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. 

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Habitat for Stupidity

Everyone’s seen those warm and fuzzy pictures of President Carter wielding a hammer.  Sounds like a great idea.  People put sweat equity into their homes, volunteers help, and everyone goes home glowing.  My experience wasn’t quite like that.

The X family lived in a rent-subsidized apartment for a number of years. The missus was very nasty, with an entitlement mentality, and they were scamming the system. She left the building the same time each morning, wearing white scrubs, yet insisted she wasn’t working.  Their rent was something like $150 a month, utilities included, yet for six months they gave me every excuse and promise to pay, but still were so far behind on their ridiculously low rent that I started eviction proceedings. 

I guess, in some ways, I was scamming the system myself, because the only reason I’d kept them this long was because they were “warm bodies”.  Placeholders.  They cost us less, even if they didn’t pay their rent, than it would’ve with a vacant apartment, because the HUD subsidy covered the bulk of the rent.  But it couldn’t continue forever.  It was just such a slap in the face on so many levels.

When they finally got the eviction notice, Mrs. X haughtily informed me that they were moving shortly anyway.  They were selected for a Habitat house, and would be out within the month. 

I couldn’t believe my ears!  I called the local Habitat group who confirmed their selection.  I ranted.  “You’re giving them a low-interest mortgage?  Didn’t anyone think to call the landlord to see if they even pay their rent?  I thought applicants were supposed to be living in substandard housing.  My buildings are definitely not substandard, and they’re not crowded into an apartment too small for their family!  How did these people meet Habitat’s criteria?”

They hemmed and hawed, but the fact was that Habitat, being new in town, didn’t get many applicants for that first house, so the X family moved into a new house – maybe (and hopefully) the most undeserving family ever to get one.

The final indignity for me was cutting my losses while waiting for their house to be completed.  I postponed the eviction, because it would’ve cost me more money, and the same time, to go to court as to wait it out.  And they sure weren't out within a month, as the Missus predicted.  By the time they actually moved, and I got a money judgment, it was into the thousands of dollars. 

I’m still waiting to collect on my judgment, and, ironically, I probably never will.  People usually will clear up their credit when they want to do something big, like, say, buy a house.  Obviously that won't be necessary.

And I never donate to Habitat.  I  already gave at the office.  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Coffee Shop

When I was much younger, we had a building on the worst corner in town.  It had been a hangout since time immemorial, but in addition to all the people hanging on the corner every night, there was tons of litter – plastic cups, wrappers, etc. from the coffee shop next door. So one day, on the spur of the moment, I decided to pop into the coffee shop and ask the owner if he could put a trash can outside his store to help with the litter problem. 

What I walked into took a few moments for me to process.  There, in a space no larger than the average bathroom, it seemed like fifty black men were standing cheek to jowl, shouting and passing dollar bills across the counter to the coffee shop’s owner.  Without missing a beat, with one hand still taking money and shouting orders, and every eye on me, I saw the owner apprise the situation:  who was this crazy white girl in his shop just before post time?  Surely the cops wouldn’t have sent her. 

Just then a man’s booming voice laughed “M, what you doin’ here?” It was Mr. J, one of my tenants!  With that, the tension in the room dissipated.  I quickly stammered that I could see the owner was busy, but I just wanted to ask if he could put a trash can outside his door. I’ll stop by another time when it’s quieter...  I then beat a hasty retreat.

He never stopped taking bets, and never acknowledged me, but the next day there was a trash can outside the door of the "coffee shop". 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Over the Moon

Sometimes you get to know more of your tenants than you want.   There was Mr. B, elderly but tall and burly, who’d fallen and couldn’t get up.  His sparrow of a wife frantically called the rental office. “Please help me get my husband up”.  She neglected to mention that he was on his hands and knees, half in and half out of the bathtub, stark naked & trying to get in.  Couldn’t get in, couldn’t get out, couldn’t get up.  

I didn’t get the whole picture over the phone, so I sent my assistant, S, to help the man up.  S, who only weighed 100 pounds herself, now found herself jostling for position in the tiny bathroom, trying, with Mrs. B, to get the Mister up while not touching any personal parts.  Which was quite a trick, since a really big butt was filling up the doorway. And try as they might, he wouldn’t budge. S finally called the police for help, which is probably what the wife should’ve done to start with, and we should’ve done once we realized the (ahem) enormity of the situation. 

Can you imagine how S felt when the cops came in and got the picture?  Kind of like I felt when the police came and saw the deceased Master B. That must’ve been another fun day around the police department water cooler.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Y Don't U Call?

In the last few years I’ve noticed an unprecedented amount of no-shows.  It’s always been that people who make appointments on Friday for Monday would only have a 50% chance of showing up.  But now it’s gotten down to those who make appointments on Monday for Tuesday.  Heck, I even lost a few going from one building to another, when they were supposed to look at more than one apartment!  I’d be standing at the second location like a jerk.  15 minutes later, and a No Show.  

