If you haven’t read Matthew Desmond’s 2016 book, Evicted, you should. It is the best non-fiction book I’ve read for years and has done more to crystalize how I think about housing in the 21st century than almost anything else. Readers of this blog know that housing has become a significant interest of mine stemming largely from my work with the North Dakota Man Camp Project and conversations with my colleague Bret Weber.

As most folks probably know, Desmond’s Evicted follows a group of people who were evicted from their homes and shows the struggles that they endure to reclaim stable housing. He complements their perspectives with that of a couple of landlords who constantly balance between managing their properties as investments and dealing with the precarious lives of their tenants. The main argument in the book is that evictions are not the result of social and economic problems among those battling endemic poverty in American cities, but causes the economic and social problems making it nearly impossible for the poorest of the poor to claw their way to stability. Evictions not only become mark the records of the evicted as unstable renters driving them into far less stable markets for housing, but also disrupts family life and stable employment, undermines the ability for existing social safety nets to function properly, and deprives individuals of a sense of worth that is crucial for self esteem, confidence, planning, and that most characteristic condition of capitalist, ambition.

I took five things away from this book:

Functional Housing. I’ll admit that I’ve tended to see housing as a more less functional category of space. Perhaps this comes from my experience as an Mediterranean archaeologist where we’ve tended to see certain assemblages of material and spaces as “domestic” in function without much in the way of nuance outside the wealthiest elite of the ancient world. When I tried to adapt this kind of definition to my work in the contemporary Bakken oil patch, I found that it was rather inadequate to describe the conditions present in workforce housing in the Bakken ranging from ramshackle RVs to austerely functional, professionally managed “man camps.” While the latter certainly served the basic housing needs for a significant portion of the Bakken workforce, they also functioned like hotels, limiting the opportunities for their residents to personalize their space, privileging functionality over intimacy, and undermining the traditional middle-class division between work and life by bundling housing with employment.

Desmond’s book does not deal with workforce housing per se, but few of his evicted residents end up on the street or without a place to stay. Instead, they are forced from their homes into the homes of others, shelters, and other places that function as housing – or perhaps more basically shelter – but do not offer a sense of security, intimacy, or “ownership” (in the broadest sense of the term). Desmond brilliant reveals the division between housing as a function and housing as part of the psychological armor that an individual needs to survive in the modern world.  

Property as Investment and Housing as Life. The broader function of housing makes the tension between housing as an investment and housing as fundamental to a successful life in the 21st century all the more dramatic. Desmond’s work follows the story of both renters and landlords that embodies this tension. What is interesting is at the lowest level of the housing scale in the U.S., landlords are not faceless companies or management outfits, but real people who make their living providing housing for the poorest of the poor in American cities. In some ways these individuals are more sympathetic figures with more flexible approaches to housing than, say, the banks that held mortgages during the subprime mortgage crisis. On the other hand, these individuals could be fickle and unpredictable as they attempted to manage a housing stock that often was in desperate need of repairs, tenants who struggled to pay rent, and the various institutional challenges brought by building inspectors, the police, and various other city service providers. The property owners in Desmond’s book are far more sympathetic figures than the absentee, millionaire investors vilified by K. Stanley Robinson in his most recent novel or in the recent survey of housing by Marcuse and Madden.

Precarity. Bret Weber introduced me to the idea of precarity earlier this year and since then, I’ve been turning it around in my head and trying to figure our whether the idea is sufficiently robust to apply it formally to how we understand the coming changes to 21st century society. It basically describes an social and economic condition where one’s ability to survive in a meaningful and independent way is constantly under threat. I’ve considering applying it to the condition of oil workers in the Bakken whose livelihood is dependent on economic forces that are beyond their control and there is a clear value to wealthy companies to avoid encumbering their bottom like with a stable and permanent workforce. The recent rise in adjunct labor at American universities is similarly invested the creation of precarity in the academic workforce. Precarity also drives down wages, preserves a pool of available labor for just-in-time production, and undermines social stability in communities.

