Grousing About Housing 

Evicted author Matthew Desmond talks housing as Boise wrangles high rents

The Boise City Council was in an awkward position on July 24: One of its members, Councilman Scot Ludwig, had appealed a Design Review decision rejecting his proposal for a condominium complex in the Central Addition neighborhood. The appeal appeared before the city council, which approved the development in a 3-2 vote.

The dissenting council members argued the project—two towers straddling Broad Street and connected by a sky bridge—did not include enough housing, and that the housing available was too expensive for most Boiseans to afford. Ludwig sweetened the pot, increasing the number of housing units in the plan to win over council member Holli Woodings.

"The developer responded to my request to increase the housing portion of this project by about 30 units," Woodings wrote in a Facebook post after the vote. "Scarcity is one of the driving factors in our rising cost of housing and adding to our inventory in walkable, vibrant neighborhoods close to employment centers is an excellent way to alleviate the pressure."

According to sociologist Matthew Desmond, who will be in Boise on Tuesday, Oct. 9, as the first speaker in the 2018-19 season of The Cabin's Readings & Conversations series, the release valve to mounting pressures on the rising cost of housing may not be so simple. After all, condos in one of Ludwig's towers are anticipated to start at $230,000, and it's unlikely the people with the greatest need for housing could afford one.

"Building more housing lowers rents at the top of the market, not the bottom of the market, because you're building housing for a different sector of the market," Desmond said. "I also think there is research that would caution us that we can't just build our way out of this."

Desmond is the author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for nonfiction. It chronicles the travails of low-income renters and landlords in harrowing detail; it also teases out the obscure market and social forces perpetuating poverty. Desmond is as much of a draw to city leaders as he is to the public: During his stay in Boise, he'll also speak before the City of Boise's Housing and Homelessness roundtable group.

"Obviously he has an interesting perspective on these kinds of issues," said Mike Journee, spokesman for Mayor Dave Bieter. "We're always looking to have that conversation."

Desmond is a professor of sociology at Princeton University and specializes in poverty issues. His academic writings are voluminous, but Evicted is unusual: It's an ethnography of poverty-stricken tenants and their landlords in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, written for a mass audience. To write it, Desmond spent months living in a trailer park and a rented room in one of the Midwestern city's poorest neighborhoods, where he met the housing-insecure people who populate the book.

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Over the course of Evicted, Desmond shadows a moving company conducting evictions and explores a warehouse that stores evicted people's belongings. He meets Sherrena, a landlord whose hot-and-cold relationships with her tenants often land them on the curb; and Scott, whose drug addiction cost him his nursing job and his upscale apartment, and left him in a trailer park. There's a lot of humanity in the book. Lamar, a former crack addict who lost his legs, strikes a bargain with his landlord to allow him to paint one of her apartments for a break on his own rent. Larraine drops a month's worth of food stamps on expensive seafood.

Desmond subscribes to a theory that poverty has a logic alien to people likely to read his book; and he peppered Evicted with nods, hints and scholarship that show how degraded neighborhoods, flawed policies and exploitation have led to destitution and despair, which can look like dissipation to untrained eyes.

When asked how Boise might avoid the problems of poverty and a lack of adequate housing, Desmond replied, "How do you know you're not as bad as Milwaukee yet?" According to The United Way's ALICE report, a single adult in Ada County must earn $19,608 per year to survive, and budget $487 per month for housing. For a family of four, wage-earners must make three times as much in a year and spend $789 per month on housing. That's in a county where, according to the most recent census data, gross monthly rent is $871.

Evicted contains extensive footnotes for people who want to trace Desmond's work from a data perspective, but Desmond said he's putting his chips on readers seeing the humanity of poor people and seeking change because of it.

"I guess for me, I learned the most from the people in the book. I learned more about poverty from them, and listening and trying to write their stories," he said. "I always felt that my bet with the universe was that if I could write their stories with enough complexity and depth, that might make a bit of a difference."

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