Monday, December 20, 2010

Ho-Ho-Humbug!

I read recently that you know you’re a landlord when you can evict someone on Christmas.  I laughed, because I actually did that once. 

I rented to a young woman with two kids, who had left her abusive husband.  They “reconciled”, and he moved in, but they were fighting so much that everyone in the building was calling me.  It wasn’t that they were fighting so much as it was actually him beating the crap out of her, accompanied by loud crashing into walls – my walls.  (Not surprisingly, her beautiful mother used to get beat regularly by her ugly, skinny father who thought he was Hot Sh-t.  It was a real Ike & Tina story, but one left for another time.)

When they wouldn’t stop and we couldn’t stand it any longer, I took them to court to evict them.  The case came up right around Christmas, and even though I won the eviction, the judge took me aside and said he was going to give them a few extra weeks because it was Christmas. 

Even a Jewish judge had more Christmas spirit than I did. (But, then again, he didn’t have to live next door to them.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mini-Me

When I was a kid in Brooklyn, our neighborhood started out really nice, a patchwork of brownstones and small wood frame houses, some with Rose of Sharon growing in tiny front yards.  Every corner held adventure:  the candy store, the library, Herman’s grocery, the Chinese laundry where I was warned never to enter alone because of opium.  School was within walking distance, and most of what we wanted could be found without leaving the block. 

I was too young, and playing too hard, to see the neighborhood changing for the worse.  The remaining people, as well as the new ones, had fallen on hard times.  My father had a mental breakdown, got sick for what seemed like eternity, and was hospitalized for what felt like eons.  Actually, I found out when I was grown, he was only in the hospital for a few months.  It just felt like forever, while I watched a produce clerk trying to score points with my mother by giving her extra vegetables, and hoping dad would get better before the creep was successful.  Since I was the oldest, it was my job to write the rent receipts, record the receipt stub, and forge my dad’s signature on the insurance check each month.  To this day, I have no idea why my mother didn’t just sign my dad’s name herself. I suspect she was scared, but, then, my mother was always a scaredy-cat.  It kept her out of trouble as a motherless child herself, and kept her clear of that produce clerk, so I should be thankful for it.  

Between being in the hospital and unemployed, it was probably a couple of years until dad was finally hired, one Christmas season, by the post office as a “Temporary, Substitute, Indefinite Clerk”.  His title pretty much summed up the total experience of our neighborhood in those final years we spent in Brooklyn.  Meanwhile, we were better off than many of our neighbors, because my mother had three rents and my dad’s small monthly disability check to tide us over.

By then, every family left in our neighborhood had problems. One friend’s father had a heart attack and died in the men’s room of the local movie house.  Two others had no father that we ever saw, and were raised by their mother and grandmother, who worked at Chock Full O’ Nuts and ironing laundry, respectively.  Another one’s father hung himself, someone else’s mother would regularly be dragged home from the corner bar by strange men, stinking drunk.  There was Crazy Josie, and, of course, my dad, who, after wandering the streets talking to himself, spent time in a mental hospital. Our neighborhood and our families were a mess, but fortunately we kids were mostly unaware of it.  As a kid, I didn't think we were overcrowded.  I thought it wonderful that, without leaving our own four-family building, there were over 20 kids to play with in the hall on a rainy day.  We’d sit on the steps for hours, playing school, or cutout dolls, or having “tea”, until the sun came out again.

But I’ve come to realize that early experience probably had a lot to do with becoming a landlord myself:  the relative security in hard times, being able to look beyond the surface of people’s lives, and just the “normalness” of being a landlord. 
   

Monday, December 13, 2010

Crazy Josie

I guess it was inevitable that I’d be a landlord.  I grew up with tenants all around me.  My parents owned a 4-family house in Brooklyn, and until I was 12, we lived on the top floor – a 4th floor walkup!  I remember racing up and down those stairs a thousand times a day like it was nothing.  It was nothing.  If the ice cream truck came and I needed money, if it was suppertime, if I needed my skates, if it were time to come up to bed – those three flights of stairs zipped by.  Sometimes we’d ride down the banister just for fun, and have to run up the stairs to do it again and again. Every one of those trips passed the homes of three other families who were my parents’ tenants.

As the neighborhood got seedier, the tenants were sketchier, until, just before my parents sold, we had Crazy Josie living in the apartment below us.  The woman was really crazy, with a brood of kids, some young and some almost grown.  I don’t recall there being a Mr. Josie. 

Whenever Josie got particularly out of control, my mother would threaten to call the authorities on her, but she never did.  I have no idea what Josie cooked, (and by extension what her family ate) but used to imagine it was cats or old clothing, because the smell that came out of her apartment and oozed into the hall required running as fast as I could, while holding my breath for a full flight of stairs and the landing.  Every day.  A thousand times a day. 

Thanks to Josie, we also developed a problem with bedbugs, which ran up the airshaft with the roaches and mice, and infested the entire building.

By the time we finally sold the building, Josie was starting to make my mother crazy, too. We left Josie, with her brood, bedbugs, roaches and mice, to the next owner. 

For the next eight years we lived in a little one-family ranch house, without tenants.  But then my folks must’ve forgotten what it was like, kind of like you forget the pain of childbirth after a while, because their next house, and the one after that, both had small walk-out apartments downstairs, and they continued with tenants for many years afterwards. 

Some years after we sold the Brooklyn fourplex, in the A&P in our new neighborhood, a man came up to my mother and introduced himself as one of Josie’s sons, now grown. He thanked her for not reporting his mother.  My mom always said she was glad she didn’t, because the outcome of that encounter might’ve been different if she had.  But, until I became a more jaded and practical landlord, I thought of it as keeping that hardscrabble family together when they needed it most.   


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Building Inspectors from Hell, Part 4: The ceo

Notice I used lower-case letters. See, that’s the main problem with code enforcement officers: they’re ceo’s, but think they’re CEOs.  Often they’re just insecure bullies with a badge and some power.

The Undertaker was finally gone, and we got a reasonable building inspector.  And now permits were sprouting up all over, like mushrooms after a summer rain.  In the years of drought, one building inspector did everything (which wasn’t much), but now he needed help.  It came in the form of assistants - code enforcement officers.