I’ve thought about it.  Our apartments are in good shape (really!), so it’s not like I’m some slumlord whose apartments  turn people off. 

I’ve thought it’s just me, burned out and cynical after all these years, and sending off a “bad landlord” smell, so bad they can smell it over the phone. So I’ve gone out of my way to be extra-nice to the ones who sound decent.  So sleekly treacly I make myself sick.  Ick!  So I’ve semi-ruled that one out.

It’s mostly the under-30 crowd.  So I have a theory.  I think it has a lot to do with the internet and cell phones.  On the net, nobody’s real, you can say anything, and you don’t have to face anyone.  With cell phones, hey, you don’t even have to be on-time for something important.  You can just make a call (or, better yet, text) make up some lie, and get there late.  Can’t be checked up on, because nobody knows you’re really still home cleaning your toenails when you say you’re in traffic.  But, you know, just because we can’t prove you’re lying, it doesn’t mean we believe you. 

Recently I was at a restaurant with a friend, and she was only halfway through her lunch when she offered to pack the rest of it so I would be on time for an appointment.  I told her not to bother, that they weren’t going to show.  But she did anyway.  And they didn’t. 

So I've made a new appointment rule:  I tell the applicant that I won't be there unless they call me 15 minutes prior to our appointment to confirm it.  As expected, quite a few never make that call.  But the new rule keeps my blood pressure under control.

I bet restaurants have the same problem.  

Sunday, October 24, 2010

J the Fix-It Man

J could fix anything.  He was the last of a dying breed of tinkerers.  Whenever a tenant would leave behind something that was broken, but fixable, D, our maintenance man, would say “Let me bring it over to J.  He can fix it.”  I have no idea what became of that stuff after J tinkered with it, but I think D brought most of it just to give J something useful to do in his retirement.

J was, in a way, a father-figure to D.  They both fixed things, and D would often stop in on his days off to check on J, or do his food shopping when he couldn’t get around. 

So it was sad, yet fitting, that D was the one who found J dead one morning, still in his bed.  But sadder still were his children, who I never saw or heard from in the 15 years J was a tenant.  Two of them showed up in my office and accused D of stealing from their father. 

What a joke.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fairy Tale or Miracle?

K was an 18-year old looking for a small apartment. She said she couldn’t live with her mother anymore – which rings my bell as “I refuse to live by my parents rules”.  But something about her was different.  There were no body piercings, no tattoos. She had a job. It didn’t pay much, but it was steady. She wasn’t pregnant, didn’t have a baby or a “fiancĂ©” in the shadows. She was clean & spoke normally.  So I told her if she could get a strong co-signer, I’d rent her one of my rent-subsidized apartments. An aunt co-signed.

She told me she did have a boyfriend, that he was in the Navy, and she was a religious Christian, very involved in her church.  You can bet I’d heard the “religious” part before.  But she moved in, the neighbors didn’t complain about noise, traffic or dirt, and aside from her fairly regular phone calls about miscellany, it was going okay.

A few months later, K told me she was going to court to try to get custody of her 8 & 11-year-old siblings.  Did I have a bigger apartment, because the judge would want proof that she could house them.  Now starts a series of what, even now, I think of as amazing circumstances, miracles if you will.

First of all, what family circumstances are so dire that a judge would even consider, much less award, custody of two little kids to an 18 year old sister with an entry-level job? Second, I had not had a 3-bedroom vacancy in at least 10 years! But I had one now, and two prior applicants had failed the screenings, so it was available.  I wrote the judge that she had an apartment waiting, and to call me if he needed verification.

And you know what? This young girl, just a kid herself, came back with the court papers signed, and was absolutely thrilled to be able to take care of her brother and sister!  The kids came with only the clothes on their backs, no beds, winter coats, or change of underwear.  No responsible parent, but they did have this loving sister, a caring congregation, a landlord who knew where to get needed stuff, and a court system which was pulling for them. 

And they all lived happily ever after.  (Well, maybe just till the kids became teenagers.)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Master (S.O.)B.

Mr. B. was an arrogant s.o.b. He had such an imperious attitude that I nicknamed him “Master”, and pointedly  kept our conversations short.  He felt he was everyone’s intellectual superior, and would often try to bait me:  "Are you a college graduate?"  "Do you read the New York Times?"  Meanwhile, he was living alone and miserable, in a dirty, unkempt apartment, without any visitors. Oh, yeah, in one of my apartments, the one who didn't do the NY Times crossword in ink.

