Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City follows a handful of poor families in Milwaukee, and their landlords, as they struggle to pay rent or collect rent. The tenants lead complicated lives. Many have addictions of various kinds, too many children, criminal records, abusive partners, disabilities of all kinds, little education and grim employment records and prospects. Evictions are just one more problem on top of the others, and although the author clearly demonstrates how unstable housing creates enormous problems for poor households, it’s not entirely clear how the fix he recommends, providing universal housing assistance, would solve the larger issues.
Despite the simplistic recommendation, the description what it takes to be a landlord in inner-city Milwaukee is enlightening.
Dream Cities: Seven Urban Ideas That Shape the World shows us the world of seven architects or groups of architects, many but not all of them American, who influenced the way cities are organized. I found it very interesting that architects, for the most part, are the ones portrayed here, since it seems that many of them may have had great ideas about how to organize a single house (or an apartment building, perhaps) but taking their vision to the scale of a city seems not to work so well. Indeed, the only non-professional featured in the book, Jane Jacobs, who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities that so ably critique disastrous so-called Urban Renewal tactics, seems to have intuited much more correct principles of how cities function than pretentious architects.
The first chapter contains a wonderful description of the Spanish Revival style in California in the early 20th Century, which is worth reading the book, in my mind. And the author clearly points out both how technical advances in construction techniques made some of the changes possible, and how political lobbying favored certain types of city planning above others. Quite an interesting, if often depressing, look at cities.
Written by a historian, The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How Our Houses Became Our Homes shows how homes changed along with our demands of them from the 16th Century onward. She uses art and literature, showing how such artifacts can be highly idealized, alongside home inventories and other more factual data to explore the physical arrangements of homes, how children and women were treated, how much privacy was expected (not much, at first!), and how furniture reflects growing economic ease.
In such a rich book, there are occasional redundant wanderings into children’s clothes, say, or diet during the Industrial Revolution, but the stories are intriguing.
Other People’s Money: Inside the Housing Crisis and the Demise of the Greatest Real Estate Deal Ever Made tells the story of Stuyvesant Town, a Manhattan housing complex built after WWII for moderate-income workers, and whose $5.4 billion sale in 2006 made it the largest real estate deal ever. The book tells the details of how the deal came about, in excruciating detail. (Who cares that one of the investors’ flight on a private job had an aborted landing?) But before the tedious story of the deal comes the story of the birth of Stuyvesant Town, which is much more interesting: how the city made large tax concessions to an insurance company, MetLife, to build affordable housing, even though it discriminated against African-Americans, and how the city’s rent-control ordinance allowed the original tenants to stay put, for decades and for smaller and smaller rents compared to the market, sometimes passing their apartments from parents to children, creating another set of unseemely social discrimination.
The Big Tiny: A Built-It-Myself Memoir is not a memoir of building and living in a tiny house (although a tiny house is duly built and lived in over the course of the book). It’s really the story of an existential crisis that motivated the move into said tiny house, much in the way that Wild told the story of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as remedy for a breakup.
In fact, the tiny house is not exactly a complete shelter, as it lacks a shower, or even running water, and despite the custom trailer it is built on, resides permanently in the backyard of a traditional house with traditional fittings (and the missing shower). Still, it provides an interesting exploration of what we really need to live comfortably — and that’s not the average 2000-square foot house!
Our Lot tells the same story as Busted, reviewed here yesterday, with more details, without the personal angle (except for a glimpse), and with a combative, how-could-the-government-and-big-business-stick-it-to-the-little-people tone that I found annoying, even making me wonder whether, a few years ago, the complaint would not have been that said government and big business were conspiring to prevent the little people from owning a piece of the American dream.
Read Busted instead.
Written by a New York Times economics editor, Busted is the twin story of the editor’s descent into foreclosure after a very foolish house purchase and the housing market’s descent into meltdown. On the personal side, a newly-divorced, wanting to remarry professional wants a real home and closes his eyes has he signs more and more improbable loan agreements while he knows very well that he cannot both pay the mortgage and his child-support payments — or perhaps he could, if he did not also have to feed the children under his roof, pay the phone bill, or buy any clothes. The personal stories can be painful at times but they keep a human dimension for the larger story, while highlighting how even people who should know better — and we are talking here about someone who had professional access to Alan Greenspan and the heads of assorted banks and mortgage companies — got sucked into the great lie of never-ending home price increases. As he discussed with his mortgage broker, he knew very well that after the teaser rate he would not be able to pay the mortgage at all, but “don’t worry: the value of the house will be higher in five years and you’ll refinance.” Not so.
The larger story is told with just the right amount of details so the lay reader can understand clearly what happened. It is an eloquent discussion of how the capitalist system can go very, very wrong. Anyone who could make a buck (or a billion) jumped in to the housing market and pretty soon the fact that the majority of home loans being made were so-called liars’ loans, in which borrowers simply “state” their income with no verification whatsoever, stopped to be of concern to “the market”, with horrible consequences to come.
I recommend this book as a personal and highly understandable story of the housing bubble.