One day we had a bathroom flood from a second floor apartment.  It ran down the wall that housed the electrical box for the apartment beneath.  The first floor tenant, who had always been a needy pain in the arse for other, minor issues, called the fire department instead of calling us.  We heard the call over the scanner, met them at the building and stopped the water.  After inspecting the problem, the chief told us to turn off some of the circuit breakers in the first floor apartment for a few days so the wires could dry out. 

But the pain in the arse wasn’t satisfied with that.  Since she was inconvenienced, the next day she called the building department, and they sent a brand, spanking new ceo.  I was in my office when I got an angry phone call from this guy, demanding my immediate presence at the building.  I told him I was right around the corner, and would be right there.

When I got there, with all 6 foot something of him towering over me, he got right in my face, and started loudly pushing his weight around about violations in this woman’s apartment.  “Whoa”, I said, smiling, “you’re overreacting.  Let me tell you what happened and why some of the breakers are off.”

But he wasn’t having any of it, because he knew something I didn’t know:  that all landlords are bad, and all tenants are good. In the course of his inspection, he noticed the smoke detector was knocked off the ceiling, which was obviously done by the landlord, no, make that “slumlord”.* So now he got louder. He threatened that, if the power wasn’t back on and the smoke detector re-installed within 24 hours, he was going to close the whole building down.  And, by the way, here’s a $100 fine.  See ya in court.

Well, now I was fuming.  I did quick math.  It would’ve been a quick and cheap eviction to be rid of that troublemaking tenant, who, as we know, knocked her own smoke detector down because it needed a new battery.  All I had to do to be rid of her was nothing!  Only, I had four other tenants in that building who didn’t deserve to be out on the street.  So I grit my teeth, had the smoke detector re-installed, turned on the power, and called my lawyer.

I was not going to pay that fine without a fight.  Even though it was going to cost me more to have my lawyer in court than to pay the fine, and I might lose anyway, I was furious.  As it turned out, I won the court case, but it wasn’t over just yet.

A few months later I had occasion to go to the building inspector’s office on some unrelated matter.  There, sitting at the first desk, so it was impossible to bypass him, was the ceo I’d tangled with.  There were two courses of action I could take. I chose the high road:  I put a big smile on my face, thrust out my hand, and suggest we start over.  He sheepishly shook my hand, and, here’s the best part, actually apologized!  He said he was new on the job and didn’t know there were both kinds of landlords as well as tenants. 

So, this story ends well.  But often, it doesn’t.  The Undertaker would go around citing people for litter in the alley, but couldn’t act when something bigger needed his signature.  (He once cited a woman for weeds in her front yard, only to find out she was a famous horticulturist, and the “weeds” were exotic specimens.  Was he embarrassed by his gaffe?  Probably not.)

And it didn’t surprise me at all to learn that the BTK Killer was a ceo.

*See Dec. 7th post.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Homeless Housing, Part 3: Groundhog Day

The current “solution” DSS has come up with to defray some of the exorbitant cost of housing the homeless in motels is this:  DSS will rent two apartments for “congregate housing” for up to 6 people.  They assure us there will be rules:  no drinking, drugs, guests, or disturbances, or they’ll be evicted.  Aside from the obvious question of who’s going to be on-site, monitoring the tenants to enforce these rules, (answer: nobody) I have to ask:  Where do you go when you’re evicted from homeless housing?

The answer:  They get “sanctioned”, which theoretically means their benefits are terminated.  But they immediately apply for a fair hearing, and DSS is required to house them, probably back in a motel, until the hearing results.  Out the front door, in the side door. 

Groundhog Day. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Homeless Housing, Part 2: Abe

Talk and finger-pointing about homelessness rears its head periodically. You have to read the paper between the lines to know that the press releases which substitute for news are all about building public sympathy for a homeless shelter.  But rather than just speak the truth, they use subterfuge.  

Blaming landlords for substandard apartments has always been good sport, because we all know that landlords regularly sneak inside their apartments after they’ve rented them, punch holes in the walls, throw garbage around the rooms, bring their cats in to pee on the rugs, and, oh, just for fun, as they’re going out the back door, break the windows and knock the smoke detectors off the ceilings because they’ve started that annoying chirping. 

But now there’s a new villain on the block:  the “rich” who bought dilapidated buildings, put their hard-earned money into them, and have the audacity to actually live in them!  Gentrification, and those who gentrify, are the new bogeymen.

Unfortunately, it’s easy and p.c. to blame landlords and the rich, yet it’s suicidal to even imply that the homeless are to blame in any way, or even that their problems are self-contained. In reality, the problem is not “the poor”, i.e. people without money. People who are chronically homeless have other problems – drugs, alcohol, mental -- that cause them to use up all their chips and end up on the street.

And while it’s easy to vilify “slumlords”, those same slumlords usually provide the housing of last resort for people who would otherwise be homeless.  And I can verify that throwing an apartment at the chronically homeless is not the solution. 

I give you Exhibit A:  Homeless Abe.

I was contacted by Abe’s court-appointed guardian.  She was frantic because Abe was living in his unconverted school bus, surrounded by his beloved old tires.  It was getting cold, and the court required her to find Abe more suitable winter quarters.

I rented her a brand new apartment for Abe, complete with dishwasher, wall-to-wall carpeting, the works.  But, try as she might, she couldn’t get Abe to stay in there for more than a month.  He felt too “confined”, and was back in his unheated bus before the snow flew. 

So, was it lack of housing that made Abe homeless?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Building Bridges. Really.

The Man (left) & Another Man, 1970s
     
In the early days, we lived in a godforsaken part of the county, Austerlitz.  Some would use other descriptions:  peaceful, unspoiled.  All true, but not much help when you need a bottle of milk, the car won’t start in 10o weather, and even if it would, the roads would be snowed under.  (We once went to Florida for a month in February, and came home to a septic system so frozen that no amount of hot water would free it up.  We had to use a porta-potty till spring thaw – which only comes in June in Austerlitz.) If you knew Austerlitz in the 70s, you know that people there scrambled to make a living, and The Man took whatever work he could find.  He built mailbox posts, bunk beds, facades on buildings.  But the most interesting were the bridges.