Among the poorest of the American poor, precarity is a way of life with the vicissitudes of housing not only manifesting the precarious nature of their existence, but exacerbating it. Precarious employment means precarious incomes and this means precarious housing. More importantly, the system of inexpensive rental housing depends on the precarious labor of the chronically unemployed who will work at below minimum wage or for incredibly low wages because they have no choice. This low cost labor keeps the margins up on low cost housing that is frequently occupied by the poorest of the poor who, in turn, provide both rents and low cost labor.  

Social Networks. One of the more remarkable things that I learned from Desmond’s book is the way in which personal relationship – the social network – functioned for the poor and the evicted. In some cases, personal relationship provided a functional safety net for people evicted from their homes. Friends, family, and neighbors took in the newly evicted and even provided food and – perhaps as importantly – advice, friendship, and sympathy.

At the same time, these networks were incredibly fragile with friends and family frequently unwilling or unable to help, and new relationships forming almost spontaneously during crises. This dynamic situation is both heartening because it demonstrates a kind of shared humanity during a crisis, but also troubling because social bonds become structured around the practical needs of housing and sustenance. As we start to analyze the interviews from the North Dakota Man Camp Project, it’ll be interesting to determine whether we can recognize these dynamic networks of relationships that thrive in precarious environments.

Objects. This is an archaeological blog, right? I couldn’t help but think about all the objects mentioned in Demond’s book. I immediately envisioned a student project that produced an index of objects from the book and considered how objects served to both advance Desmond’s argument and in the lives of the evicted. Producing plans of the houses and rooms that Desmond describes would also provide a kind of blueprint of poverty in American cites. Someone needs to do this!

Fixing the Future: Kim Stanley Robinson and Corey Doctorow

On my flights and down moments this summer I read Corey Doctorow’s new novel Walkaway and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York: 2140. Both novels are set in the near future and both offer perspectives that are equal parts horrifying and exciting, but the most exciting thing to me is that both novels recognize housing as a crucial challenge and opportunity in the future. This piqued my interest because of my work in the Bakken oil patch which focused on workforce housing. When I started that project, I had no idea, really, how crucial housing issues were in the public discourse (despite Bret Weber’s insistence that I should get that), but works like Matthew Desmond’s Evicted (2016) and Peter Marcuse’s and David Madden’s In Defense of Housing (2016) really crystalized some of these ideas in my head. 

Doctorow and, more significantly, Robinson, recognized that housing will be a crucial issue in the near future. For Doctorow, walkaways are people who have abandoned the conventional (or “default”) world of massive wealth disparities, pervasive surveillance, and precarious employment, and literally walked away into the less densely populated and governed interior. In this space, walkaways set up their own utopian community based on radical egalitarianism, abundance, and, of course, free housing. As one might expect from someone like Corey Doctorow, the world of the walkaways is essential a physical version of Wikipedia where participants contribute what they know, what they can, and what want to the literal and physical code of their DIY society. The fabric of housing, for example, rested upon a forked version of the United Nations Commission for Refugees housing model which apparently disseminated open-source on a futuristic version of the web. Doctorow set the openness of this model for housing – and walkaway society – against the rampant capitalism of the mega-rich who seek to license and commodify human experiences.  

For Robinson, housing took a more central role. His novel is set in New York city after a series of catastrophic sea level changes have transformed it into a “SuperVenice” of interlaced canals and structurally compromised buildings. Amidst this chaotic cityscape stood a series of “SuperScrapers” that were largely warehouses for the wealth of the super wealthy. Average New Yorkers, in contrast, we crammed into communal living spaces in buildings that remains structurally sound or reduced to squatting among the collapsing ruins of the compromised buildings. When the city was struck by an hurricane that brought with a devastating storm surge, post-apocalyptic winds, and rain, the city’s housing stock was further condensed and riots broke out as the population sought to claw back housing from the wealthy who saw it as a commodity. Without getting into too much detail, Robinson saw housing as the linch-pin to the global economic order and a general strike that targeted the willingness of people to repay their personal debts destabilized global finance.

Both Robinson and Doctorow recognize that housing stands at the intersection of capitalism (and particularly the financial strategies of the super wealthy) and the human experience. Our need for housing is fundamental and tied to all sort of crucial developmental indicators from academic success to life expectancy. They cleverly set housing as the central point of conflict in the  battle against the growing disparity in priorities, values, and wealth between the super wealthy and the ordinary individual.