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by Matthew Desmond

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Why does Sherrena decide to evict Doreen's family in Evicted?

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Sherrena's decision to evict Arleen's family stems from the fact that Arleen is behind in rent and owes for funeral costs. The court gives Arleen a few days to get out of the apartment.

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In Matthew Desmond's book Evicted, which was published in 2016, the author invites us along on a visit with eight families living in extreme poverty in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Here, it is a constant struggle to live, especially when tenants are forced to spend as much as 70–80% of their earnings for rent. Eviction has become more commonplace in the United States, even for single mothers. As this happens, more and more people are forced to find other options, such as moving into already cramped quarters with relatives, trying to find a homeless shelter, or —as a last resort —moving onto the streets. There are often no good options.

The book also looks into how landlords play a role in this cycle. Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher is Arleen's landlord; she takes Arleen to court a few days before Christmas for failure to pay rent. Arlene also owes Sherrena for Arleen's sister's funeral costs from the previous month, so now the total due Sherrena is approximately two months rent plus the funeral costs. Sherrena takes Arleen to court on December 23 and wants Arleen and her two sons to be out of the apartment before Christmas. As the judge notes, however, if Arleen and her children are out by January 1, Arleen can avoid having "eviction" show up on her record. For this to happen, however, Sherrena must forfeit any payment from Arleen; she agrees to this proposal but is very unhappy about it.
Sherrena is conflicted. She is not happy to have to take Arleen to court so soon before Christmas. She feels she is a very generous person and has given Arleen—and many other tenants—copious chances in the past. However, this is the same Sherrena who drives a red Camaro, vacations yearly in Jamaica and gambles as a hobby. Yet as she leaves the court after the hearing with Arleen, she tells her:
“If you ever thinking about becoming a landlord, don’t. It’s a bad deal. Get the short end of the stick every time.”

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Doreen was evicted from her previous property because she fell behind with the rent after volunteering to help flood victims in New Orleans. After a bullet broke her window, the police and child protection services got involved and Doreen was given a five-day eviction notice. With her eviction record, it's almost impossible for Doreen to find another place. Eventually, she winds up in one of Sherrena's properties, a place described as a "rat hole."

When the plumbing at her new place stops working, Doreen figures it would be a waste of time to call Sherrena as she'd refuse to do anything about it. So she hires a plumber herself to take care of the problem and deducts the cost from her rent. She also decides to withhold the rest of her rent after Sherrena threatens to evict Doreen and her family because Doreen allowed her daughter Patrice to stay in the apartment. Eventually Sherrena runs out of patience and evicts the Hinkstons after she discovers that Doreen has been looking for another residence while withholding rent. Not for the first time, Sherrena realizes that it's actually cheaper to evict someone than it is to repair a property.

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Is Sherrena justified in evicting Doreen?

Legally, Sherrena is perfectly justified in evicting Doreen. She has been withholding her rent while looking for another place to stay. Doreen has a history of being evicted from previous properties for falling behind on her rent, so there is definitely a trend here. Also, Doreen has been allowing her daughter Patrice to stay with her in the apartment, much to the annoyance of Sherrena. This must be a violation of her tenancy agreement.

Morally, however, it is a rather different story. The apartment that Doreen's been renting from Sherrena is a "rathole," a place in a state of considerable disrepair. In fact, things have got so bad with the plumbing that Doreen has had to pay for it to be repaired herself. That is why she has been withholding some of her rent. Perhaps if Sherrena had shown a willingness to fulfill her obligations as a landlord and actually carried out essential repairs, then Doreen would not have fallen behind on her rent. In some places, it is perfectly legal as well as moral for tenants to withhold their rent if repairs are not made. This is not the case in Milwaukee. Consequently, Sherrena is legally entitled to evict Doreen and her family, even if doing so has profound moral repercussions.

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