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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

What We’ve Been Reading (and Listening to) This Year

In anticipation of the holiday break, which for those of us in the Northeast is a time of short, cold days, we asked our staff to recommend some books, articles, programs, and/or podcasts they found particularly interesting over the last year. Here are the wide array of recommendations—some clearly related to housing, some tangentially related, and some that primarily touch on broader subjects and themes.

Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, Senior Research Analyst
My first pick of this year is the Freddie Mac Multifamily Podcast. Steve Guggenmos and Corey Aber interview housing experts, and the topics this year included federal programs, supply shortages, and the affordability crisis. I always learn something new from it. In Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor examines low-income homeownership programs that emerged from the federal Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968. She frames these programs as a form of predatory inclusion that extended credit and shaky homeownership to low-income households while extracting maximum profit from a substandard housing stock and from black women in particular who had virtually no other options. I’m just finishing this book, and it has been a heartbreaking read. In the much lighter book Radical Suburbs, Amanda Kolson Hurley, a writer who specializes in architecture and urban planning and is a senior editor at CityLab, challenges the stereotypical image of suburbia by describing the history of six Northeastern suburbs that were built on radical or utopian ideals. The histories are fascinating, the book is beautifully written, and it’s short enough to devour in a day!

Corinna Anderson, Publications Coordinator
Starting from the perspective that everything on a computer – code included – is writing, Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine considers “what we are writing ourselves into, culturally and politically” through social media. But instead of the usual ‘Twitter has ruined writing’ narrative, Seymour argues that writing has a bigger role in our lives than ever, from the posts we compose to the data generated by our every digital movement. Half story and half essay, it’s the rare nonfiction book that you want to burn through in a couple of days. For housing-related listening, check out the brand new People’s History Podcast from Jacobin Magazine. In the spirit of historian Howard Zinn, famous for combating the myth of “neutral” history in A People’s History of the United States, it tells the story of 1960s and 70s Boston through the voices of residents at the public housing project Columbia Point. Revolving around housing as a concretely political issue, it shows how much local progress has been driven by people organizing at the level of buildings, blocks, and communities – and casts light on the opposition they’ve faced.

Sharon Cornelissen, Postdoctoral Fellow
This year I read Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia by Karida L. Brown who conducted oral history interviews with 153 African-Americans who grew up in Appalachia and moved North as part of the Great Migration that transformed the United States. The book is full of intimate, unique voices that I continued to think about long after I put it down – telling what it was like to grow up black in a mining community, to be the first cohort to be integrated and to go to a white school, to abruptly move North, and after this migration, to “go home” to Eastern Kentucky year after year to visit. By recording and writing down these oral histories, Brown wrote these black Appalachians back into our collective memory, adding to the work they have already painstakingly done – to remember, and to be remembered.

Kerry Donahue, Associate Director of Communications
My three favorite books this year were by three women: Educated by Tara Westover, The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power, and Life’s Too Short to Go So F*cking Slow by Susan Lacke. On the surface, each woman’s story is quite different: Tara Westover was raised by survivalist parents in the mountains of Idaho with no education, no medical care, and virtually no contact with mainstream society. Largely self-taught, she went on to obtain a PhD from Cambridge University. Born in Ireland, Samantha Power immigrated to the US as a child and was a war correspondent in Sarajevo before becoming President Obama’s second UN Ambassador. Susan Lacke was a young, unmotivated college professor before she befriended her Ironman boss and found herself running, swimming, and cycling alongside him. In each book, the author’s journey takes her from one unlikely place to another, details the stumbling blocks she faced along the way, and the perseverance and dedication she embodied to succeed. Taken together, the three stories are remarkably inspiring and empowering.

Riordan Frost, Research Analyst
In writing a research brief about the growth of student loans this year, I did a lot of research on how millennials are uniquely affected by the astonishing growth in student loan debt. That led me to read about how this debt contributes to burnout in this (my) generation, which was described well in “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” by Anne Helen Petersen. I next turned to Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, a book by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, about the unique stresses faced by women and the burnout they face as a result of the patriarchal systems in which we all live. To continue the theme, I just recently picked up For the Love of Men: A New Vision for Mindful Masculinity by Liz Plank, which describes how patriarchy harms men as well as women, and outlines an alternative approach to how we think about masculinity that can benefit everyone.

Chris Herbert, Managing Director
The Center’s work provides a wealth of facts and figures documenting the nation’s affordable housing challenges. But while facts are essential to inform policy discussions, compelling narratives that illustrate how the crisis plays out in people’s lives and the forces driving the housing market have real power to sway public opinion—like Matt Desmond’s Evicted did a few years ago. A forthcoming book by Conor Dougherty, Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America, may be another book that will raise broad understanding and awareness of the root causes of the housing problems we face. The book follows several figures in the San Francisco area engaged in attempts to expand the supply of housing and protect its remaining affordable apartments. For me, one of the most compelling parts of the book is the story of a humble 48-unit apartment building in North Fair Oaks that is bought and sold several times, with sharp increases in rents and the displacement of many low-income tenants. How the building was identified by the investor, how they raised capital for the transaction, and the impact the repositioning of the property had on the community provides a clear encapsulation of how housing markets have changed in this age of big data and social networking-fueled investing. As a journalist, Dougherty’s purpose isn’t to draw conclusions and point to solutions, but his in-depth reporting provides the reader with a more nuanced understanding of the forces at work in today’s high cost housing markets. The book has definitely influenced my understanding of today’s market conditions.

