by Matthew Desmond

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Chapter 8

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Christmas in Room 400

Sherrena decides to evict Arleen, who now owes her $870. She initially began the eviction process at the beginning of the month and received a court date of December 23—the final eviction court before Christmas. Many landlords file for evictions around Christmas because tenants often fall behind on their rent so that they can buy Christmas presents for their children.

On December 23, Sherrena drives to the Milwaukee County Courthouse. She wonders if Arleen will be there. Most tenants do not appear in court when they are facing eviction, and Sherrena prefers it that way. Tenants do not seem to care about how nice she is. She brought over food for Arleen after she first moved in and gave her a stove that was not being used in one of her empty units.

Still, Arleen will probably complain about some of the repairs that Sherrena and Quentin never addressed. Commissioners seem to take tenants’ sides and throw out landlords’ cases for small technicalities, like paperwork errors. Sherrena will have to start the eviction process over if this happens. Otherwise, she can have the “eviction squad” raid Arleen’s apartment within ten days.

After going through security, Sherrena walks to Milwaukee County Small Claims Court in Room 400. She waves to the landlords she recognizes as she finds a seat. Like other big cities, approximately 70% of Milwaukee’s tenants do not appear when they are summoned to eviction court.

  • Sometimes, only one in ten tenants shows up, usually because many people cannot miss work or arrange for childcare. Some stay home because they find eviction humiliating or confusing. Others simply do not care. Around 92% of those facing eviction are poor and have fallen behind on rent payments. Only one in six tenants who do appear have other lodgings arranged, such as staying in a shelter or with loved ones.
  • Tenants who do not appear when summoned receive an automatic eviction judgement. In an average month, three in four people who appear in eviction court are black, and three in four of those are women—in the poorest neighborhoods, black men are likely to be incarcerated, while black women are likely to be evicted.

Arleen surprises Sherrena by showing up. Sherrena explains that she cannot allow Arleen to live in the house without paying rent because she herself has problems. She pulls out a recent bill for $11,465.67, asking if Arleen can “see what [she has] to go through?” They sit down and wait for their case to be called. Sherrena recalls her first eviction and how nervous she was, but since then she has learned all of the nuances of evicting a tenant. Arleen is familiar with evictions, too, though her record is shorter than it should have been because she routinely gave landlords different surnames. Because landlords and commissioners tend to be overwhelmed, they seldom ask for identification.

Sherrena and Arleen are called into a side room for their hearing. The commissioner, a white woman named Laura Gramling Perez, takes issue with Sherrena's demanding $5,000 for damages. She requires more evidence than photographs of Arleen’s apartment and the bill that Sherrena showed to Arleen. Sherrena tries to argue, but is not successful. Frustrated, she declares the process unfair. Commissioner Gramling Perez reduces Sherrena’s charges to $1,285.

Sherrena understands that a money judgment is not the same thing as being paid. Landlords have little recourse, particularly among tenants receiving state benefits, which cannot be garnished without an order of the governor, or living below the poverty line. Regardless, the first $1,000 in someone’s bank account cannot be touched.

  • Landlords can file multiple money judgments, however, and charge high interest rates on amounts that can be arbitrarily determined. A docketed money judgment negatively impacts a tenant’s credit report by placing a lien on future assets. Chronically impoverished tenants with docketed money judgments have an even more difficult time achieving self-sufficiency.

Gramling Perez turns to Arleen and asks if she is indeed behind on her rent. Arleen confirms that she is. She immediately loses her case. Gramling Perez, however, is one of the commissioners who sometimes attempts to award tenants two extra days for each dependent child in the home. She convinces Sherrena to give Arleen a stipulation that will give her until December 31 to leave.

Sherrena gives Arleen a ride home and continues to complain about how awful it is to be a landlord. She tells her about the damage that some of her tenants do to her units. Arleen watches the snow falling outside the car as she listens. Sherrena pulls up beside the building on Thirteenth Street and concludes by telling Arleen to never become a landlord. Arleen gets out of the car and wishes Sherrena a Merry Christmas.

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Chapter 7


Chapter 9