Summer Reading

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By Marianne Lynch, Executive Director 

In the summertime, anytime I have a few spare moments, you can find me lounging in my plastic Adirondack chair in the shade of my back porch with a good book in hand. Usually it’s something with a hero and a villain and probably set in some historical location like Ireland or Scotland. This summer, however, I am reading something that has been a bit different.

I’ve been reading Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. You may have remembered hearing something about Evicted back in the spring when Mr. Desmond won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, or when he was the guest speaker at our neighboring Philadelphia Habitat’s annual fundraiser. I had originally heard about the book after he won these awards and was able to listen to an interview with Mr. Desmond about his experiences in Milwaukee. During the interview, he stated what those of us on the front line have known for years: “This is among the most urgent and pressing issues facing America today, and acknowledging the breadth and depth of the problem changes the way we look at poverty.”

For me, the book is not an easy read because the author paints a vivid picture of what it is like to be poor and live in a marginalized neighborhood in several areas throughout Milwaukee. As I fly through the pages, I can see the connections and similarities to the communities here in the northeast. Things like blight, a high number of renters in the community, underfunded school systems, heavy handed and myopic agencies that “follow procedure” at the cost of losing their humanity, and a lack of well-paying jobs could describe so many communities throughout Pennsylvania and beyond.

The second chapter talks about a tenant who is wheelchair bound and disabled living with two teenage sons. He’s about to lose his housing because he is $290 dollars behind on the rent. The reason he’s behind is that he received an extra disability check and, not knowing it was a mistake, he bought his children shoes, food and some clothes. The County required him to repay the money and now he is unable to pay the rent.  But, it is more complicated that just that…his landlord provides housing to a large section of his neighborhood and struggles to collect rent, sharing that her tenants are often in trouble with the law or each other. In this story, Desmond paints a picture where no one is truly good or evil. The tenant became wheelchair-bound because he was high on crack and passed out in an abandoned house, losing both feet to hypothermia. Having learned from that experience, he now acts as a bit of a mentor to the neighborhood boys, playing cards and dispensing advice. The landlord is one of two African American landlords in that area of the city and has a toughness born out of exposure to so many people prompted by desperation. It would be easy to call the landlord heartless or greedy, but the author helps the reader understand that the issues around her decisions are much more complex than we would think.

 

As I’m reading, I can’t help but think of ways that an organization like Habitat might play a role in the communities that the author examines. How could something like neighborhood revitalization help support families in these communities? Would Habitat be successful in areas that are plagued by their reputations for being hotbeds for violence and crime? For me, it’s a bit of a chicken and an egg scenario…Habitat should take a risk in neighborhoods such as these because we alone are positioned to create stable housing opportunities, through physical rehab on the structure, but also through the community development work happening in the context of construction. At the same time, moving families into areas without support and underfunded school systems using a “one house at a time approach” would not be beneficial to the families or the neighborhood.  It is something I think about much of the time around our own Neighborhood Revitalization program. We must have a consistent, goal-oriented, well-resourced approach to working with communities that are struggling so that the people who live there feel as though there is hope and movement in a positive direction. Otherwise, Habitat will be ineffective and create even more disenfranchisement in an area where so many promises have already been broken.

At the same time, as I read the stories of eight families that the book follows, I can’t help but think that this complex crisis around affordable housing is solvable (maybe not simple, but solvable).  To create safe, affordable, stable housing in our community and communities around the country, it is going to require a shift in mindset. We have to look at this problem as America’s problem, not Milwaukee’s problem or Norristown’s shortcoming, but as a failure of the richest nation in the world to provide for those in most need of resources in order to catch up. We also have to allow ourselves to think about the implications of solving this problem…What if people had a decent place to live? What else could be accomplished? How would it change the face of poverty? How could it improve health outcomes? How would it improve other areas of society, like schools, businesses, communities and more? Who benefits from people remaining poor?

I’m not finished with Evicted yet, because I want to take the time to read each of the footnotes, as well as the stories of each of the families. The footnotes provide statistics and policy decisions that support the narrative, helping the reader to understand that the issues faced in Milwaukee are not just local, but national.  I also am taking the time to digest the complexity of this problem and I hope that it will inspire me to think or act in different ways that will move the needle on the housing crisis because it will move the needle on poverty in turn. I invite you to join me in this endeavor too. Read Evicted and let me know what you think (It can be found on Amazon – here’s the link). I’ll even be happy to host a discussion session at the end of the summer – let me know if you are interested in participating!