The Green River in Austerlitz has a history of flooding.  But one year there was a really bad washout. Houses were filled with muck, and gone were pools, landlscaping, small outbuildings, and bridges.  The Man had done some repair work for a wealthy customer, so when the bridge to his house washed out, he asked if The Man could fix it.  Without even thinking, he said “yes”.  That was a small bridge, but it led to a bigger bridge for someone else the customer knew, who had the same, but bigger problem. 

The Man figured out how to divert the Green River so he could pour new footings, then built the bridges.  All with only, as he frequently points out to me, a General Diploma from high school.  They still stand today, 35 years later, through many other floods -- a testament to the Renaissance Man I married.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Senior Citizen Crack Attack!

At the behest of a long time tenant, who vouched the applicant was a changed man, and against my better judgement, I rented to an old man who had done some prison time for selling crack, was now supposedly dying of AIDS, and was taken under the wing of Catholic Charities.  They apparently had some Section 8 vouchers mandated for AIDS patients.  
A short time into his tenancy we began having problems.  I kept seeing all kinds of trashy people entering and exiting my building, many of them inebriated at 10 in the morning.  Expecting that sooner or later we’d end up with a slip and fall lawsuit, I did some investigating and found out that he was operating an illegal bar from his apartment.  He would regularly buy liquor and have people over “for drinks”.  His front room was essentially converted into a bar.  Illegal bars actually have a long tradition in Hudson, but that's another story.


I say that like the bar discovery happened right away.  The truth was, the situation was so far outside my realm of experience that it took me quite a few months to figure out what was going on, and even then, only with other people opening my eyes.  Left to my own undeveloped instincts at the time, I just went around wondering what the heck was happening for much longer than a savvy person would have.  Even today it’s hard for me to picture a senior citizen doing those things, but then again, it’s hard to picture a leopard changing its spots. 


Since he was receiving Section 8 through Catholic Charities, and this was a clear violation of Section 8 rules, I called and told them what was going on.  They should’ve revoked his voucher, but they gave me some mealy-mouthed excuse as to why they wouldn’t do that (reminiscent of my conversation with Habitat) so I had to deal with it myself.  I gave him 30 days’ notice, and, incredibly, Catholic Charities helped him find another place.  
I don't know if the change from selling crack to selling booze was a step up in his "rehabilitation".  All I do know is, I should’ve moved him next door to the tenant who so convincingly vouched for him.  We'd see how she liked him as a neighbor.

  
And I don’t donate to Catholic Charities, either.  

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Homeless Housing, Part 1: More B.S.

About the same time B.S.(see Nov. 2nd post) were skimming the city’s funds, word went out from HudWorld that homelessness was a big problem.  All of a sudden, we were “desperate” for a homeless shelter, and B.S. put in a grant application, which was approved. B.S. got mounds of money to build a homeless shelter right in the middle of the same area we, and later they, had been trying to convince people to buy houses! 

I went to the public hearing about it, and asked how B.S could handle managing a homeless shelter.  Their answer was that the shelter would be right across the alley from their office.  And what makes you think you are capable of the intense management that a shelter requires, when you can’t even manage your property with regular tenants a block away?  They mumbled, mumbled, but it was already a done deal, so the city approved it.

Construction began, but at some point B.S. either realized they were inept (unlikely), or they left the area, I can’t recall which.  The building was sold to another non-profit, opened as a halfway house for rehabilitating drug and alcohol abusers, and there it remains until today, quietly operating (with on-site counselors & managers) as The Red Door.  

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Happy Chanuchriskwanza!

Every once in a while a tenant gets behind on rent.  Barring an obvious crisis (time in the hospital, etc.), I’ve found you can never let someone get past the point of being a month behind, because, no matter what the promises and intentions are, no matter how hard they try, it’s almost impossible to catch up.  And when that happens, people take the path of ( what seems to them) least resistance:  they move.  Still owing rent.   

Doubly unfortunate:  December and January’s rents are the hardest to collect.  People who already don’t have a reserve go over the edge with Christmas spending, and then reality hits on January 1st.

Two weeks ago a tenant asked me if he could “skip” December’s rent.  I thought he was kidding.  He wasn’t.


Friday, November 26, 2010

The Worst Corner in Town

Already told you we had a building there*.  But a lot of funnier (and fun) stuff happened a long time before we owned it.  It was a brothel & bar, when Columbia Street was named Diamond Street.  I was amused, but not surprised, when I saw a picture of it in Diamond Street, a history of Hudson’s bordellos back in the day.

By the time we got it, it was a vacant, crumbling mess.  With lots of little bedrooms, of course – and a long, well-worn vintage bar in the front room.  And a lot of people hanging on the corner, day and night --  every day and night. 

When the guys went in to rehab it, they put snow fence around the building to keep pedestrians away from the work zone.  Back then snow fences were made of wooden slats and chicken wire, not the plastic mesh you see now.  Anyway, every morning, when the workers returned, there would be less and less slats on the chicken wire, until, at some point, there was only wire.  We never figured out why anyone would steal just the wooden slats, but they did.

In the middle of what was supposed to be interior demolition, what little mortar was left on the building gave up the ghost, and men on the other sites that made up the job got word to hurry down to the corner building, because it completely caved in.  We were trying to get historic tax credits for the rehab, so the guys cleaned off all the bricks and re-used them for what was actually a brand new building under used brick.

The disguise didn’t work too well, and because of the newness of the building, and the fact that the historic district wasn't extended to Columbia Street in the end, we never did get the tax credits.  But we ended up with this awesome-looking building, all brick with marble sills, on what was still,
unfortunately,
the Worst Corner in Town.

*See Oct. 27, 2010

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Good Fences, Part 3: Gentrification

When Hudson was down-at-the-heels, I put my office in a storefront that went begging further up Warren Street.  But then antiques dealers kept popping into my storefront office, asking about renting it.  At first I said “nah”, but after about the fourth inquiry, it hit me like I needed a V-8.  Who cared where my rental office was?  At that point there was not much happening on the 200 block, so I moved my office into a vacant apartment in the BND.  I knew applicants and tenants would come wherever I was.  Heck, my first office was a construction trailer in the alley, an afterthought behind one of our buildings, and people came there.

