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Or "The Accidental Landlords"

Decades ago, a fellow liberal told me that nothing turns somebody into a screaming Republican faster than being a landlord; he likened it to succumbing to the dark side of The Force. He was ten years older than me, had owned a couple of houses and rented them out over the years so I figured he knew. After having stumbled into becoming one myself some 20+ years after that conversation occurred, I can see why. You see the worst in people. Every stereotype about the rural poor and the rural working poor bubbles up over time; it is scary not just to see it but to catch oneself lapsing into a frame of thinking that sometimes is decidely non-liberal.

The experience gnaws at your empathy quotient when hearing people lie thru their teeth in order to avoid paying rent or damages; to watch people make the same poor choices and mistakes again and again despite knowing the outcomes. People who are so bold as to not pay rent despite plenty of evidence that they could do so bugs me because I’ve never dreamed of not paying for the roof over my head. It’s a mindset I simply can’t get my head around. Let me be clear, these aren’t people down on their luck in need of some help. True, we could argue that they’re where they are because of a myriad number of societal issues that tilt the playing field decidedly against them. But when you’re dealing with tenants who are clearly trying to steal, you lose sight of the broader social context in which this plays…suddenly you're heading down that rabbit hole of “I’m turning into a Republican”.

On the flip side, landlord horror stories are legion and with good reason. The ruling major landlord class in most big cities are notoriously parasitic scumbags so there's a reason laws to protect tenants exist. The thing is, even at my poorest growing up, I never had a landlord who didn’t take due diligence…as long as the rent was paid. Perhaps my single mom sacrificed whatever she had in her meager budget to make sure we lived in places that weren't run by stereotypical slumlords. But the wider economic and societal questions about the entire landlord/tenant relationship fall by the wayside when you find yourself trying to do the right thing, trying to be accomodating and running headlong into problems.

My wife and I stumbled into being landlords. A typical, extended, poor family (they lived off of the grandmother’s disability check) somehow managed to buy the house next to our place. Cheap housing in the reddest county in Missouri that’s just 25 minutes from the state capitol (in itself smallish, 40K population) makes it a draw. People moving in think it’s affordable until they discover what it costs to heat a house built in 1875 and that's had nothing but crappy renovations done to it. They think such houses will be a breeze to rehab until they discover they don’t have the skills, the patience and even the bare amount of money needed to plow into a place in order to make it truly habitable. Thus entered this extended family, or as they became known to us within a year, The 24/7 Jerry Springer Show.

Their story is typical, and tragic but also better suited for a diary of its own. Suffice it to say that after a little over 2 years, it was getting old: the chained up dogs, the trash, the appliances in the yard. The only thing they didn’t do was put a car up on blocks in the driveway. We approached them about selling and they did.

We became the most popular people in our insular, close-minded, inbred historic distric of 60-80 people overnight. We spent the next 18 months gutting the place and totally rehabbing it. The idea was to eventually sell it as owner’s quarters to our B&B next door. That’s still the plan when we end up getting out of here. In the meantime, we thought we’d do what every other middle-class person in this country with a “spare” house does: rent it out.

It ain’t big, around 950 square feet.

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But it has a huge kitchen,

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two bedrooms, one bath, high ceilings and beautiful hardwood floors. Plus it has a driveway (unique to our little town) and a garage. Nice yard, modern appliances. It’s not cheap to heat in the winter but the furnace is only 7 years old and we have 18” of insulation in the attic plus storm windows. If you put down some area rugs and run the ceiling fans in every room, you can keep the place reasonably warm and not break the bank. And yet, just about every tenant has had some aversion to running ceiling fans and wearing socks and slippers in the winter.

Our first tenants were the best: two women, one very local (youngest daughter of our post mistress) and the other a friend of hers. A great 2 years until the friend got pregnant and moved out and the “youngest daughter” bought her own place. Therein lies the “problem” here: if you can’t afford to purchase a house and upkeep it in a place where housing prices are dirt cheap like they are here, that means you don’t have a steady income, thus are forced to rent and ultimately because of your personal economic uncertainty, your housing situation remains almost constantly uncertain.

Since then it’s been one disaster after another. We had a gay couple live there for about a year. Both had steady jobs but one just happened to have a drug problem and would go on benders blowing money on booze and blow. The result: the usual litany of late rent, excuses and eventually, leaving. The next tenants were a young, hetorsexual couple in their 20s. They weren’t bad but were hard on the place, especially the septic. Turns out he had a ginormous aquarium that he’d dump into the bathtub to clean and it played hell on our septic system. They lasted about a year. The plus was that they were mostly on time with rent. They too left on their own after deciding very small town living in an old house wasn’t all they thought it would be.

