Sherrena Tarver was a black landlord in Milwaukee and one of two landlords that this book follows extensively. With her husband Quentin, Sherrena owned and managed a significant amount of properties on the North Side, the predominantly black neighborhood of the city. While many landlords are fearful of owning and leasing property in what many derisively call “the ghetto,” Sherrena believed it to be a promising business model and was generally very successful. By maintaining her properties to only minimal standards, Sherrena was able to channel most of her income from rent into personal profit. She also invested wisely following the mid-2000s housing crisis, buying property while it was extremely cheap and quickly recuping her investment to begin earning a return. As a result, she was able to live in wealthy neighborhood and travel frequently.
It is also clear that Sherrena worked extremely hard to manage her properties and address issues that arose with tenants. She travelled throughout the city on a daily basis to collect rent, show properties to potential tenants, and, if necessary, deliver eviction notices. While Sherrena occasionally allowed tenants some flexibility or allowed them to perform maintenance work on properties, she was generally extremely strict in enforcing payment deadlines and evicting tenants who failed to pay rent. She was frequently present at the city’s eviction court and moved quickly to execute evictions once they were approved. She also often sued tenants for damages they caused, even while acknowledging that few tenants would be able to pay settlements until their incomes rose.
Quentin was Sherrena’s husband and partner in managing the couple’s extensive real estate properties. While Sherrena primarily managed rent payments, evictions, and other administrative tasks, Quentin maintained the physical properties with the assistance of hired laborers. In doing so, Quentin occasionally hired one of his own tenants, allowing the tenant to perform maintenance in lieu of paying some amount of rent. Generally, because they were hired on a temporary and sometimes day-to-day basis, Quentin’s laborers were paid below minimum wage for the work they completed. Like Sherrena, Quentin showed occasional sympathy toward tenants and their financial situations, but generally endorsed and supported Sherrena’s strict enforcement of rent agreements. Several of the tenants portrayed claimed that Quentin did not respond quickly to or adequately repair maintenance issues. Given that Sherrena and Quentin sought to limit their maintenance expenses and provide only minimally livable housing, it is likely that this was, to at least some degree, intentional.
Arleen Belle was a black resident of Milwaukee and, for a period, a tenant of Sherrena. Early in her life, Arleen had lived in a publicly subsidized apartment, paying very little in rent, but left it to live with a friend. This became a mistake that Arleen would regret for years, as rents in the private housing market were significantly higher and it was nearly impossible to move back into public housing once one had left it. During the period described in this book, Arleen lived with her two sons, Jori and Jafaris, and was frequently unable to meet her various expenses. As a result, the family was evicted and forced to move frequently. In one case, Arleen used her rent money to pay for her sister’s funeral, forcing her to be late in paying rent and face eviction by Sherrena. Arleen and her sons lived temporarily with Crystal, Sherrena’s new tenant who allowed the family to stay in order to split the cost of the apartment. She later moved to a homeless shelter, while she searched for new apartments, often calling several landlords each day, none of whom were willing to rent to someone with her eviction record. By the end of the book, she had again been evicted from her apartment and had few prospects for improving her situation.
Crystal was tenant of Sherrena who became friends with Arleen when she allowed her to share their apartment after Arleen was evicted. The author states that relationships of this kind were common, as those in poverty often sought to pool resources. It is clear that Crystal suffered from some degree of psychological illness. She frequently became unreasonably angry or upset and often fought with Arleen and her other friends. She was also extremely spiritual and spent a significant amount of time at a nearby Protestant church. While she was deeply devoted to her faith and church community, many of those around her considered Crystal’s obsession with her religion to be unhealthy and counterproductive. Even with her measly income, she donated significant sums to the church on a regular basis, believing God will eventually bless her with wealth as a result. After being evicted or forced to leave by her roommates numerous times, the state ended Crystal’s SSI payments, forcing her into homelessness and her prostitution.
Doreen, a black resident of Milwaukee, lived with her four children and three grandchildren in a cramped apartment the family rented from Sherrena. Doreen and her family had previously lived in a nicer, larger house, but fell behind on rent when Doreen went to Louisiana to volunteer helping evacuees following Hurricane Katrina and were subsequently evicted. The family’s new apartment was not only small, but also poorly maintained, and Doreen was constantly searching for a different place to live. This search became even more important after her daughter Natasha became pregnant. By the end of the book, the family still lived in the same apartment and the author argues that its poor condition had affected everyone living their, encouraging a state of depression and worthlessness.
Lamar, a black resident of Milwaukee, was one of Sherrena’s tenants. Although both of his legs had been amputated, Lamar frequently did maintenance work on Sherrena’s properties in order to pay portions of his rent. Such work was often necessary for Lamar to avoid eviction. Lamar lived with his two sons and their home became an informal gathering place for many of the neighborhood’s young men. Near the end of the book, Lamar’s apartment was damaged by a fire in the unit above his, forcing him and his sons to move into housing provided by the Red Cross.
Tobin was a white landlord in Milwaukee who owned the College Mobile Home Park. Like Sherrena, Tobin generally rented to poor tenants and was extremely successful in doing so. While he could be lenient with tenants in certain situations, he generally insisted on receiving rent payments on time and in full. Tobin’s trailer park, even in contrast to other low-income housing options, was poorly maintained and reputed to be a haven of drug use. As a result, the city of Milwaukee threatened to take Tobin’s landlord license unless he made significant reforms in his management practices. This forced Tobin to evict several tenants and replace Lenny and Office Susie, his employees, with a contracted property management company.
Lenny was the manager of Tobin’s trailer park, where he lived rent-free in addition to receiving a salary. Although Tobin visited the property on a regular basis, Lenny was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the park, most notably collecting rent and addressing maintenance issues. In addition to these formal duties, Lenny, along with Office Susie, served as a bridge between Tobin and his tenants. After the city forced Tobin to reform his management practices, Lenny was replaced by a contracted management company.
Scott, a white resident of Milwaukee, was one of Tobin’s tenants. Unlike most of the tenants described in this book, Scott was originally relatively well-off and had been employed as a nurse. Scott’s fortunes changed however when he was injured and became addicted to painkillers and later heroin. After losing his nursing license, Scott moved to Tobin’s trailer park with Teddy, whom he cared for after Teddy was injured while drunk. As a result of Tobin’s reform process, Scott and Teddy were evicted after they attempted to allow Pam and Ned, other evictees, to live with them. Throughout the course of the book, Scott struggled with his addiction, repeatedly considering rehab and other treatment programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, and continually relapsing. Tackling this addiction was a crucial step in regaining his nursing license. Eventually, while living in a homeless shelter, Scott began using methadone, a heroin replacement treatment. This allowed him to begin working at the shelter and eventually move to a city-subsidized apartment. By the end of the book, Scott had not yet reinstated his license, but was clearly on a positive path.
Larraine was a white resident of Milwaukee and one of Tobin’s tenants. Before moving into the trailer park, Larraine had been in a series of abusive relationships, most recently with a man named Glen. Despite his violent tendencies, Larraine was devastated when Glen died in prison due to a drug overdose. It is clear that this trauma continued to affect her. Early in the book, Larraine was given an eviction notice for failing to pay rent and sought assistance from the city or and non-profit organizations to avoid having to leave Unsuccessful, she was forced to continually search for new housing. For a time, she lived in the trailer park with her brother Beaker, before he moved to subsidized elderly housing. Even as she struggled to find stable housing, Larraine insisted on keeping her prized jewelry and, occasionally buying expensive food with her food stamps. Believing that she would always be poor, Larraine did not see any reason to save her money and instead sought to attain some degree of a normal lifestyle.