But as I write this now, my office is in the BND, and unrecognizable as a former crack house.  The BND has morphed into a charming building on a gentrified block.  It’s totally detached, on a double lot, and sports a front lawn, rare on Warren Street.  The sun shines all day long, roses and morning glories festoon the iron railings in the summer, and birds have been known to winter over in our hedges.  I’m always getting inquiries into selling it, and it’s the only building I really want to keep.  Good karma.  Who would’ve thought.

Epilogue:  After many years we sold our original building, but kept the BND. Before we closed on the sale, I installed yet another fence, this one separating the two properties once again. There are a couple of long-time tenants in the original building who have free use of our gangway and yard*, but, I figured, you never know who might move in if they move out. 

So we’re back to “good fences…”   


*see Oct. 12th post

Friday, November 19, 2010

Good Fences, Part 2: A Night at the Opera

Now we had to clean up the BND --    no small undertaking. 

First, we had to discourage and re-direct the trafficking coming through the alley. the BND had garages which backed the lot up to the alley, with walkways from a kinder era between the garages to get from the alley to the back yard.  So we started by putting up 8’ high fences, and screwing the walkway doors shut.

The "neighbors" didn't take this inconvenience kindly.  While The Man was in the yard screwing the door shut, crackheads were in the alley pushing against it from the other side.  More than one junkie, in a really big hurry, scaled the new fence, only to find himself locked into the backyard, with the only way out being to do it again, albeit with less of a running start.  Somehow they all made the jump back out before the cops came.  But it was good for a couple of laughs in the meantime. 

As far as the vacant building on the other side of the BND, surprisingly, by merely contacting the owner, he agreed to put up a fence.  It wasn’t much of a fence, just some 2x4s and chicken wire, but, amazingly, the crackheads were apparently too lethargic (probably from all that fence jumping) and stopped shooting up in his building.

Besides renovating, there was the problem of trying to get good tenants into a building with a bad reputation.  The druggies in the alley, with their noise at all hours didn't help.  I repeatedly called the police, but Crack Alley was so entrenched by this time that their spotty coverage was ineffective.

I’d read about a convenience store which had large groups of kids hanging out, discouraging paying customers.   They solved their problem by piping Muzak over loudspeakers outside their store, which drove the kids away.  I figured, why not?  But we’d need the big guns:  Opera.  So we set up a loudspeaker in the gangway between garages, and, being the days before mp3s, turned an opera tape on continuous play. LOUD.  We figured we could use some extra help, so I called the police chief.  I asked him if there was a noise ordinance in the city.  I told him what we were doing, and to refer any legitimate complaints about the music to me.

I don't think the police wanted to be the brunt of the joke, so they helped for a while, actually stationing a patrolman right in the thick of it some days.  I could’ve sworn I saw a bullseye on that officer’s chest, but maybe I was just hallucinating.

After a while of continued harassment, the crowd thinned.  It took 10 years, and to this day there’s still some “hanging out” in that alley, but now it’s mostly the Alley Cats, a bunch of old guys who hang in their garage.  Or maybe they're actually crackheads who simply didn’t age well.  Anyway, they don't disturb us, we don't disturb them.  
     
But the building and yard today is beautiful, actually a double yard shared by the two buildings, with grass, shrubs and patio furniture.  In fact, the yard is so nice now we advertise our apartments in both buildings as being on "a beautiful double lot, with a fenced-in yard."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Good Fences, Part 1: The Building Next Door

Everyone who owns real estate sometimes has to deal with bad neighbors, and there’s not much you can do about it, because you don’t own their house.  In the past, we’d had some iffy neighbors, but this one was the worst.

I was looking longingly at the Building Next Door (BND) to another building that we owned. It wasn’t just megalomania, although I’m sure that entered into it, somewhat.  The BND had a gangway that went from the sidewalk, through the backyard, and into the parking alley.  The tenants in our building couldn't throw out their garbage without either using that neighbor’s gangway or walking around the block.  So the BND started looking mighty attractive, despite it being a crack house.  Well, actually, because it was a crack house, and we wanted to control the problem. 


However, two years earlier, when we were renovating our building, the owner of the BND came to us.  He had recently inherited it, and would sell for $8000.  It was a four family in need of some work, but The Man and our partner must have been having brain farts, because they decided to "talk him down" to $7500.   When he held firm to $8000, we "walked". He sold the BND to someone else, and we all lived to kick ourselves & each other firmly in our collective butt.

It was the ‘80s, a time of insanity in Hudson.  Crack had come to town with a vengeance.  People who were previously sober, dependable residents went crazy.  And, under new ownership, the BND, its yard, and the alley behind it became so infiltrated with crackheads that it was locally dubbed “Crack Alley”.  This naturally caused us a lot of problems.  It was hard to get or keep good tenants at our building because of all the adjacent drama.  And, in keeping with the fine old tradition of other retail districts (i.e., the Diamond district, the Flower district, Wall Street) we were now developing a following in the Crack district. So, a lot of applicants for our apartments were crackheads.  (It’s too bad the Section 8 program didn’t allow landlords to charge for applications.  We would’ve made more money rejecting applicants than we did renting apartments during that blitz.) Crackheads were taking shortcuts from the street to the alley through the gangway.  The BND became a thoroughfare, and, adding to the problem, the building on the other side of it was vacant and unsecured, and became a shooting & smoking gallery. 

I mentioned to the new owner of the BND that the police would get tired of coming to his building with all the fights, drugs, etc., and that he should clean out those tenants.  And one day the city did come and close his building for violations. At the same time, the police took the landlord into custody for questioning.  He was so unnerved by that experience he asked if we would buy it.  It was 2 years after we’d rejected it, and he now wanted $24,000 for a building in worse shape than when we could’ve bought it for $8000.

We bought it.



Monday, November 15, 2010

Hot & Bothered

Very nice lady living in a garden apartment (see 9/20/10 post on euphemisms).  Hottest summer on record.  Complains that her apartment is so damp that her kitchen cabinet shelves warped.  And there’s mold on all her stuff.    
“Do you use your air-conditioner?”
“I don’t have one.  It stays pretty cool if I keep the windows closed.” (!!!)

