Evicted, by Matthew Desmond, was an excellent read from front to back. I've read a lot of reviews of Evicted that describe the real-poverty stories as insightful and surprising. I think to many of us, little thought is given to affordable housing and homelessness issues unless you have a concrete reason. It isn't that people don't care -- everyone cares about poverty and homelessness. It's just not a very pleasant thing to think about and it is an unsatisfying subject because the deeper you dive, the more you realize there are no easy solutions. There isn't a formula to solve the problem and sometimes well-intentioned efforts to fix a problem can inadvertently make it worse.
For example, more laws to improve housing conditions will raise the overall cost of housing and drive more landlords to operate under the table to serve renters that cannot afford the higher prices. There will always be landlords who will be willing to profit on serving the very bottom of the housing market. And the more that landlords operate under government oversight, the less safe housing tends to be. Landlords operating without oversight tend to have renters that are habitually behind in payment. Renters know if they report a violation, they will be evicted for non-payment, late-payment, or something else. Once evicted, it will be even harder for them to find a place to live that is equivalent to the destitute conditions of their status quo housing. So the renters don't report violations. They just "deal." It's not just an issue for large metropolitan areas, either.
None of these stories were particularly surprising to me. I used to work for a public housing provider as their attorney and I can confirm that these stories represent reality and not an exaggeration. I've evicted hundreds of individuals and spoken to them face-to-face. It wasn't a pleasant part of my job at all to tell someone they have to leave their home and that I cannot tell them where they should go. However, when there are so many people waiting for affordable housing that it takes nearly two years from application to placement, it isn't responsible to allow people who are not paying their subsidized, adjusted rent to hold a housing unit from someone else who is waiting for that unit. While they are waiting, they pay nearly twice that subsidized rent in the free market. In my role, I tried to remind myself that the most important thing was to be responsible for the fairness of the process. I endeavored to treat people with respect and with compassion. I tried not to rush the procedure simply because this was a routine thing for my workday. And when there was someone who was willing to leave voluntarily, I was happy to help that person keep their record clean from the eviction judgment so that they could find other housing when their life stabilized.
Eviction concludes with a thought-provoking question: do we consider an affordable home a basic American right? I think most Americans would say no, at least in the red state I live in. But can you really pursue life, liberty, and happiness without a safe home? A place you can relax. A place where you can keep your possessions. Because homeless shelters do not provide that atmosphere. They're stressful and difficult living conditions for people with mental illness. That's a huge problem when you consider the high percentage of homeless individuals who have very serious mental illnesses.
I don't know that I have more answers than I did before reading Eviction, but reading this book was a good reminder that these issues are important to me. It isn't a part of my job anymore, but there are still people in my community being evicted, living in unsafe conditions, sleeping (i.e. not "living") in homeless shelters, and waiting for local stakeholders to make these issues a priority.