But one person appreciated Mr. B.  The Widow K. lived above him.  She was a retired factory worker, and now lived in an immaculate apartment.  She found opportunities to chat with him, and her face lit up when she spoke about him.  It reminded me of high school girls dreamily writing “Mrs. Thomas B”, or “Katherine B” on their notebooks, surrounded by little hearts. Watching her fluttering around him would really tick me off, because I knew what Mr. B. thought about her. About everybody, actually:  In his opinion, none of us, even Mrs. K., were his equal.  My opinion was that Mrs. K. was his superior, and he was a jerk.

One day, Mrs. K. came to my office.  "I'm really worried about Tom."  (She affectionately called him "Tom". Yuck.) His newspaper and milk have been outside his door since yesterday."  Never a good sign.

It was a late winter afternoon, and as I approached their building, I looked in Mr. B’s windows. His lights were off.  They should’ve been on by then. As I entered, a few of the other elderly tenants peeked out their doors.  I tried to be discreet, as I didn't want them upset at what I expected to find.

I used my passkey.  Light from the hall illuminated his living room.  I could see his outline in the dark apartment, sitting in his chair, immobile, with his pants around his ankles.  He was apparently enjoying a private moment at the time of his demise. 

Because I had to call the police, Master B's final indignity was undoubtedly shared by many around the police department's water cooler.  I’ll say no more.  But you know, his last name should've been "Bates".  ;D  

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Police Blotter

Back in the day, before there was instantaneous internet access to everyone’s personal data, before we had internet at all, our screening criteria included checking the newspaper’s police blotter.

We did have an applicant release form, which we brought to the applicant's local police department.  They would write in any criminal records they had.  But just as important was the blotter, because there were some quality-of-life issues that didn’t always show up on those forms.  Additionally, there was personal information in the blotter we could corroborate with the application we were considering, and being a matter of public record, it was legal for us to include it in our screening.  

In that pre-electronic age, we would literally cut each day’s blotter out of the newspaper and paste it in a scrapbook by date. We then made index cards with each person’s name mentioned, referencing the date(s) they made the blotter.  We alphabetized the index cards and when a person applied for one of our apartments, we’d look for his name on our index cards.  You could learn a lot about people from their blotter entries: repeated public drunkenness, fighting, domestic disputes, drug connections, not all of which resulted in an official record with the police department.

It seems like a lot of work today, but then it was just another part of our day and screening process, and saved us a lot of mis-steps in renting. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Roslind Rita Thal

…in which I digress from my usual anonymity to honor this lady.

Mrs. Thal was one of the truly colorful, eccentric residents of Hudson in the '80s.  Every town should have one.  A first name with a dropped "a", like Barbra. Even before I met her, I knew her by sight, because I passed her on the street every day.  She was always so BRIGHT and "matching".  Everything matched:  shoes, dress, purse, coat, and always a matching hat and gloves, winter or summer. If she wore blue that day, she REALLY wore blue! She loved color, and she had tons of clothes!  Months would go by before you’d see her repeat an outfit.

There would be this tiny bright dot of an elderly woman, dressed stem to stern in matching colors, walking down the street. Weather never deterred her.  In winter, she’d have her trusty ski pole to poke in the slushy snow as she walked.  In summer, a parasol (well, okay, it was an umbrella, but on her it was a parasol).  I never knew quite where she was headed, but she went there and back every single day.

She also wrote profuse letters to the editor of our local paper, and I do believe they printed every one.  The Letters to the Editor column should’ve borne her byline.  Seems Mrs. Thal had an opinion on everything, and insisted on sharing it.  She also signed all her letters with her full name:  Roslind Rita Thal.  Like there could be two like her in a town this size.

She moved into the largest one-bedroom apartment I have ever had. And it wasn’t till some years later that I had occasion to see the extent of her wardrobe.  Her huge bedroom, the hall to it, and the living room were all lined with clothes racks.  She herself slept on a tiny sofa in the living room, because there wasn’t enough room for both her and her clothes in the bedroom. 

After some years, Mrs. Thal passed away.  Her nephew came to the office to take care of her belongings, and told me a few things about her.  Apparently she was married and lived in New York City for a very long time.  She was childless, but very devoted to her husband. He was killed in a mugging, so she decided to move to Hudson, where she had some family.  A psychiatrist would probably say all those clothes made her feel safe and comfortable after losing her husband.  Personally I feared for her in a fire, but actually she was pretty safe, sleeping only a few feet from the front door of a ground-floor apartment, especially since she didn’t smoke or drink.  The nephew also told me she was a very interesting person, and I could read all about it in the newspaper, because he was going to write an article about her. 

Since I’m still waiting to read that article, and googling her name turns up nothing, the mystery continues.  But as I walk up and down the same street, now older myself and considered by some a bit eccentric, I often think of her.

Rest in peace, Mrs. Thal.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Don't Make Me Call your Mother!