I give her an air-conditioner.  I pass by her window often, doing yard work.  No hum from the unit.  Seems she’s saving electricity by turning it on only when she’s home.  Few weeks later I get another call:  she was gone for a week, came home and is still wiping mold off the kitchen cabinets. 
“I need a dehumidifier.”
I explain an air-conditioner is a dehumidifier, but better, because it doesn't fill up with water, then shut down until you empty it.  But if she doesn’t keep the a/c on, it can’t work.  

No, she checked with “people” and they all said a dehumidifier works better.  How?  With pixie dust?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Units

When did apartments become units?  You hear it all the time, from condos to large multi-family buildings.  At some point, "unit" replaced "apartment".  Now, admittedly, apartment is not personal enough, either.  Not like house, definitely not like home, and not even like multi-family building. Yet all of those convey, to some degree, the idea that people live there.  Unit removes all human connotation.  I don’t know if it started to make developers sound more important, or just to remove the human component from the business aspect of rental housing.  But when you think about all the history, all the families, all the lives lived in an apartment through the years, unit just doesn’t do it justice. 

Might as well be storage units.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Three Tenants, Part 2: Tangled Webs

So, yes, the truth was out there, but questions, answers, & stories remained:

1.  The boy admitted leaving the garbage.  So why did the white woman blame the black man, when she clearly didn’t see him doing it?  (a) Was it racism?  No, because she’d dated black men herself.  (b) Was a flirtation spurned? (She was a bit of a dog.) Or (c) was she just a pathological liar and troublemaker?

The answer is “c”, and maybe “b”.  I know that because my attorney was apparently also hers.  She went to see him for something, and during the course of their conversation, was complaining about her landlord.  She told him she was moving as soon as her lease was up.  He called to give me a heads-up about an unhappy tenant, in case I wanted to try to resolve her complaints. Problem was, she had no lease.  All she had to do was give me the usual 30-days’ notice, and she could go.  So why bother to lie about it? And why was she still here?

2.  My secretary, who was in the office the day the man stormed in, asked me why I would apologize to a tenant.  She thought I should never apologize to a tenant.  I thought she had grown another head, and it went a long way towards explaining her lack of people skills.

3.  The guy in the house had presented himself as a writer.  He was really an unemployed, lying and b.s.’ing slob.  He left owing rent, and the house was trashed (which also helps explain the son).  He was also delusional.  

One day my son, who was about 18 at the time, told me he met a guy in Burger King who started talking to him about his writing, blah, blah.  My son was really impressed -- impressed enough to relate this story to his mother, who he usually managed to ignore.  I told him not to be so awe-struck, because I recognized the guy by my son's description.  This was the same slob who lived in the house that my son helped clean out recently.  The hot-shot eating at BK should’ve been a clue.


"O, what tangled webs we weave..."

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Three Tenants

I know.  It sounds like the start of a borsch-belt joke.  Or they should be singing.  But there really were these 3 tenants: a middle-aged white woman, a middle-aged black man, and a divorced guy and his son.  They all lived on The Mountain, as we dubbed a complex with an 8-apartment building and 2 houses. 

Recently, bags of garbage began appearing on the porch of the apartment building.  That was weird on a couple of levels, because the dumpster was on the way to the parking lot, and people there were usually pretty respectful of each other.  So why would someone drop his funky trash where everyone else would have to step over it and smell it?  We picked up the first bag.  We picked up the second bag.  By the third bag, we were getting pretty ticked off.    

We started asking around.  The white woman told me that she saw the black man doing it.  OK, I thought, that seems out of character, but by now I have a whole bunch of weird tenant experiences. I wrote him the usual “landlord” letter, it has to stop, could be grounds for eviction, etc., blah, etc.  And one very angry black man appeared at my office door, barely containing himself.  

He asked me straight out:  “Look at me!  Do you think I am the kind of person who would do such a thing?” 
"Well, actually, no.  That’s why I was so confused.  But another tenant said you did, and she saw it." 
I didn’t dare identify the tenant.  They still had to live near each other.

No, he said.  The son of the guy in the house does it.  He’s too lazy to walk to the dumpster, so when his father sends him to throw the garbage, he drops it on the nearest porch.

Now that made perfect sense.  I apologized profusely.  Should’ve known better, trusted my own gut, and verified before accusing. 

So there were these 3 tenants, and 1 landlord who didn’t think before she inserted her foot in her mouth…

Thursday, November 11, 2010

M & J, Married with Children

Turned out that Crazy Miz M* & J the Fix-it Man** had been married many years ago, and they had three children, one boy & two girls.  That was so long ago that, by the time M, and later J, rented from me separately, I’d forgotten I ever knew that fact.  But it came to light painfully after each of them died.

If I haven’t told you before, I should now.  Both M & J lived in Section 8 apartments.  They lived on social security, which means they didn’t have two dimes to rub together, and their apartments, while both clean, had nothing of value.  M’s house was decorated in Early Whatever, and J’s was mostly Mid-century Fixit. 

One daughter worked in the crack/prostitution industry, and the other had a reserved bed in the psych ward of the hospital.  The son joined the military as soon as he turned 18, and got the hell out of town.  But they reunited, in a way, when their parents died.

After M, their mother died, one of her daughters came to the office sporting a black eye, delivered by her sister for trying to “steal” her mother’s 20-year-old TV.  The other daughter came separately, asking for a key to “clean the apartment”.  “Out” was the unspoken word in that sentence.  The son stayed the hell out of town.

After J, their father, died, the son called asking if I’d set aside his father’s toolbox, the only thing he wanted.  The daughters came separately, each demanding the same toolbox, as well as anything else they could get their hands on. 

These were the same two who accused Dave of stealing from their dad.  I didn't trust either with a key, nor did I want to see J's tool box sold for a baggie of crack.  So I “stole” the toolbox out of the apartment and saved it for the son, and told the girls I’d unlock the apartment door and they could take whatever they wanted. 

M & J should've contributed to my Fiancee Jar instead of getting married.

