This week, I’m heading back to St. Paul, Minnesota (average temperature in February is 23.7 degrees F). This time I’ll be there for a community visit that has some unexpected ties right here to Virginia, where I live.
Burn will be read as a companion novel with the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller Evicted: Poverty and Profit in The American City by Matthew Desmond. The book follows the harrowing experiences of eight families caught in the vicious cycle of evictions in Milwaukee, WI between 2007 and 2008. It’s a stark book, a heartbreaking one for all it tells us about people and the systemic pressures against them. It’s a must-read if you’re interested in seeing the true face of life at the very edge of housing despair.
At first I was confused. St. Paul’s tagline is “the most livable city in America,” after all. What was up? Turns out, they’re in a housing crisis like so many other American cities. With about 2.4 percent vacancy rate, it’s not really “livable” unless you have a good income.
What was especially appealing to me about the invitation to St. Paul was that the organizers of the Read Brave program were inclusive of young people as they considered this challenging topic. To make sure readers of all ages were tuned into the conversation, they’ve selected a range of titles spanning all age groups. These include: Shelter by Céline Claire; Rich by Nikki Grimes; Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate; and Yard Sale by Eve Bunting.
That, to me, seemed like one of the most respectful approaches I’ve heard. A community is made up of citizens of every age, and its problems – including housing insecurity – hurts them all. Having nowhere to live, or being a sick day away or a car repair away from being put out on the street, puts stress on families and kids, and it’s the kind of slow-burn stress that changes kids in lasting ways. It impacts their learning, their coping skills, their mental and physical health. It becomes an all-consuming problem as Nora Lopez in my novel certainly knew.
The unfortunate irony of this trip is that it also coincides with my own city’s reckoning with housing issues. I make my home to the south, in Richmond, Virginia, where we have a considerably warmer climate. Sure, you could say that things have been looking fairly rosy. The US News and World Report listed us among the top 25 places to live in this country in 2017. It’s a small city, filled with good restaurants, strong arts, and lots of beautiful natural resources.
But the truth is that we’re also a city struggling not only with the national embarrassment of our leaders’ racist and possibly criminal past behaviors, but one that is struggling with housing demons of our own.
The Richmond Times Dispatch reported last June that half of the large cities with the highest eviction rates in the nation are right here in Virginia.
Richmond has an eviction rate that is three times the national average – and one that is factually and undeniably tied to race. Our lousy tenant protection laws coupled with a lack of affordable units being built for renters only fuel the problem. For all the work of heroes like our recently deceased Lillie Estes, who labored for years on behalf of her neighbors in Gilpin Court, the work is not done.
It’s all well and good to enjoy trendy neighborhoods, fine restaurants, and notations in travel guides. I won’t begrudge anyone that. But it can’t happen by ignoring the needs of families that have been systemically afflicted. It can’t happen by leaving children in simmering trauma.
I’m eager to hear what the citizens of St. Paul have to say. A YA novel can’t solve housing problems, for sure, but it certainly can name them honestly. I hope Burn Baby Burn gave them a place to feel seen and understood.
I’ll let you know when I’m back…