Quentin and Sherenna arrive back from their vacation in Jamaica. Sherenna has a voice message from the Hinkstons’ social worker, who mentions that Doreen is looking for a new place. Sherenna still wants the rent Doreen is withholding over the plumbing issue, so she gives Doreen an open eviction on CCAP, which will make it hard for her to move. Doreen calls and promises that she isn’t looking yet and says that she will pay Sherenna her money. Sherenna refuses. While she and Quentin drive around attending to various tenants, they comment that their tenants are spending money irresponsibly.
Sherenna and Quentin’s involvement in their tenants’ lives could be a good thing in the abstract—unlike distant landlords, they are familiar with their tenants and their problems. However, too often this familiarity becomes a kind of surveillance and discipline rather than a way of connecting with renters.
Quentin removes his jewelry while talking to tenants after someone commented that he was getting rich off their money. They visit a prospective tenant, a single mother called Ladona who is eager to move out of her crime-filled area. She has a housing voucher, and Sherenna and Quentin usually avoid taking on rent-assisted tenants because they come with “picky inspectors” in tow. However, the house Ladona wants is new, and thus likely to pass inspection, and taking on rent-assisted tenants has its upsides. Sherenna can rent at above market rate and it is almost certain that her money will come in each month on time, as 70% of it is paid by the state.
The issue of housing inspection illustrates the difficulties that result when landlords have too much freedom and power within the housing system. A just housing system would mean that every property inhabited by humans would be able to pass inspection. As it stands, only a minority of renters secure acceptable housing because landlords are able to rent out decrepit units while tenants have little recourse for complaint.
The Department of Housing sets a Fair Market Rent (FMR), an upper limit to the amount landlords can charge to rent-assisted tenants. The FMR is fairly high, in part to allow tenants to move into more prosperous areas. However, in reality this rarely happens; most rent-assisted tenants stay in similar neighborhoods as they would be in without housing vouchers. Sherenna knows the housing authority wouldn’t accept it if she charged Ladona the maximum rate, but she also knows she can get away with above-market rate. This kind of overcharging doesn’t greatly affect those on housing assistance, but does mean that more taxpayer money goes to landlords, meaning fewer people get housing vouchers in the first place.
The Fair Market Rent system is another example of how capitalism does not always produce the most efficient results. Much of the taxpayer money spent on housing assistance is wasted because it ends up in the hands of landlords who overcharge housing voucher recipients. This means that a system designed to benefit the poor not only fails to reach enough poor people, but also uses taxpayer money to boost the income of wealthy property owners.
The housing voucher program was invented by realtors, and was implemented after the American public housing system was “defunded and declared a failure (in that order).” The new house Ladona wants is Sherenna’s “pride and joy,” more expensive than the other properties she owns. Sherenna has been buying roughly one property per month since the foreclosure crisis, which has proven hugely lucrative for landlords like her. After the financial crash, property prices plummeted but rent stayed high. Sherenna finances her purchases through loans from the bank or rich investors who lend her the money with a high interest rate.
Sherenna’s decision to snap up foreclosed houses for little money is an example of indirect exploitation. Sherenna does not personally kick out the families who previously lived in these foreclosed homes, but she profits from their misfortune. This makes her complicit in the suffering of poor people, even though she herself may not feel that she has directly contributed to this suffering.
Owning a home in a poor, black neighborhood is a terrible investment, but renting one out is a goldmine. Sherenna will make back the $16,000 she spent on the house Ladona will live in within two years. After paying her mortgage and other bills, Sherenna takes home about $10,000 a month, more than what many of her tenants earn in a year. She often says: “The ‘hood is good. There’s a lot of money there.” Quentin and Sherenna’s last visit of the day is to their furthest-flung property, on the West Side. Sherenna collects her rent from the tenant, who is on SSI for mental disabilities and is reluctant to hand it over. In the past, Sherenna has taken her tenants’ entire pay check; one even offered her debit card.
Sherenna’s ruthlessness may be necessary for her survival in the property management game, but that does not mean it is morally justifiable. While Sherenna herself obviously needs to earn money to survive, it is indefensible to do so by committing actions such as taking someone’s entire welfare check (which means leaving them to starve). Sherenna’s actions are rendered even more immoral by the fact that she profits significantly from them.
Doreen and Patrice try to figure out what to do about the eviction notice. They are struggling to find a new place to move into now that a recent eviction and debt to a landlord are on Doreen’s record. Doreen goes to the courthouse for her eviction hearing reluctantly. She rarely leaves the house, and currently has a foot injury which makes it difficult to walk. She tries to distract herself by thinking about Natasha’s unborn baby.
As the book has shown, eviction not only takes tenants’ homes, but leaves them with few options going forward. The fact that having an eviction on one’s record makes it harder to find a new unit is guaranteed to create homelessness.
Sherenna has begun “dabbling” in rent-to-own schemes, in which she rents to a reliable tenant for six months while helping them to improve their credit score fast. The value of the houses she is trying to sell has soared since she bought them. She markets her rent-to-own service to SSI recipients, many of whom she believes originally lost their homes because they were not capable of remembering to pay the mortgage and need extra help. At the courthouse, Sherenna tells Doreen that if she wants to stay, she will have to pay an extra $400 the next month and extra $50 for the following three months. Doreen agrees.
Sherenna is not an entirely immoral person, but rather a complicated figure with principles and actions that often conflict with one another. Her rent-to-own scheme could benefit tenants as well as Sherenna herself. However, this does not mitigate the suffering caused by other aspects of her business—particularly eviction.