Hosted by the Ford School of Public Policy and the National Poverty Center, a research center within the school, an event surrounding issues of race, poverty and housing in American cities was held Tuesday night in Rackham Ampitheatre and consisted of a discussion between Matthew Desmond and Alex Kotlowitz about their work within the context of the nationwide affordable-housing crisis.
More than 200 University of Michigan students, faculty and Ann Arbor community members packed the auditorium to hear from Desmond, a Harvard sociologist and MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient who recently published the award-winning book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” an ethnographic account of low-income residents in northern Milwaukee facing the loss of their homes. Kotlowitz is also an award-winning author and prominent journalist covering issues of urban poverty for several publications including The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker.
Kotlowitz described the importance of studying U.S. cities in order to understand American society as a whole, discussing specifically his study of Chicago and the growing inequalities within it.
“If you’re willing to look for the fissures in the American landscape, you’re going to find them within the confines of that city,” Kotlowitz said. “For me, what’s notable about Chicago, and now very many other cities, is that it’s very much a tale of two cities.”
In Chicago, certain neighborhoods have grown “miraculously” according to Kotlowitz, while the south and west sides have not grown at all, and instead have gotten worse.
Desmond agreed inequality in U.S. cities and around the world was striking.
“What concerns me (about cities) is how unlivable they’re becoming,” Desmond said. “So in New York and San Francisco and Boston, for example, rent costs more than the average household income. So the cities where the best jobs are, and the most opportunities are, are out of reach even for the middle class now.”
Esi Hutchful, a Public Policy graduate student, later echoed Desmond’s concern for the affordability of cities, as well as his call for an increase in existing policies that address these problems. When asked which policies she believed required more attention, she brought up the need to address racial residential segregation in the United States.
“We’ve seen in the literature and from decades of advocacy that residential racial segregation is a persistent problem that has never been truly dismantled; as we talk about better housing policy, we should not adopt a supposedly race-blind lens or only talk about race-blind economic integration,” Hutchful wrote in an email.
Afton Branche, a Public Policy graduate student, said she felt it was important to seriously consider more policies of rent control and rent ceilings in the private market.
However, in the transition from identifying a problem to calling for a solution, Desmond and Kotlowitz both emphasized the need to humanize the marginalized communities portrayed in their works, thus showing their readers perspectives with which they may be unfamiliar.
“One of the things you have to be careful about, especially writing about people who are really at the bottom, who are really marginalized, is not just writing about them because you want to teach a lesson, but rather to write about them with a sense of discovery,” Kotlowitz said, praising Desmond’s book for telling the stories of people in dire situations while capturing the complexities and nuances of their lives.
Desmond agreed humanizing the people portrayed in their works was essential. He stressed that portraying real people was an enormous responsibility. He mentioned how he was often concerned the stories he told would be interpreted as moral failings on the part of their subjects, invoking the example of a woman in “Evicted” who had committed armed robbery.
When deciding how to fairly portray her, Desmond said he could rely on how much he knew about her aspirations and challenges, such as her dream to be a nurse or the health problems of her son. Using this knowledge, Desmond was able to write a final paragraph about her story which described “how her life could have gone (otherwise).”
The importance of such storytelling for both authors was the appeal to their audience’s empathy, particularly in an era rife with political polarization.
“Especially in these times, (the trick is), how do you get people to challenge themselves, challenge their perception of who they are and who other people are,” Kotlowitz said.