It is September 2007, still warm, and Milwaukee is buzzing with life. Sherenna Tarver drives through the North Side playing R&B. She does not take her Camaro to this part of town, instead driving a 1993 Chevy Suburban owned by Quentin, her husband and business partner. Milwaukee’s population has significantly decreased since the 1960s and the city is littered with abandoned buildings. Sherenna knows the community she is driving through well, which means she knows how to make money from it.
Landlords in poor neighborhoods often profit from communities that they themselves have little to do with. Yet Sherenna seems more involved in the neighborhoods in which she conducts business than many landlords. Also, like her tenants and unlike many inner-city landlords, she is black.
Sherenna is short, with a loud, joyous laugh. Yet today she is not laughing, because she has to evict Lamar, a man with no legs. When Lamar first fell behind on rent, she was hesitant to evict him, telling Quentin: “I love Lamar,” before admitting: “But love don’t pay the bills.” As a landlord, Sherenna has many bills to pay. Landlords are directly impacted by unpaid rent and unexpected costs in a way that banks and corporations are not. Those who do not become merciless usually end up having to quit. Sherenna assures herself that taking pity on Lamar is dangerous because the mortgage company does not take pity on her.
From this initial impression, Sherenna does not seem like a cruel, greedy, or heartless person. This passage suggests that she is compelled to commit the seemingly cruel and heartless act of evicting Lamar because of the economic system she is in. Sherenna is under pressure to pay mortgages and other bills, and thus feels that she cannot afford to be generous or forgiving of her tenants.
When Sherenna and Quentin first met, it took three months before she let him take her out on a date. Six years later, they got married. When they met, Sherenna was working as a fourth-grade teacher. She eventually opened her own daycare, which was quickly shut down due to a “technicality,” after which point she began home-schooling her son and exploring a career in property management. She was drawn to the real estate industry because of her desire for independence and self-reliance.
Again, Sherenna’s background does not accord with the stereotypical image of a landlord. In fact, the figure of an elementary school teacher—generally understood to be gentle, friendly, and altruistic—is about as different from the greedy landlord archetype as you can get.
Sherenna bought her own home in 1999 and shortly after purchased a second property to rent out. As a landlord she decided to specialize in renting to poor black people, and within four years she owned 36 units. Quentin quit his job to work as Sherenna’s property manager, also buying property of his own. Meanwhile, Sherenna started a credit-repair business, investment business, and a business driving the relatives of incarcerated people to prison visits. Before long she was a full-fledged “inner-city entrepreneur.”
Sherenna evidently has a talent for business, yet it is also clear that there are many other factors separating her trajectory from that of Arleen. Being able to purchase both her own home and a second home served as a springboard for Sherenna to switch careers and begin her own lucrative business. It is a far cry from Arleen’s struggles to pay rent on shabby, inadequate apartments.
Sherenna arrives in front of Lamar’s home and sees Lamar being pushed in his wheelchair by Patrice, whom Sherenna is also evicting today. Lamar is 51 and Patrice is 24, and lives with her three children in the same building. Lamar tells Sherenna that he had been planning to work on the basement of the house; Sherenna reminds him that he should tell her these things, not Quentin, because she is the “boss.”
This passage contrasts two different kinds of collaboration. Patrice pushing Lamar’s wheelchair is an example of caring kindness and support between neighbors, whereas Sherenna’s collaboration with Quentin seems to have a more hierarchical nature.
Sherenna has faced a series of problems recently. Someone was shot in one of her rentals, while another group of her tenants were evicted for stealing electricity. Since 2000 the price of fuel and utilities in Milwaukee has increased by over 50%; one in five renting families are disconnected after failing to pay a utility bill every year. Power is regularly stolen by those unable to pay, although stealing gas is much harder. There exists a great tension between landlords and the building inspectors who regularly shut down properties for falling below habitable standards. The tenant who stole electricity was a woman who had been trying to leave an abusive relationship. Sherenna rented to her despite her history of evictions, and now she regrets it.
This passage makes clear that although the problems Sherenna experiences are real, they are also the result of the injustice and inequality experienced by her tenants. Impoverished tenants paying high rent are forced to steal utilities, which in turn gets Sherenna into trouble. Meanwhile, the inspectors who are supposed to be keeping housing safe and comfortable instead create more evictions by compelling landlords to shut down properties rather than ensure they are fixed.
Driving away from Lamar’s house, Sherenna stops to check on a new tenant, a young mother whose baby is suffering from colic. The woman blames the child’s sickness on a hole in the window; her mother tells Sherenna that she has already called the city. Sherenna knows that, like almost all properties in the city, the building is not up to code. The discovery of this violation will mean a fine. That night, Sherenna tells Quentin about the “bullshit” they are now facing. The couple live in a five-bedroom house with expensive furnishings and a jacuzzi. On hearing the story about the tenant with the broken window, Quentin advises that they evict her, and Sherenna agrees.
This passage illustrates the discrepancy between landlords’ and renters’ circumstances, and highlights the lack of sympathy in how Sherenna and Quentin treat their tenants. Despite living in a large, luxurious house themselves, Sherenna and Quentin object to their tenants demanding even the most baseline features (such as all windows being intact).
Sherenna returns to the property with an eviction notice. An angry confrontation with the tenant’s mother and stepfather ensues. Quentin retrieves his security belt from the car, which is loaded with handcuffs, a baton, and mace. Sherenna explains that the tenant is behind on her rent. She and Quentin escape in the car as the stepfather threatens violence. Days later, Sherenna gets a call from an agency called Wraparound, asking if she has a unit for a client called Arleen Bell and her two sons. Wraparound will pay the security deposit and first month’s rent.
Regardless of whether we agree with Sherenna’s choices, there is no doubt that being a professional landlord is a complex, challenging job. Crucially, almost all of Sherenna’s problems revolve around the fact that her tenants are too poor to pay their rent—a sign that there is a serious problem when it comes to affordable housing in the US.