*See 9/25/10
**See 10/24/10 

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Not Married, with Children

Somewhere in the mid-80s, I started having people call who were looking for apartments for themselves and their fiancées.  At first I would naively ask when the wedding date was.  It took a while for me to figure out that “fiancée” was a euphemism for “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” 

I started saying “if I had a nickel for every 'affianced' couple who calls here…”, and shortly thereafter got a coffee can, cut a slit in the top, and set up a Fiancee Jar. Every time someone would come in and use that meaningless phrase, I’d drop a nickel into the jar.  After about a year, we donated the jar of cash to the Red Cross. 

There was about 20 bucks in it.  How deeply do you want to think about that?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Oldtimer's Disease

C kept locking herself out.  Sometimes it was just outside the self-locking main building door.  When that happened, she’d ring neighbors’ bells until someone let her in.  But when she locked her keys in her apartment, she had to call me.  I only found out about all the other half-lockouts when I commented to a neighbor that I was worried, because it seemed to be happening more often.

By the time I realized how frequent it was, I was starting to worry about her faculties. C and I go way back, but neither of us is getting any younger, and our memories – see, I just had to go back and re-read this to remember what I was writing. 

Anyway, I suggested she leave a key with her sister who lives a few blocks away, but her sister was developing Alzheimer’s, so that wasn’t a good idea.  My other solution was to hide a spare key somewhere in the hall, so once she got in the building via a neighbor, she could use it to unlock her apartment door. 

A few months later, I checked under the hall pot I remembered hiding it in, and it wasn’t there.  And inevitably I got another call.  As I unlocked her door, I reminded C that she must’ve used and never replaced the spare I had hidden.  She, on the other hand, was congratulating herself because she didn’t lock herself out as usual.  Her purse overturned in a friend’s car, and she apparently didn’t see her keys when she was putting all her belongings back into it. Her friend found the keys, and she was happy that, even though the end result was the same, i.e. she was once again locked out, it wasn’t because she forgot them this time. Still, I was annoyed that the spare was removed from its hiding place, and made her promise to make and hide another.

While I was still self-righteously harrumphing around about it, it dawned on me that the hall closet might be a better hiding place for the future key.  I went to check the closet for something to hang a key on, and there, already hanging from a nail, with an accusatory glint, was the key I’d accused C of removing from the other location that I thought we used. 

Apparently neither of us remembered that, in the all-too-recent past, the hall closet was already our agreed-upon hiding place.  Oldtimers Disease.    

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Building Inspectors from Hell, Part 3: Mr. Colonoscopy

When my son was planning to build his house, I stupidly offered to go to the town hall and apply for his building permit. Now, this is the town I’ve lived in for 30 years.  But I pretty much keep to myself, and don’t really know the elected or appointed officials. I figured they didn’t know me, either.  Wrong. Well, not exactly wrong.  They thought they knew me.  And my little dog, too.

I gathered the application, blueprints, and payment and went to see the building inspector, who I’d never met before.  He only worked part-time, so I made sure I got there early, even before he arrived for the day.  There was one man ahead of me, so as we waited in the little anteroom we made small talk.  The man happily told me “I’m getting my building permit today”.  Usually an innocuous remark, but his appearance smacked of a man just let out of the asylum:  the grin a little too wide, the eyes a bit too bright.  I asked him if it was his house.  No, he answered, he was the architect.  How long has the process been? “Since October”.  What??? It was March already, and he was trying to get a permit since October?  An architect?

I felt the twitch I developed when working with the Undertaker, and all of a sudden it was getting very warm in there.  But I figured I’d see how it went.  So I waited my turn.

The inspector, who I soon and forever more would refer to as Mr. Colonoscopy, came in, took one look at me, and announced “I’m not seeing you today”.  I was beyond shocked.  I quietly said “It’s okay.  I’m waiting my turn”.  He repeated again:  “I’m not seeing you today.”  With a question in my voice, I repeated, “But I’m waiting my turn”.  The third time he said “I don’t care how long you wait, I’m not seeing you today”. 

Well, that was it.  I was weaned on The Undertaker.  I was not going to be intimidated by this jerk.  So I told him that I was waiting my turn, and he was going to see me today.

At that point, he told me that if I didn’t get out (of the town office, not his private office!) that he would have me arrested!  I replied that if he weren’t going to do his work, I’d have his job! Like bullies before and since, he started backpedaling and whining about a sick wife.  What drivel.  Hiding behind a sick wife’s skirts.  At this point I figured “what the hell”, so I pointedly told him if family obligations prevented him from performing his duties, perhaps someone else should be doing the job. 

The long and short of it is that he did take my application, and when he told me to pick up the permit (no, it didn’t take six months), he wasn’t there.  He left it with the women in the office.  They were so intimidated that they left the permit perched on the edge of a desk, and never looked up from their paperwork when I took it.  It was like I had leprosy.  And it still frosts me because, to people who actually know me, I’m a pretty reasonable person.

Ironically, as far as we could tell, he never walked through the house during construction, and the only communication we had was when my son would phone him for permission to continue after different building phases were complete.  He always said yes, and the C.O. quietly came by mail when the house was done.  

To this day, I have no idea what that was all about.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Girl Who Refused to Cash the Winning Lottery Ticket

A nice couple, both successful professionals, lost two children tragically, within a year of each other. One son died in a commercial airplane crash.  Almost a year to the day later, a daughter became ill while an exchange student in South America.  She developed an infection her mother said would have been cured easily in the States. But the poor hospital in the poor country didn't have the medicine.  And so, despite the doctors' best efforts, she died.

A few years later, the parents decided to go back to South America and make a donation to the hospital that tried so valiantly to save their daughter's life.  Though it wasn't part of their original plan, while there they thought about adopting an orphan from that country.  For, as the wife said, "The house was empty." 

As things turned out, there were four siblings in need of a family.  And so the wife traded her days at the office for days at the supermarket, pushing, pulling, and keeping count of her new brood.

Time went by, and the kids were growing up as nicely as the older children had.  Well, almost.

The oldest adopted daughter decided to leave home shortly after high school.  By that time the parents had invested some money for each of the four, so the girl had a nest egg to supplement her fast-food job.  She took an apartment, and soon after, a boyfriend.

