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.