by Matthew Desmond

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Chapter 2

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Making Rent

Lamar plays spades with his sons and their friends, who often spend time in Lamar’s apartment because unlike their parents, he is always home. He lost his legs to frostbite while he was high on crack the previous winter, so he does not have stable employment.

Lamar is partnered with eighteen-year-old Buck. They sit across from each other while playing against Luke, Lamar’s sixteen-year-old son, and DeMarcus, one of Luke’s best friends. Eddy, Lamar’s fifteen-year-old son, operates the stereo while four other boys wait to play.

Buck explains that according to his teachers, Milwaukee’s police “gotta see, smell, hear, or something” in order to lawfully stop them. Lamar objects, saying that the police “ain’t gotta see nothing.” He tells Buck that his teachers are wrong, but that he would still welcome the police “if it was rough” in the neighborhood because “all polices are not the same.”


Lamar is a Vietnam veteran, though he was dishonorably discharged from the Navy after three years. While his boys are in school, he listens to oldies music while cleaning and drinking instant coffee. The apartment is clean and tidy, a vast improvement from when they first moved in. Sherrena had waived his security deposit because she expected that he would be approved for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) because of his disability. He has not yet been approved because he is deemed able to work “in his condition.” Nevertheless, employment is scarce. Milwaukee is one of the American cities hit hard by mass factory closures in the 1980s, when big companies began moving their plants overseas in search of cheaper labor.

Lamar struggles to pay rent. He receives a $628 monthly stipend from the state, but his rent is $550. This leaves $78 for the rest of the month. He works off rent whenever he can. He cleaned Sherrena’s basement unit and expected a credit of $250, but was only credited $50. After Patrice vacated the unit above him, he recruited the neighborhood boys to repaint it using Sherrena’s and Quentin’s supplies. However, Sherrena angrily refused to credit him because the boys did a poor job.


The next month, Sherrena attends a meeting of the Milwaukee Real Estate Investors Networking Group. Most attendees are landlords, though there are also “other players” in the real estate world. Sherrena is the only black person, along with her Jamaican friend Lora. Most of the landlords rent to middle-class families in more expensive neighborhoods, though it is known that money can be made in the cheaper inner city. Sherrena knows that white landlords are uncomfortable dealing with evictions and conflict, so she offers her services as a broker to the North Side, or “black Milwaukee.”

As people leave, Sherrena tells Lora about Lamar’s horrible paint job, for which he owes her $260. She complains that he also tried to deduct $30 when he re-tiled his bathroom floor without permission. Lora, insisting that Lamar is a “player,” urges Sherrena to evict him.

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Chapter 1


Chapter 3