by Matthew Desmond

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Chapter 3

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Hot Water

Lenny Lawson manages College Mobile Home Park, a 131-trailer residence next to the airport. He has lived here his entire life, and now he works in a windowless office with the help of Susie Dunn, or “Office Susie,” who sorts mail and helps with other administrative tasks. His job is to screen new tenants, track rent payments, and handle maintenance requests. However, he must also know the intimate goings-on of the tenants. He says that he is both “a shrink” and “the village asshole.”

  • The trailer park is home to poor white people, as is most of Milwaukee’s South Side. The Menominee River Valley, which runs through the middle of the city, divides the mostly white South Side from the mostly black North Side. People used to joke that the Sixteenth Street Viaduct, which passes through the valley, is “the longest bridge in the world because it connected Africa [the North Side] to Poland [the South Side].” Notwithstanding the Fair Housing Act that was included in the 1968 Civil Rights Act, Milwaukee remains one of the most racially divided cities in the nation.

Tobin Charney, who is seventy-one years old, owns College Mobile Home Park. In May 2008, the Milwaukee Licenses Committee refused to renew Tobin’s license to operate the park because of numerous code violations and police calls. The park was deemed “a haven for drugs, prostitution, and violence” by Alderman Terry Witkowski. The city council, also called the Common Council, votes on whether to renew Tobin’s license on June 10. Local media began interviewing some of the park’s residents, some of whom are critical of Tobin.

Though he can be gruff, Tobin is often willing to work with people who cannot pay rent. However, he is unforgiving if a tenant simply chooses to spend money on something else. It is difficult for tenants to hide money from either Tobin or Lenny. Office Susie is the first to see monthly stipends when they arrive in the mail, and Lenny always notices when people buy unnecessary luxuries instead of paying rent.

Tobin prefers having a conversation with a tenant who does not pay rent, but he took a different approach with Larraine Jenkins. Larraine receives $714 in SSI and her rent is $550, not including utilities. She was late with rent payments multiple times, so Tobin took her and another tenant to court and offered a stipulation that allows him to enforce a strict payment schedule. He can activate the sheriff’s eviction squad if they fail to pay.

Right before the Common Council holds its vote, Larraine misses her rent payment. Tobin has her evicted after discovering that she criticized him on the news. Terrified, Larraine gives him the $400 left in her bank account. Instead of calling off the eviction, Tobin says that she has until that night to pay him the remaining $150. Larraine, however, already paid $150 to the utilities company so she can take a hot shower and does not have more money to pay Tobin. She calls several local agencies for help, but no one will help her. Unsure of what to do, she falls asleep in her now hot trailer.

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Chapter 2


Chapter 4