Patrice’s mother Doreen has four children and three grandchildren. After Patrice is evicted, she moves back in with Doreen and her siblings. Doreen’s apartment is so crammed that no one can sleep well, but the family love playing pranks on each other. After Patrice is evicted, Sherenna learns that she has been pirating electricity and insists that Patrice pay while she is living with Doreen. The family’s apartment is infested with cockroaches, which have been there since they moved in.
The Hinkstons try to remain optimistic in the face of their dreary housing situation by supporting one another and having fun together by playing pranks. Yet the severity of their housing problems constantly threatens to destroy their ability to make the best of things.
Before moving to their current place, the Hinkstons lived in the same five-bedroom house for seven years. The rent was $800 a month. Neither Patrice nor Doreen finished high school, and Patrice’s sister Natasha was working 12-hour shifts by the age of 16. Doreen still suffers from an untreated broken hip she got in the eighth grade. The Hinkstons were tight with the community in their old neighborhood. The neighbors would socialize with each other and help one another out in times of need.
Some parts of the past continue to haunt the Hinkstons, such as Doreen’s broken hip and the fact that none of them graduated high school. However, other parts of the past have more positive connotations, like the affordable house and the vibrant, mutually supportive community.
During Hurricane Katrina, Doreen and her neighbor were moved by the disaster and traveled to Louisiana to volunteer their help. The trip caused Doreen to fall behind on rent, but with the help of an understanding landlord she recovered. Years passed; then, in 2008, two boys shot each other on the Hinkstons’ street. When the police arrived, they tore through Doreen’s apartment looking for guns and drugs. When Patrice got impatient with the officers, they called Child Protection Services, who called the Department of Neighborhood Services. Under orders from the DNS, the landlord evicted the Hinkstons with a five-day notice.
One important lesson of the book is that any brush with the authorities can trigger an eviction, even if—as in this case—the reason they were called has nothing to do with the tenants in question. Simply living in proximity to crime and drug use thus puts a person at risk of being evicted, regardless of their own choices and behavior.
Having been served a notice, the Hinkstons rushed into the unit owned by Sherenna even though it was small and more expensive than their old place. It is common for tenants to accept substandard housing like this in the chaotic period following eviction. Unlike in their previous community, the Hinkstons struggled to befriend their new neighbors. The only person they got to know was Lamar.
Like many of the “choices” in the book, the Hinkston’s decision to move into the apartment owned by Sherenna was hardly a choice at all. Moving into a particular unit in the face of imminent homelessness is a decision made without any real agency.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs argues that inner cities are kept safe by “an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves.” In order for a neighborhood to be safe, there need to be people who are around to take care of the community. This has been backed up by research, which shows that neighborhoods with high rates of turnover are more crime-filled than those where residents stay longer and build networks of trust. The Hinkstons’ eviction thus made both their former and new neighborhood less safe.
This passage makes clear that local governments and other institutions invested in reducing crime should be working hard to decrease the number of evictions occurring in cities. When evictions occur, neighborhood networks are destroyed and communities become more dangerous. Unfortunately, many refuse to see this because they do not trust poor urban communities to “look after” themselves.
At 19, Patrice’s sister Natasha is still rather childlike. She is beautiful, and attracts attention from men. The Hinkstons’ apartment is starting to smell so bad that Doreen is considering calling Sherenna and Quentin. When they call about problems in the apartment, Sherenna places the blame on the Hinkstons and tells them to fix it themselves. The family attempt to do so, but are not always able to. Doreen eventually decides to call Sherenna about the plumbing, and after weeks trying to get hold of her is told that she is breaking her rental agreement by letting Patrice live with her.
The fact that Sherenna is only now telling Doreen that having Patrice live with her counts as breaking her agreement shows that the real issue isn’t Patrice. Indeed, it seems likely that Sherenna initially said nothing about Patrice moving back in because she wanted to be able to use it as leverage in the event of a conflict with Doreen—exactly as she is doing now.
Landlords are allowed to rent units that do not meet “basic habitability requirements” as long as they let tenants know about any problems. When Patrice complained about problems in her old unit, Sherenna gradually fixed some of them, but eventually got irritated. Patrice threatened to sue her, which had no effect, and then withheld half her rent. However, Sherenna responded to this by refusing to fix anything until rent was paid in full. Eventually, Sherenna served Patrice an eviction notice.
It is both depressing and telling that Patrice was evicted over unresolved problems in her unit and that Doreen may end up evicted for exactly the same reason. As we have seen, eviction does not target individual tenants for egregiously dangerous or irresponsible behavior, but rather sweepingly affects groups of people on vague, unjust, or nonexistent grounds.
Doreen decided to call a plumber herself and deduct the $150 he charged from her rent. Sherenna responded by evicting Doreen, who in turn chose not to pay her last month’s rent. Doreen knew she wouldn’t be able to find a cheaper place where her whole family would fit. Part of the problem was that rent in the city’s very “worst” neighborhoods was barely cheaper than in much safer, more prosperous communities. This has been true across the country since the 19th century, when rent in the most deprived New York City slums was actually 30% higher than uptown. In 1960, rent in black neighborhoods exceeded that in majority-white districts.
The fact that the least safe and desirable neighborhoods can have higher rent than more affluent areas is a truly shocking fact about the housing system. Contrary to the belief that markets create the most logical and efficient outcomes on their own, this fact shows that when profit motives are allowed to act alone, there can be bizarre consequences that benefit a rich few at the expense of the poorer majority.
Landlords renting to the poorest tenants do not lower rates because they do not need to. In many cases, it is more cost-effective to evict a tenant who has fallen behind on their rent than to lower rent in the first place. Tenants who are financially secure and can reliably pay their rent are better protected; they can make complaints and order repairs, whereas for poorer tenants this is too risky. Poor tenants may know their rights, but they also know they can’t afford to act on them. Doreen and Patrice, for example, know that calling a building inspector would ultimately backfire on them.
This passage suggests that it is a misconception that poor tenants do not know their rights when it comes to housing. Indeed, this misconception places more blame on these tenants than is arguably fair. In reality, poor tenants may be well educated in their rights, yet this level of familiarity is exactly how they know that they have little hope of success against a landlord.
Between 2009-2011 almost half of Milwaukee renters experienced severe, sustained housing issues, from broken windows and clogged plumbing to pest infestations. African-Americans and tenants with children are statistically most likely to suffer these problems. Yet because they are most likely to result in multiple evictions, bad buildings are often the most profitable for landowners.
Again, the fact that decrepit buildings are most lucrative for landlords highlights a deep flaw in the profit-driven housing system. Clearly, profit alone cannot be the only impulse guiding housing, as this leads to unjust and inefficient results.
During Doreen and Sherenna’s dispute over the plumbing, Natasha realizes she is pregnant. Doreen and Natasha’s boyfriend, Malik, are thrilled, but Natasha has mixed feelings. She is still in love with a previous boyfriend who was killed in a robbery gone wrong at the age of 17. She vows she will not raise her baby in her mother’s overcrowded apartment, and starts looking for her own place. Doreen wants to move to Tennessee, and Patrice likes the idea, but Natasha wants to keep her baby near Malik, who has been working hard to prepare for his child’s arrival. Doreen promises Natasha that she will get a big room in the new house.
Natasha’s ambivalence about her baby is clearly largely based on her personal feelings. At the same time, her family’s housing insecurity undoubtedly plays a part in her reservations about having a child. She is understandably resistant to the idea of bringing a baby into Doreen’s overcrowded, crumbling apartment; yet the prospect of all members of her immediate family moving to Tennessee, away from the baby’s father, is obviously also troubling.