Alexander Hermann, Research Analyst
While not without its controversies, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman’s The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay provides an interesting overview of tax incidence in the US and its transformation over time. The authors, economists at UC Berkeley, found that once all forms of taxation and income are considered, the wealthiest Americans paid less in taxes as a share of their income than middle-income earners for the first time on record in 2018. Although the book’s headline is contestable on the merits—the choices made in distributing national income require numerous assumptions—the authors propose thoughtful solutions for addressing inequality through the tax code. In a world where major policy problems seem intractable and even modest progress difficult, The Triumph of Injustice inspires some hope that structural change is possible by recommending policies, particularly a national wealth tax, that have become important for the national conversation. That hope is as important for tax policy as it is for, say, housing.

Mary Lancaster, Associate Director for Finance and Administration
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens was my summer vacation read. It is beautifully written with keen observations about the natural world and our complicated human emotions. An insightful and at times painfully sad story which I really enjoyed reading.

David Luberoff, Deputy Director
Three seemingly disparate books that all focused on community stood out for me this year. Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is a mesmerizing, almost Dickensian tale of ten people whose lives are greatly affected by forests and trees. Reading it not only fostered a deeper appreciation of trees and forests but also made me reflect on the best ways to produce the lumber we’ll need to address pressing housing demand. Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age, by historian Lizabeth Cohen, is a balanced and thoroughly readable account of Logue’s ambitious efforts to revitalize New Haven in the 1950s, Boston in the 1960s, and many cities and neighborhoods in New York State from the late 1960s until the mid 1980s. Cohen highlights the historic—and ongoing—challenges of revitalizing urban places, particularly the need to balance the insights and ideas of experts, the desires and concerns of those affected by ambitious plans, and the private sector’s focus on economic returns rather than social goals. (For those in the Boston area, the Center will host an event with Cohen on February 27.) Finally, Sam Anderson’s Boomtown is, as its subtitle says, a “fantastical saga” that not only describes the Oklahoma City’s chaotic founding, apocalyptic weather, and purloined basketball team but also details the tragic bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, the city’s troubled racial history, its unexpected arts scene, and a host of bizarre business-led initiatives, including a study of how people react to sonic booms produced by supersonic airplanes. (Also, a shout out to the 99% Invisible podcast, where I first heard about this book and many other interesting things as well.)

Samara Scheckler, Postdoctoral Fellow
This year I’ve been looking back to look ahead. The books themselves are not new, but each offered me a little bit of context to overlay and interpret this modern moment. In White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg challenges equity myths through a deep dive into American conception of race and class, beginning with the founding of our country and extending through modern day. She offers a particularly sharp view of power in the ownership of home and land. Rebecca Traister examines another type of social construct in All the Single Ladies, in which we glimpse the shaping of our society by women living outside of the institution of marriage. This consideration is particularly valuable to me as I think carefully about later-life housing and policy since many older adults (and especially many women) will navigate a transition from married life to single life. Finally, I enjoyed The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. A culinary historian, Michael Twitty reminds us that cultural signals, which are so immersive as to be nearly undetectable, can be as powerful as biology. It was enlightening to watch him trace the threads of generations old recipes and food-lore to expose impacts on modern actions, choices, experiences, and economies.

Alexander von Hoffman, Senior Research Fellow
Chicago’s Block Clubs: How Neighbors Shape the City by Amanda Seligman is a fascinating look at these little known “small voluntary organizations dedicated to improving conditions in the immediate area of their members’ homes” that dotted working-class white and black neighborhoods in Chicago, Cleveland, and many other big cities. She shows that while they are somewhat ephemeral, block clubs can be building blocks of democracy and urban planning. William Shirer’s Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-41, which my father-in-law gave me some time ago but I only got around to reading this year, is a thrilling “you-are-there cinematic narrative,” that includes close-up observations of Hitler and other leading Nazis and politicians, as the world descends into hell. Third (and seconding my colleague David Luberoff’s recommendation), Lizabeth Cohen’s Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age is a readable, tightly constructed narrative that allows the reader to absorb the details of Logue’s life. I came away from it appreciating and sympathizing with Logue, warts and all. Finally, in Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, environmental journalist Ben Goldfarb shows how the fur trade that once trapped out millions of beavers from North America’s lakes and rivers has led to eroded streams, dried-up wetlands, and lost habitats for species from salmons to swans. However, he documents that a growing coalition of “Beaver Believers”—including scientists, ranchers, and citizens—recognize that ecosystems with beavers are far healthier, for humans and non-humans alike, than those without them.