I rented to two college students from the city.  They were inseparable friends growing up in a bad part of Brooklyn, and both got sports scholarships to the local community college.  Shortly after they moved in, we noticed a lot of traffic in and out the rear door, and the usual drug appertunances:  a pit bull, multiple visitors who stayed only a few minutes, etc.  By this time I knew what to do:  I called their mothers. 

Well, two very respectable women came thundering into town, and those boys made themselves scarce.  The apartment was strewn with garbage, used condoms, and mattresses.  One mother said if she’d seen the condition of the apartment sooner, she would’ve recognized trouble, because they didn’t live like this at home.  I wouldn't have been surprised to see those kids being pulled by their ears all the way from Hudson back to Brooklyn.  The women made arrangements to pack the boys up, and that would’ve been the end of it. 

But in the couple of days they were waiting for the movers, I realized the boys had left the dog in the apartment, and, although they were still around town in various drug houses, they hadn't been back to our building.  I had no idea if the animal had food or water, or where it was going to the bathroom, so I called the police.  With the police in tow, I unlocked the apartment, and while I was tending the dog, there, in plain sight on the coffee table, were baggies filled with crack.  So the actual eviction was quicker than I expected, since both boys were arrested for drug possession and immediately had other housing.  As for me, I never rented to students again. 

P.S.  During this messy in-between time, I managed to ask one of the boys how they were able to stay out of trouble growing up in such a bad neighborhood, and then get in so much trouble in a rinky-dink town like Hudson.  He shrugged his shoulders.

P.P.S.  At the end of every school year the local paper prints all the names of the graduates.  A few years later I was happy to see that one of the boys had his name on the list of CGCC graduates.  

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pot(s) in the Closet

One of our buildings had front and rear doors.  Very convenient, but we found we had trouble with some tenants who used the back exit more as a “getaway” than for hauling laundry & groceries.  One tenant, who had too many visitors to suit us, was finally “urged” to move.  He returned the keys, so I went up to check the apartment.  Everything seemed fine until I opened a closet door.  There was a whole indoor garden, complete with grow lamps, etc., full of marijuana plants growing nice as you please. 

At this point, I had two choices:  call the police and have the story of our “drug den” in the local papers, or close the closet door.  This being many years into my landlording career, I closed the door.

Next morning, the closet was empty.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Things I Have Learned about (Seemingly) Inanimate Objects

The Girly House

KARMA:  Just as I believe that every building is alive, I have firmly come to believe that every apartment and house has its own karma.  Some of our apartments will have a succession of wonderful tenants.  Others, no matter how hard I try, seem to attract crazy people, or people who become crazy some time after living there.  Some days I think we need an apartment exorcist.  I used to think it had to do with location or sunlight, but that’s not necessarily true.  I can’t really put my finger on it, but sometimes I just have to open the windows and leave an apartment empty for a while, and wait for just the right tenant to change the karma.  And when that person moves in, you just know it’s going to be better cleaned, better appreciated, better loved. 

SEX:  Similarly, some apartments are male, some female.  Not every apartment is obvious about its sexuality, but some are almost lascivious about it. And they’re pretty proprietary about it.  They will never rent to the “opposite” sex. Or if they relent, and the “wrong” sex person moves in, they won’t stay long. 

And although I never expressed my feelings about this to anyone, recently an applicant saw two different apartments:  one male & one female.  He wasn’t very "decorative", just a regular dude, and I know he wasn't giving much thought to what he was saying.  But I was taken aback when he said straight out to me that he’d take the male apartment, because the other one was a “ladies” apartment, and he was more comfortable in the “man’s” apartment.

Right now I have a whole house that's female.  There are four apartments, plus my office in it, and every one is rented by a woman!  Even a woman who lives next door, and not in our building, uses our yard instead of her own for family parties!  So, really!  Can it be a coincidence that every one in the building is girly?

2 Good 2 B True

When we were first starting out, I was pleased, yet surprised, when a man and woman in a fancy Cadillac pulled up to see our modest apartment in the country.  And even more surprised when he said they’d take it!  I don’t remember what our screening process was back then.  Probably I sized up their car and said ok, but I rented to them, and everything seemed fine.  But after a few months, he told me they were going to move.  Immediately.   

I didn’t hear the rest of the story till way later, from another tenant. 

Apparently he was a cop in NYC, and she was his girlfriend.  He would leave her every Sunday night, and I do mean “leave”.  No car, no food, no money.  She would knock on neighbors’ doors asking for food or a ride into town.  But it turned out she did have something of value.  She was apparently a well-known hooker in Hudson, as well as a drug user.  

I never found out whether he was pimping her, trying to keep her from temptation, or was just keeping a little something for himself on the side upstate, away from a wife in the city -- maybe all three.  If they'd come to me years later, I would've recognized them as 2 Good 2 B True.