My office at that time was directly across from the police station, where court was held every week, and a lot of my applicant pre-screening was done from my office window.  And sure enough, shortly after being on her own, I looked out my window, and there she was.  Although I couldn't hear her, I could see by her body language she was becoming what we called back then a "Ricki Lake Girl"... all head bobbing, finger pointing, teeth sucking attitude.

I sort of kept up with her, seeing her at one dead-end job after another, hanging around town in bad company, going nowhere fast.  One day her mother called me.  Apparently out of funds, the daughter now needed a place with rental assistance.  Would I rent her one of our subsidized apartments?  With nothing concrete to deny her, I did, but with misgivings.   

Bad news travels fast, especially in a small town.  Our other tenants soon told me her apartment was becoming a hangout for druggies.  We did an inspection.  It was filthy, nothing like the way she was raised.  Since she had to report any income changes, we also knew that she kept losing job after job.  Soon she wasn't paying even the nominal rent she owed.  We began eviction proceedings.

By the day she was due to be out, the whole building was in an uproar.  Traffic at all hours, random bell-ringing to get in the building, the usual drug behavior.  The constant traffic, and the prostitution which provided the drug money, was causing all our other tenants to lose sleep.  She herself was in jail.  I went to the apartment to see if her things were out, and discovered a crackhead girlfriend there.  The "friend" tried to tell us she was visiting, but it's hard to be convincing when you're wearing dirty Victoria’s Secret at 3 in the afternoon.  I called the police, and they escorted her out. On her way out, she loudly proclaimed ownership of the TV. Since my soon-to-be-ex tenant was otherwise occupied and not there to object, the police shrugged their shoulders.  I sure didn’t care.  It was just one less thing for us to eventually throw out.  The “friend” lugged this huge TV, and never missed a beat.  She immediately set up housekeeping a few doors down in another crack house, and a few minutes after her "move" was on the cordless phone on the front porch, like it all never happened. I changed the locks.

A long time afterwards, I spoke with the girl’s father.  He said that no matter how they tried, she was just headstrong and kept going in the wrong direction.  He commented that she was like a person who was holding a winning lottery ticket, but refused to cash it in.   


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Diamond Park

The Rowhouses and the owner-occupied housing were back-to-back,  and it was nice to have new families with kids in the neighborhood.  But the kids were playing ball in our parking lot, and our tenants were complaining about their cars getting dinged.

At the same time, a thriving drug trade was being conducted in a vacant lot a few doors up.  So one day I was standing in our parking lot, trying to figure out a way to keep the kids out, and had an epiphany.  Why not get the city to convert that drug lot into a park?  It would move the drug dealing out, the kids would have a place to play, and I’d have them out of my parking lot.  

We got some of the neighbors together and presented our proposal to the city council. The city wasn’t interested.  Didn’t want to buy the lot, maintain another park, police it, lock it at night, blah, blah, blah.  So I called the lot's owner.  I told him if he’d have the junk cars hauled, we’d clean it up if he gave permission.

He laughed at me.  Said nobody would do it.  I told him to meet us at the lot the next week and we’d see.  So we went door-to-door, spoke to the neighbors again, and told them we’d all meet the owner that night.  At 7 PM on a nice summer night, a large group of people walked up the street to the lot, another large group  walked down the street to the lot, and the drug dealers, seeing this crowd, walked across the street.  The owner couldn’t believe all those people showed up, and I couldn’t believe how easy it was to move drug dealers.

We got big garbage bags, rakes & shovels, and everyone pitched in. Other people and businesses heard about what was going on, and donated stuff, unasked for but welcome:  gravel, picnic tables, a sign.  There was a barbershop next door to the lot, and the men used to sit out on the porch anyway.  Now they had something to watch out for. We never did get a fence around it, but we didn’t need it.  Too many eyes for the drug dealers.  They moved elsewhere.

The name Diamond Park was the brainchild of my assistant, B.  Columbia Street used to be called Diamond Street, back in the days when it was the red light district.  The new name worked on many levels.

And for a number of years it served as a simple but useful park for the neighborhood – until the owner lost both a building and the lot to a tax sale, and title transferred to new owners.  By then the crack epidemic had calmed down some, so while it never again was maintained like when it was Diamond Park, at least it didn’t revert back to the awful drug hangout it had been.

Until recently I had a magazine article in my desk drawer with pictures of a similar lot in a similar type of urban location, which had been turned into a small neighborhood splashpark.  I showed it to a few people through the years, but nobody picked up the ball, and I’m tired of crusading.  Recently I gave up & reluctantly threw the article in the trash. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The American Dream

Working with government means you're usually behind the curve, and its decisions often seem random.  After many committee meetings, and poll-trolling, Word will come down that grants for this or that are available.  Then, every city worth its grant writer will miraculously find a need which must be filled to save the sky from falling.  In ensuing years I’ve often thought that if the government decided it was giving grants for manure, we’d wake up one morning to find Warren Street covered in horse shit.    

So during one of its eureka moments, government realized that owner-occupied housing stabilizes a neighborhood.  Hudson applied for grants to build some, and when they were awarded, as Captain Picard would say, we were asked to “Make it so, Number Two.”  So we started building on one of the worst streets in Hudson – nice little 3 bedroom ranches on small but separate infill lots.  And started selling them.  We were knocking on our tenants’ doors to tell them of this opportunity.  Word of mouth got out, and we were getting calls. 

It was a pretty simple and straightforward deal for the buyers.  They received a $15,000 no-interest loan towards their purchase price.  For every year they lived in the house, $3000 was forgiven, so if they stayed five years, the loan was forgiven completely.  

We were on a roll, and had built 13 houses, when our architect clued us in that B, the unscrupulous new director of the community development agency and her husband S had been shopping our materials suppliers with our blueprints.  Apparently they figured if we could do it, so could they.  But they couldn’t.  Our construction came to a screeching halt, and although we were still fielding lots of calls about the houses, we told people to call the community development office.  Sadly, but not surprisingly, not a single additional house was ever built when we stopped.  Sometimes, while it’s good to be vindicated, it’s not really good overall.

