recommend it. It’s generally the type of non-fiction I love reading: well researched, first-hand information about people I don’t know much about (and would like to understand.) Desmond has done a mountain of research for this book, much of it by living with and hanging around with the subjects he discusses. From a sociological angle, this kind of research is extremely interesting and important and he deserves praise.
Desmond follows around several families and individuals in the Milwaukee area, one of the most racially segregated cities in America. He spends some time in a trailer park, where poor tenants “own” their trailer (allowing the landlord to abnegate responsibility for repairs) and merely pay a rent of the land under the trailer, (a moot point since they cannot afford to move the trailers, even if the trailers were structurally sound enough to bear the stress of towing.) He follows a single mother and her children as they are evicted from one ramshackle tenement to another. And he also follows a slumlord and her husband as they discuss the business of renting to the lowest income tenants.
I learned a lot in this book about how unfair the world is. I did not know that landlords can legally refuse to rent to people with children, and that they often do. I didn’t know you could get evicted for calling 911, even if (especially if) someone was trying to kill you. I didn’t know that the housing authorities actually pressured landlords to evict tenants who call 911. I’d heard a lot about tenants rights and assumed (from worst-case warnings about my own interactions with roommates) that evicting people can take a very long time and can be very difficult. Desmond paints a different picture.
I learned that being a slumlord is extremely profitable. I learned that having an eviction on your record can mean you are ineligible for housing assistance, which is about as logical as refusing to sell inhalers to anyone who’s ever had an asthma attack. Desmond has a few ideas how to change this. For example, he points out that the tax breaks given to homeowners far exceed what’s done for rental assistance, and he talks about how eviction can cause huge repercussions to the stability of not just families, but to whole neighborhoods.
So, based on that, this should be a four or five star review. But I’m only giving it two stars because I honestly almost didn’t finish it. The problem was the stories of his subjects. They start out depressing, and basically just keep going on and on. It was like reading The Jungle, where after a point you have to disengage your empathy just for self-preservation. I kept expecting change, or a point to their troubles, or even a break back to the factual sections, but it was an unending litany of unexpected bills, cut hours, costly medical problem, roommates flaking, etc. I was in the middle of a flight with nothing to read, and even boredom wasn’t enough to make me want to keep listening. it just got really tedious and depressing. Yes, their lives are wretched. Please stop.
I did finally finish listening, because it was about to expire, though I had to put it on super speed. The end got interesting again, with an essay about social change and suggestions for improvement. To sum up, I think this book’s problem is not one of writing or research, but one of macro editing. He needed to cut 20% in the middle, and space out the endless depressing financial tragedies with something to break the monotony of pathos.
So I think this is one of those books where I’m glad to have read it (listened to it) but I didn’t much enjoy it while it was happening.