Shortly after Sherenna’s visit, Lamar sits in his apartment playing spades with his sons and their friends. All the boys in the neighborhood know that Lamar will host them, offer them food and sometimes even a toke of a blunt. Lamar’s older son Luke is sixteen; his younger brother Eddy is fifteen. Their friend Buck sleeps at his parents’ house but basically lives with Lamar. Another friend, DeMarcus, lights a blunt and passes it around. The group of them discuss the police and Lamar expresses sympathy for certain police officers, suggesting that it is not wrong to want to “clean up” dangerous neighborhoods. DeMarcus counters that it is better for the neighborhood to look after itself.
Lamar and DeMarcus represent two poles when it comes to the state’s role within communities (and particularly poor black communities). Lamar expresses a moderate degree of sympathy and support for the police, implying that at least in theory the police do serve a necessary role in deprived neighborhoods. DeMarcus, meanwhile, suggests that communities are better off without the police and that they are best equipped to deal with their own problems.
Lamar joined the navy in 1974, at the age of 17. After serving in Vietnam he was dishonorably discharged in 1977. Lamar warns the boys about prison and ensures that none of them gets too high. In the apartment, Luke and Eddy each have their own rooms and Lamar sleeps in the living room. When they first moved in, Sherenna waved the security deposit because Lamar was due to receive SSI, a stipend for low-income people who are elderly or have disabilities. However, Lamar was then denied the stipend.
As a veteran, a single father, and someone with a significant physical disability, Lamar is exactly the kind of person who should receive welfare. The fact that he was denied SSI shows how badly the welfare system serves poor and disadvantaged people like him and his family.
Lamar’s sons and their friends spend most evenings smoking weed and playing cards in the apartment. Lamar believes it is better to keep an eye on the boys rather than have them getting up to no good behind his back. Lamar was denied SSI on the grounds that, even without legs, he can still work. This is true, but Lamar has nonetheless been unable to find a job. In the past, Milwaukee was “flush with good jobs,” but this changed drastically when manufacturing jobs began swiftly disappearing in the late ‘70s. This disappearance had a devastating effect on the city’s black population, which by 1990 faced an almost 50% poverty rate.
This passage establishes an important distinction between the physical ability to work and the plausibility of doing so. Lamar is capable of performing labor, but this is meaningless when there are so few jobs available. Furthermore, he is likely to face discrimination as a physically disabled person, something that the welfare system does not account for.
After being hit by deindustrialization in the 1980s, Milwaukee was then devastated by the “antiwelfare crusade” of the 1990s. Because he doesn’t work, Lamar receives $628 a month in welfare; after paying his rent he is left with $78, or $2.19 a day. Shortly after moving into his current apartment he was accidentally sent two welfare checks, and cashed them both. His caseworker deducted the mistaken amount from Lamar’s second check, which meant that he fell behind on rent. He worked on the grimy basement of the building, a job he believed was worth $250, but in the end Sherenna only paid him $50. Even after selling his $150 worth of food stamps for $75 cash, he remains unable to pay Sherenna.
In another act of injustice, Lamar is punished for a mistake the government made. Of course, it is possible to argue that Lamar is at fault for cashing the second welfare check he received in error. However, considering he is an unemployed single father living in deep poverty, can he really be blamed for cashing the second check? Surely considering the mistake was made by the state, they should assume responsibility.
Having been served an eviction notice, Patrice moves back downstairs to live with her mother and siblings. Lamar offers to do up Patrice’s old apartment, gathering the neighborhood boys to help him. The previous winter, Lamar climbed into an abandoned house while high on crack. He had been addicted since the mid ‘80s, and had lost his job and home as a result. Luke and Eddy’s mom was so ravaged by her addiction that she abandoned her family altogether. While inside the abandoned house, Lamar leaped from the upper-story window and lost his legs. Now, watching his boys do up Patrice’s old unit, he concludes that he is “blessed.”
This passage demonstrates the devastating impact that addiction can have on people’s lives. It is now widely believed that addiction is actually beyond people’s control and thus that drug addicts should be supported rather than blamed for their addiction. Yet even if one subscribes to the view that drug users are responsible for the negative impact of drugs on their lives, surely children should not be punished for their parents’ use as Luke and Eddy have been.
The next month, Sherenna attends a meeting of the Milwaukee Real Estate Investors Networking Group (RING) at an airport hotel. She and her friend Lora, a Jamaican immigrant, are among the only black people in attendance. It is only very recently that being a landlord has become a full-time occupation. In the past, people would rent out spare rooms or apartments as a way of making money on the side, but would certainly not consider themselves professional landlords. Today, professional property management is a major business.
The shift from part-time to professional landlords is a crucial element of how the housing landscape got to its current state. In theory, professional landlords would be able to better serve their tenants because they devote all their time to the job and likely have more knowledge and resources than someone who does it on the side. Yet as we will see, in reality this is rarely the case.
One speaker at the RING meeting, a self-storage broker named Ken Shields, jokes about how stress-free and lucrative the self-storage business is. The next speaker discusses lead and asbestos, confirming that landlords were under no obligation to report asbestos to tenants or the city if it is detected in a rental property. Sherenna asks the next speaker, a lawyer, if it is possible to intercept a tenant’s tax refund in order to claim unpaid rent. She already knows the answer is no, but wants everyone in the room to know that she will do whatever it takes to collect rent.
It might seem perverse that Sherenna wants to appear ruthless in front of the other landlords. For all the faults we have seen, Sherenna is not a straightforwardly evil person. Yet recall that she and Lorna are the only black landlords at the RING meeting. As a black woman, Sherenna faces an additional challenge in being taken seriously by her fellow landlords, who are likely more used to evicting black women than seeing them as peers.
White landlords may be aware that there is money to be made in the North Side, but most are scared away by the idea of collecting rent there. Sherenna sees this as an opportunity to make more money by offering to act as a proxy for white landlords there. She wears a jacket emblazoned with the words “Million Dollar Baby $” and jokingly tells the other landlords not to be afraid of the North Side. Later, Sherenna tells Lora about her difficulties with Lamar, complaining that he did a bad job fixing up the vacant apartment. Lora suggests it’s time for Lamar to be evicted, adding: “They just try to take, take, take, take, take.”
The conversation between Sherenna and Lora dispels any illusions that they might be more sympathetic to their tenants than white landlords because they are also black. Despite their intimate familiarity with the communities of the North Side, Sherenna and Lora believe the myth that poor people are lazy and greedy, as illustrated by Lora’s comment that all tenants do is “take, take, take, take, take.”