There is little doubt that the economic fallout from COVID-19 will disproportionately affect America’s lower middle class and the poor. That’s why it’s a good time to rededicate ourselves to understanding the struggles that some of our community neighbors have with finding adequate, affordable housing.
These struggles are already getting worse with historically high unemployment. As fellow citizens, it is our responsibility to understand and help tackle this problem and find the best solutions.
Matthew Desmond’s book, Evicted, helps us do that by taking readers alongside members of our community struggling with affordable housing. A New York Times bestseller, Evicted follows eight individuals and their families right here in Milwaukee as they seek housing and struggle to find stability.
Desmond, a Princeton sociologist, wanted to provide readers an intimate understanding of the relationship between poverty, housing, and profit. His approach is commendable—in conducting his research for the book, he didn’t stay in nice hotels and he didn’t form his opinions based on high-level statistics or quick, superficial interviews. He actually lived in a trailer park, and he became friends with struggling individuals and families who are central to the book.
For a book packed with footnotes, it is a great, intimate memoir that brings you right into his conversations on recognizable Milwaukee streets and in familiar neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, Evicted does not paint a positive picture of Milwaukee. While Desmond makes it clear that the harsh observations would be much the same in many similar American cities, that doesn’t lessen the humbling fact that this compelling book tells a dark story of life for many of those in our Milwaukee community.
There is little doubt in my mind that Desmond is left-of-center and liberals love this book. However, the book is still a clarion call to policy makers, and it calls us to have a better understanding of the underlying problems associated with housing and the instability those challenges create in peoples’ lives.
I suspect that if you’re a Republican, and a friend handed you a copy of Evicted accompanied by an introduction to the effect of, “this book highlights social injustice as it relates to America’s housing issues,” you might be tempted to put it down rather than open it. This reflex is unfortunate. We have allowed the left to claim the mantle of social justice as one of their chief causes, and we allow them to portray their solutions as the only ones that can address problems of social justice. The unquestioning reaction that conservative solutions are unwelcome in the conversation is wrong on many levels.
The Republican Party was founded on destroying the institution of slavery, America’s greatest social injustice. The Republican Party was also almost uniformly in support of Civil Rights, a stark contrast to the bitter opposition put up by Sen. Lyndon Johnson’s wing of the Democratic Party. A Republican president created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act. These are just a few examples of Republican policies and policy makers advancing the cause of social justice.
This earnest quest for social justice didn’t end at some undefined point in the past, as is often claimed. Republicans and conservative institutions today are constantly engaged with social justice-oriented policies, even if conservatives don’t use that phrase very often. For example, the Koch network has made criminal justice reform one of its top three issues and has spent hundreds of millions to find ways to reintegrate those who made mistakes back into meaningful engagement in the community. In addition, school choice has become almost a uniformly Republican-supported policy while Democrats, especially in Wisconsin, have been largely opposed to it.
Evicted ends with some policy solutions that make sense but many others I don’t agree with. The book’s cover and several of its pages evoke “profit,” as if profiting from providing housing is unethical. In reality, the best strategy to alleviate housing shortages would be to allow more profit in housing, not less.
The landlords in the book are painted with a broad brush as mostly unsympathetic characters, but what is less stressed is that many of the landlords pursue rents aggressively because they owe money to the bank, and the bank owes money to depositors and investors. In short, it’s not necessarily the landlord who is always the proverbial evil greedy man behind the curtain.
I often write about my parents’ experiences. My mother worked 40-plus hours a week as a floor nurse caring for children with cancer, while my father worked 60-plus hours a week on a Chicago garbage truck. Even that workload wasn’t enough to provide both an education for their children and a comfortable retirement, so they purchased a six-unit apartment building and worked there nearly every weekend after their grueling work week.
I know other landlords in addition to my parents, and they have developed good relationships with their tenants. They want them to succeed and they want to keep rent manageable. They do not want to evict anyone because they know the pain it causes. Eviction is also bad business. It is better to work with people to work out problems and keep a paying tenant.
I can’t help but notice that America’s most liberal cities have the highest housing costs for the middle class and the most significant homelessness issues. Perhaps they should consider more conservative solutions like zoning flexibilities, establishing the rule-of-law, and relaxing overly strict building standards that don’t provide a safer dwelling.
Evicted makes the stories of Milwaukee’s poor come alive and it will build your empathy for those seeking adequate housing. As conservatives, it’s important to understand this perspective so we can be informed when seeking public policy solutions.
Although I do not agree with all the depictions and viewpoints of the author and believe it paints all landlords with one broad brush, it is a great book that highlights a significant problem in our community that must be addressed. In many cases the problem can be better addressed with conservative policies rather than a doubling down on previous progressive policies that have largely failed.
RightBooks with Dale Kooyenga is a monthly feature at RightWisconsin. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) represents Wisconsin’s 5th Senate District in the state legislature. He is also a Certified Public Accountant and an Army Reserve officer.