After Arleen cannot recover from the debt she incurred from her sister’s funeral, Sherenna evicts her. The court date she receives is December 23, and she knows the courthouse will be packed. Many parents choose to fall short on rent rather than disappoint their children on Christmas. The courthouse is adorned with the slogan Vox Populi Vox Dei, meaning “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” Sherenna is not sure if Arleen will show up; tenants often don’t. Because she feels some affection for Arleen, she called her to remind her that morning.
Sherenna’s call to Arleen is an act of kindness, but it is not clear that Arleen will necessarily benefit from attending her court date. The fact that so many evicted tenants simply don’t show up indicates that there is little hope of receiving justice in the courthouse, despite the slogan that adorns its façade.
A group of landlords’ lawyers sit together in the courthouse. Like the bailiff, they are all white. There are tenants of all races waiting to receive decisions. Among the evicted, 92% are kicked out for being behind on rent. Only a sixth of evicted families know where they are going to go next, including those who will stay at shelters or with relatives and friends. Most tenants in the courthouse are black women; 75% of those evicted in Milwaukee are black, and 75% of that figure are women. The courtroom is also filled with children, some of whom fall asleep while waiting.
Here the book directly addresses the role of racism and sexism in eviction in unequivocal terms. The extraordinary overrepresentation of black women among the evicted tenants, combined with the fact that those in positions of authority (the lawyers and bailiffs) are all white highlights how inequality and discrimination determine who is affected by eviction.
While mass incarceration disproportionately affects black men, eviction disproportionately targets black women. Sherenna has had eight eviction cases this month, but only one tenant showed up. Patrice went to work instead of court, worried she would lose her job if she didn’t. Apart from her white friends, everyone she knows has an eviction record. Arleen, however, does come. On seeing her, Sherenna explains that she has to evict her because she needs to pay her own bills. Sherenna had been nervous the first time she evicted someone, but she soon got the hang of it and realized there was nothing to worry about.
The fact that many tenants have to choose between attempting to receive justice in the courthouse or keeping their job again highlights how unjust eviction is. Another telling detail is Patrice’s conviction that everyone she knows apart from her white friends has been evicted. This reveals both the absurd ubiquity of eviction and the racial injustice that plagues the housing system.
Arleen also has multiple experiences with evictions, though some under different names. In the past, evictions would pause around Christmas in Milwaukee, until the mid 1990s when a landlord successfully argued that this was “an unfair religious celebration.” Most tenants get two court dates, yet extremely few show up to the second, which means that the landlord’s claims about what the evicted tenants owe them is usually just accepted as fact. Now, Sherenna shows the commissioner photos of her unit, claiming that Arleen damaged it far beyond what is visible. The commissioner rules that Arleen owes Sherenna $1,285, significantly less than the $5,000 Sherenna stipulated.
This passage contains two examples of measures designed to ease the burden housing issues cause on impoverished people. The first is the stay on the evictions that used to occur during Christmas; the second is the commissioner ruling that Arleen does not owe Sherenna the full amount Sherenna claims. Both examples mitigate suffering in a way that is not insignificant, yet which ultimately helps little in the face of the misery and injustice of the housing system overall.
Even so, Sherenna has a limited chance of actually receiving the money evicted tenants owe. Many of them do not have bank accounts, and there are restrictions on how and what she can claim from them. Some landlords find that their debts are paid way down the line, after tenants’ circumstances improve and they want to fix their credit. At this point, the debt will have accrued significant interest. An unpaid debt on an eviction notice can prevent people from purchasing a home or applying for a student loan.
People in poverty are cut off from resources and opportunities not only because they do not have enough money, but also because they do not have other vital assets such as credit, “clean” records, or even bank accounts. As this passage shows, the phenomenon of eviction works to prevent impoverished people from gaining these things and thus improving their lives.
Sherenna has been considering hiring Rent Recovery Service or a similar company that will aggressively collect debts on her behalf, tracking those who attempt to evade notice. Companies like this deliberately target those who are on the brink of lifting themselves out of poverty for good. Many of the debts they chase originate in baseless charges that have skyrocketed with interest.
Companies like Rent Recovery Service demonstrate how far the current housing system has strayed from the principles of attempting to diminish poverty and ensure that everyone has a chance to improve themselves. Indeed, Rent Recovery Service make such goals impossible.
As soon as Arleen admits to the commissioner that she is behind on rent, her fate is sealed. The commissioner gives Arleen two extra days before she has to move out for each of her children, but then sees a way to avoid landing her with an eviction record. She suggests to Sherenna that if Arleen promises to leave by the 31st, Sherenna dismisses the formal eviction. Sherenna is reluctant to let go of the debt Arleen owes, but keen to get new renters in by January. The commissioner urges Arleen to execute a pretend voluntary move in time, thereby dodging an eviction record and the trauma of an actual eviction.
This is a rather grim example of the kind of cooperation that can actually be mutually beneficial to landlords and tenants, yet is too often dependent on the presence of a neutral third party, such as the commissioner. Of course, one could argue that the only truly just decision would be to prevent Arleen from having to move out in the first place. Yet the commissioner has arguably still done some good through her decision.
Arleen and Sherenna both leave the courthouse with headaches. Arleen has not eaten all day. Sherenna tells Arleen that she doesn’t want to evict her and her children, but complains that the long list of awful tenants she must deal with leaves her little choice. She urges Arleen never to become a landlord, because it’s a “bad deal” in which one always gets “the short end of the stick.” Arleen wishes Sherenna a Merry Christmas.
This passage shows how Sherenna irrationally convinces herself that she both has no choice in evicting Arleen, and also that she is more the victim than Arleen is. While it is undoubtedly true that Sherenna faces a demanding, difficult job, her claim to get “the short end of the stick” is offensively false.