by Matthew Desmond

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Chapter 1

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Part One: Rent

The Business of Owning the City

It is September, and Milwaukee is enjoying warm weather. Sherrena Tarver drives her beat-up Chevy Suburban on her way to evict a tenant on the North Side. Like most landlords, she leaves her nicer vehicle at home when carrying out evictions.

Sherrena dreads evicting Lamar. He has children and no legs. However, he cannot pay rent and Sherrena cannot afford to let him live in her building for free. As she told her husband, Quentin, the “last time I checked, the mortgage company still wanted their money.” Nevertheless, tenants tend to become bitter and retaliatory when they are evicted, even damaging their units before leaving.


Sherrena’s experience in real estate began after nearly a decade of teaching the fourth grade. She believed, like other landlords, that she could “strike out into nothing” and make a solid living “through her own gumption and intelligence.” She bought her first property in 1999 and refinanced her mortgage twice within a few years. She used the money to buy a two-unit duplex in the inner city.

After four years, Sherrena was an “inner-city entrepreneur.” She bought thirty-six rental units, and Quentin quit his job to become her property manager while also buying his own properties. She started other businesses, providing services including credit-repair, investments, and transporting family members upstate to visit their incarcerated loved ones.

Most landlords own properties that are grouped in the same area, which means that they usually rent to a specific demographic. Sherrena rents to the black poor, who often struggle to pay rent—especially when they must choose between paying for housing or for utilities. In addition to making up for lost rent money when a tenant is evicted, Sherrena often faces unplanned expenses, such as fines for building code violations and costs for repairs. Sometimes, the Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS) shuts down one of her properties, and she must suddenly cover a full mortgage payment with her savings. Still, she struggles to turn away applicants in need, even when they have records of previous evictions.


Sherrena hands an eviction notice to Lamar and another to Patrice, who lives in the unit above Lamar. Neither tenant seems surprised, but Lamar tells Sherrena that he started working on her basement. Sometimes, tenants “work off” their rent by performing odd jobs for landlords. Sherrena tells him to call her about the work next time and leaves to check on a new tenant at her duplex on Thirteenth and Keefe.

The new tenant, a young mother, begins complaining about a broken window. Her mother joins the conversation, announcing that she called the city. Sherrena is upset, especially because the young woman never called her. They fight, and Sherrena eventually evicts the tenant. Shortly after the duplex is empty, she receives a call from a local social services agency about a client in need of a home for herself and her two boys. It is Arleen Belle.

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Chapter 2