Epilogue:  B and S didn’t last too long afterwards in Hudson, but not before making all kinds of internal deals, in which the community development agency passed along all its money to S’s private non-profit to “develop”, thereby squeezing two layers of administrative fees, and God knows what else, out of each round of funds.  She also “sold” many of the city’s loans to her husband’s company, and later bought them back when he’d made a mess of things and needed quick cash.  Amazingly, none of this came to light while it was happening, despite my very loud protesting to anyone who’d listen. 


P.S.  I called them B & S because it reminds me of b.s., which is what this duo fed the city during their years here.  

Monday, November 1, 2010

Building Inspectors from Hell, Part 2: Revenge of the Undertaker

THE ROWHOUSES were 5 dilapidated townhouses, actually just shells. The city wanted to jump-start fixing that neighborhood, so they asked us to renovate those buildings.  Running the numbers showed that we couldn’t afford to just do the five townhouses, but if we added 10 new units on the lot, it would work.  But we were warned we’d have to work with X, the local building inspector, on this job.  We hired an architect, kissed ass, and got the building permit.  But X still had it in for us. 

Work moved along, and we were days away from occupancy.  Nothing new had been done in this neighborhood for about 50 years, so there was a lot of buzz.  By our projected opening date, we were fully rented and tenants were waiting to move in.  We were all just waiting for our Certificate of Occupancy.  All through construction X had remained relatively sane, so we expected our final walk-through to be nitpicky, but doable.  Well, being the insecure jerk that he was, X said he had to call in backup, another inspector from the state.  While X was nitpicking his way through the punchlist items, the state inspector took a quick look around, and announced that we had bigger problems: we didn’t have a firewall dividing the 10 new units.  By code, a firewall has to separate every 8 units.  There was a design change during construction on the new building that caused this problem, and the architect hadn’t picked it up. Neither had X, despite his many preening walk-throughs.  His incompetence helps explains his inertia.     

At certain times in my life, when something momentously bad is about to happen, I get this strange feeling.  Everything sounds like I’m under water, my stomach drops to my knees, and I have to use the bathroom.  That’s how I know something is really bad.  And it happened with that announcement.  In one fortuitous fell swoop, X was about to get revenge for his years of pent-up anger and frustration. 

He loudly announced that nobody could move in until this issue was resolved. Not in the original building, not in the new one.  He wouldn’t issue a C.O. for any unit until we applied to the state for a variance from the building code.  With pressure from the mayor’s office, a few weeks later he relented somewhat and allowed us to rent the front building.  He also permitted occupancy of 8 of the 10 new units.  But just in case we were liars, we also had to not only guarantee that we wouldn’t occupy those two, but sheetrock over the windows in two brand-new apartments, to make sure they were uninhabitable. We begged him not to make us ruin perfectly good apartments.  We offered to give him the keys to those units, to check as he saw fit, but, no.  Sheetrocked it was.

Meantime, in a small town, news travels fast.  The buzz that helped us rent the apartments now worked against us.  Word got out that our apartments were “unsafe”, and people asked for their deposits back. Every time we had a prospective tenant, we first had to go through the litany of the building being perfectly safe.

The state variance process usually took six months to wade through.  Throughout this whole process we would need to make payments on the maxed-out construction loan, with insufficient income to offset it. We begged and cajoled the state to hurry our application through. They moved as fast as government can, and it only took about 3 months for them to issue a variance.  Among the things the state required in a trade-off was a fire alarm system which rang in every apartment. 

The required locations and high sensitivity of the system caused its own problems.  Every time a tenant made popcorn or took a steamy shower, the whole building’s alarm system went off, and everyone, including the person in the shower, was out in the street until the fire department came and the cause was discovered.

And usually when we opened a new project, the timing of the rents against the loan repayment schedule resulted in a little cash cushion.  This was just the opposite.  It felt like we were always playing catch-up, and it left a bitter taste in my mouth. Years later, when the neighborhood didn’t change for the better, exhausted from trying to make a dog sing, we were forced to sell for less than we owed. 

X, if you’re reading this, you’ll be pleased to know that we’re still paying back part of the loan that we were upside-down on.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Building Inspectors from Hell, Part 1: The Undertaker

We cut our teeth on the worst building inspector in the world. He was so bad he was a major contributor to the economic downturn in Hudson when he was working here, effectively Hudson's personal undertaker.  There were so many reasons why improvements “couldn’t be done”, that nothing ever was.  And with all the Monday morning quarterbacking about why Hudson suffered a horrible slump in the ‘70s & ‘80s, nobody ever puts his name into the mix.  Yet it should be.

X was one of those people who are frozen into inactivity by their demand for perfection.  They’re so afraid to do something wrong, they can’t do anything at all.  They push their weight around in insignificant areas, but can’t sign on the dotted line for anything big.  He would routinely nitpick and put off actually giving a building permit or C.O. until it was impossible not to. The relief must’ve felt like a big poop when he finally did something decisive.   

People couldn’t fix anything unless they brought everything up to code.  The word "repair" wasn't in his vocabulary.  He made no allowance for the section of NY Building code that gives the building inspector latitude to find acceptable options when dealing with historic buildings.  X had no options.  You want to use that store and apartment above?  Impossible.  The third floor apartment?  Don’t make me laugh.  That inflexibility, no, inability, stalled projects all around town for years.   All the while he hid under the cloak of "civil service"(an oxymoron if I ever heard one), and although everyone agreed he was a liability, they simultaneously insisted it would be near-impossible to fire him.

Our first Hudson project consisted of six derelict buildings, vacant and off the tax rolls.  We hired an architect, jumped through all of the federal and state government’s hoops, and even dealt successfully with the State Historic Preservation Office.  But X wouldn’t issue a building permit, nor would he unlock his office door so we could retrieve our blueprints for the closing the next day.  We had to do an end-run to get a building permit.  The mayor unlocked the door, the Urban Renewal director issued the building permit, and we were able to close.  Even though X should’ve been grateful that somebody else “took the blame”,  he never forgave that incident, and every chance he had after that, he made our lives hell.

While he bit around the ankles for years, one day he finally got his revenge.