by Matthew Desmond

Start Free Trial

Chapter 6

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Rat Hole

Patrice Hinkston moved her three children—Mikey, Jada, and Mae—downstairs to live with her mother, Doreen Hinkston, after Sherrena evicted them. The apartment on Eighteenth and Wright has only two bedrooms, but Patrice’s younger siblings—Natasha, Ruby, and C.J.—also live there.

Living conditions in the apartment are terrible. After evicting Patrice, Sherrena learned that she had been stealing electricity and that it would cost $200 to repair the meter. Sherrena demanded that the Hinkstons pay the fee, but it took them two months to save up the money. During that time, they lived without electricity.

  • Before they moved into Sherrena’s building, the Hinkstons lived in a five-bedroom house on Thirty-Second Street for seven years. Their landlord was “decent,” and Doreen loved the neighborhood. She socialized with her neighbors and looked out for the local boys. Rent was $800 per month, but everyone pooled their incomes. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Doreen volunteered in Louisiana. During that time, the Hinkstons fell behind on their rent. Their landlord was forgiving because they were long-term tenants, but they never caught up.
  • There was a shooting involving two neighborhood boys in the spring of 2008. A bullet broke one of the Hinkstons’ windows, and the police came by to look around. According to the Hinkstons, the police “ransacked their house, looking for guns and drugs.”
  • The house was in such disrepair that the police called Child Protective Services (CPS), and someone at CPS called the Department of Neighborhood Services (DNS), and someone at DNS sent out a building inspector, who issued orders to the landlord. The landlord evicted the Hinkstons on the basis of unpaid rent. They then moved into Sherrena’s filthy apartment on Eighteenth Street.

Poor families who have been evicted must often accept dilapidated housing in dangerous neighborhoods. Resentful, unhappy people are unlikely to unite in creating a peaceful, orderly community because no one feels invested in it. Doreen does not feel invested in their new neighborhood.

Three days a week, the Hinkstons wait for a local church to deliver free lunches in the “lunch truck.” Today, Ruby sees it first. They run outside and return with sack lunches for everyone, never looking inside “because that would ruin the game.” They trade items, and Natasha offers two juices for Ruby’s Oreo cake. Ruby, incredulous, deems her offer unsatisfactory. Natasha pouts, behaving “more like the oldest child than the youngest adult.” However, she often declares that she is “‘living free and independent!’” and never wants to settle down and have children.

The Hinkstons read aloud the prayers that were left in their lunch bags in order to distract them from the deplorable state of their home: the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, the tub, and the toilet are all plugged. However, Sherrena and Quentin rarely return phone calls and resent making or paying for repairs. If she gets ahold of Sherrena, Doreen often finds herself being blamed for damages or being reminded that she is in violation of her lease by allowing Patrice and her children to live with her.

  • Patrice had a similar experience. She threatened to sue Sherrena, who laughed and invited her to do so. Patrice tried to withhold half of her rent in order to force Sherrena to make repairs, but Sherrena only refused to make repairs until she received a full rent payment. Nevertheless, once Patrice paid her rent, Sherrena stopped answering her phone.

After two months, Doreen calls a plumber. He charges $150 to snake out the pipes, and Doreen withholds $150 from her rent payment. Sherrena threatens eviction, so Doreen withholds all of her rent because “she might as well save her money to put it toward the next move.” Broke tenants often do this because more than half of their paychecks usually go to paying rent. Sometimes, poor families are compelled to force an eviction so that they can save enough money to move elsewhere.

Today, housing costs in the worst neighborhoods are similar those in cleaner, safer neighborhoods. In Milwaukee, the median rent in the poorest neighborhood is only $50 less than the rest of the city. This is nothing new; in New York City, tenements erected in the mid-19th century cost more to rent than the apartments in uptown. In the 1920s and the 1930s, black ghettos in Milwaukee and Philadelphia cost more than higher-quality housing in white neighborhoods. Poor families, particularly African Americans, settled in the slums simply because they were not allowed to live elsewhere.

Landlords seldom lower rents in poor communities, though tenants are likely to fall behind on payments. Though evictions cost money, they are usually cheaper than the cost of maintaining properties. Tenants who owe back rent cannot withhold rent or call a building inspector.

The Hinkstons, like many poor families, are fully aware of their rights—they just cannot afford to exercise them. Because of this arrangement, Sherrena’s most profitable property is the house on Wright Street. Her second most profitable property is the house where Arleen lives, on Thirteenth Street.

Soon after Doreen informs Sherrena that she will be withholding her entire rent payment, Natasha finds out that she is four months pregnant. Doreen is delighted, as is Natasha’s boyfriend, Malik. Natasha is devastated, and worries about bringing her baby back to the rat hole.

Doreen wants to move the family to Tennessee, but Natasha does not want her child to be away from its father. However, after she learns that she might be having twins, she wants move as soon as possible.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Chapter 5


Chapter 7