Lenny Lawson smokes outside his office in College Mobile Home Park. He knows which part of the trailer park houses which group of people: the drug addicts, the metal and can collectors, the SSI recipients, and the sex offenders. The park is located on the far South Side, where Milwaukee’s poor white population resides. The North and South sides of city are divided by the Menominee River Valley. In the late ‘60s, black residents protested housing discrimination while white counter-protestors reacted with violence and fury. The protest ended with brutal police suppression.
The division between white and black residents of Milwaukee is social, cultural, and also physical—marked by the Menominee River Valley. This physicality makes the divide seem natural, inevitable, and permanent. Black residents in the 1960s were still courageous enough to demand an end to this injustice—only to be faced with a reassertion of segregation’s enduring power.
In 1967, Milwaukee was identified as the most segregated city in America. In 1968, a housing measure, the Fair Housing Act, became part of the Civil Rights Act of that year. Yet despite this legislation, Milwaukee remained highly segregated. Back in the present, Lenny greets his wife, Susie Dunn, nicknamed “Office Susie” by people in the trailer park who want to distinguish her from “Heroin Susie.” An elderly woman named Mrs. Mytes walks in and announces that she threw a bill in the garbage. Most people think Mrs. Mytes is crazy. She pays her bills with SSI and cashes cans for extra money.
The trailer park is clearly an interconnected community, a network of people that works together as a (perhaps dysfunctional) whole. While the fact that there is a resident nicknamed “Heroin Susie” and that Mrs. Mytes is widely thought of as crazy suggests that the residents are not always kind and forgiving to one another, there is an intimacy between them created by their mutual familiarity.
The trailer park is owned by Tobin Charney, who visits almost every day of the week. He pays Office Susie $5 an hour plus reduced rent, and Lenny $36,000 a year in cash. Tobin is 71 and physically fit, with a professional manner. His father was also a landlord and owned 600 units, but Tobin just has the trailer park with its 131 trailers.
The fact that Tobin’s father was also a landlord highlights how wealth and property ownership pass through generations, such that power and affluence stay in the hands of the same few families while the majority of people remain poor.
Tobin almost lost the park in May 2008, when his license for owning the park was not renewed due to code violations and criminal activity. As the city council was about to vote on Tobin’s license renewal, some of his tenants criticized him while many others argued enthusiastically that he should be allowed to keep the park. Most of the residents were terrified that they’d be forced to move to the North Side. They hosted a barbecue for local media, during which they testified that Tobin was “no slumlord” and that he cut his tenants slack when they were behind on rent. If they lost their jobs, he would give them work in exchange for a rent reduction.
One of the important arguments of the books is that too often tenants accept unfair treatment and poor conditions because they fear things could get worse. Tobin may not be a great landlord, but there will always be worse landlords than him. Furthermore, the trailer park residents’ racism means that they have an irrational fear of being forced to move to the North Side, and so they make unwise decisions on this account.
Tobin rarely writes down the deals he made with tenants, and sometimes he exaggerates the debts they owe him; residents call this being “Tobined.” Tobin is insistent and relentless when it comes to taking rent. Yet he also rarely chooses to evict tenants who owe him, partly because this also costs a significant amount of money.
One of Tobin’s tenants, Larraine, receives SSI after a childhood fall resulted in learning difficulties. Around the time of Tobin’s license case, she wondered aloud if it would be easier to be homeless, because at least then she wouldn’t have to pay rent. Most of Tobin’s tenants kept paying their rent throughout the licensing episode, but Larraine withheld hers in case the trailer park was shut down. She also stated in a media interview that she had seen drug dealers and sex workers in the park. Tobin sent her an eviction notice.
Eviction is an unfair process because there are plenty of legitimate and unavoidable reasons why people can’t pay their rent. It is also unjust because people can be evicted on their landlord’s whim. In this case, Larraine is punished for withholding her rent (a perfectly reasonable decision) and speaking against Tobin.
Larraine is a deeply religious 54-year-old woman with two grownup daughters and a grandson. Terrified by the eviction notice, she promised to give Tobin the final $400 in her bank account, meaning she would still owe him $150. She recently paid a defaulted utility bill in the hope of being able to take a hot shower and soothing her painful fibromyalgia, for which she couldn’t afford medication. After suggesting Larraine ask her sister to lend her the remaining $150, Office Susie temporarily stayed the eviction. Back in her trailer, Larraine tried calling some local agencies for help with no success, and then went to sleep to escape the oppressive heat.
Larraine’s decision to pay her defaulted utility bill highlights the impossible choices that impoverished people face every day. Plagued by a painful medical condition, Larraine can hardly be blamed for wanting to soothe her suffering. Yet in the unjust rental market in which she lives, this means that she might end up homeless.