Then we had the Junior Knuckleheads. Actually, this could apply to most males in our county from ages of 18 to, well in many cases 50+. Home grown boys who have been incredibly coddled from the womb and who don't have somebody to immediately marry out of high school finally "getting out on their own". They lasted three months. First night in the place, they had a party so loud and large every neighbor called the sheriff on them. Afterwards they toned down the noise but the parties? One Sunday morning, a neighbor across the street opened his car door to find a girl passed out in the front seat. Apparently nobody in the house would drive her home (all too drunk) and nobody in the house wanted her staying in the house. These braniacs left because laborer work opened up in Alabama after that batch of nasty tornados ripped thru the state. They had no skills for staying here so they left owing back rent...and lots of used condoms strewn about the place amidst the flotsam and jetsam they left in their wake.

Next up, a woman in her late 20s, just divorced, 6 year old kid. Steady job (so we thought). She sprung for broadband internet, satellite TV, etc., and looked like a long-term option. Alas, the assumptions she made about massive child support from her ex via the courts never materialized and she too was gone in three months. We even offered her a free month's rent if she felt that would let her get back on track. She very honestly said "that won't even begin to cover it" so she too had to bail.

We then let the place stand empty for a while. We were simply too drained to continue: better to have the house sit empty than deal with the constant struggle with tenants.

In March, we decided to take the plunge again, this time taking a significant chance on another divorced mother with two daughters (4 and 6) who, when she approached us, was living with her sister's family. This one asked us “are you going to do a credit check?” We said we don’t normally do that, why? It appears she was up to her eyeballs in debt, was in the process of declaring bankruptcy (mainly in order to get out paying child support to her ex-husband who had primary custody of the girls). The one thing in her favor was her job: she was a high level admin person in the state gubmint making a very respectable 55K a year. I grew up with a single mom so I know how hard it can bouncing around be so I’m naturally sympathetic to women trying to move forward with their lives.

So, she moves in and two weeks later says “can my boyfriend live here?” I, being very naïve at this sort of thing, said sure. Turns out, she was 5 months pregnant by said boyfriend, he all of 22 years old (she’s 32). Turns out, that was our biggest mistake because we allowed yet another Junior Knucklehead into our tenancy mix.

We had to constantly be on him to not pitch garbage over the bluff, not leave garbage lying around the yard, not burn shit out back, not tear down shelving in the garage. The list of “nots” was endless. And he never seemed to have any kind of job or any recognizable skills.

A couple of months after his arrival, in the summer he vanished. About two weeks into his disappearing act, we casually asked her where he was. The answer was what we now know as "the lying" when she said something vaguely about his being in a job training program that would last for 30 days. Hmmmm, 30 days says we, that sounds an awful lot like a jail sentence but he was back soon enough being a knucklehead so we didn't give it any more thought.

It turns out that yes, he was serving 30 days of “shock time” at the county jail for a robbery and assault he and a fellow Junior Knucklehead had done in May 2011 at a grocery store. He was 20 and his bud was 19 at the time and they had a friend in a car outside. Their brilliant plan was to shoplift booze. It seems they couldn't do that either because when approached by store employees, both our tenant and his bud assaulted the employees and fled the scene…only to be picked up shortly thereafter.

Two years later and now he's our tenant (although given how she foisted him off on us, we didn't know this at the time).  The case comes to trial and sentencing and apparently the prosecutor couldn’t make a case against our tenant for robbery but could for his buddy. His bud got five years, five frigging years while our tenant got essentially a 30 day time out. He finished his "shock time" in time for her to give birth...and get fired from her state job, a very hard thing to do even today. So, we have a mother with a new born child, jobless with a boyfriend who's not the brightest star in the firmament who also has no means of contributing to the support of a child.

We only got rent on time twice and that before she popped and still had a job. Afterwards it was always late and we always had to badger the hell outta them for it. She was trying to get unemployment and he was doing some exterior house cleaning work that never brought in regular money much less any during the winter months. How she could afford to have a baby is still a mystery. Finally in mid-November we said if rent wasn’t paid on time going forward, we would terminate their tenancy as laid out in the lease. By that point, 8 months into their residency, they were on month-to-month.

We came back in early Dec to collect rent and of course, we get nothing but excuses but now it’s tendered with “we need you to install an electric furnace because it’s costing us too much in propane to heat the place. If we don’t get that, we’re not paying rent”. Of course they never turned on the ceiling fans, never dressed appropriate for winter and never thought that an electric furnace is one of the most inefficient, expensive ways to heat a place. Actually, it’s a classic tactic by tenants not wanting to pay rent by accusing the landlord of not renting them a habitable space. We expected that so I had the written “get thee the fuck out of here” paper ready, handed it to him and then got this as an answer:

“You’ll have to serve papers on us because we might not be able to leave in 30 days and will take as long as we want to leave.”

I guess it wasn’t so cold in there that they couldn’t stay for another 30+ days. Chances are they were bluffing so we left and took preliminary fact-finding steps to start an eviction process, or as it’s called here, “rent and possession”.

Yes, I was ready to toss out a mother with a 4 month old baby just before xmas. Like I said, you turn into a Republican in these situations.

As we suspected, they were bluffing and began moving their crap outta the house the next day…to a smaller, old house on the hill outside of town owned by my wife’s cousin. The cousin never gave us a courtesy call to even ask why these tenants were leaving. Oh well, they’ll deserve all the late rent and trash lying about for that non-phone call thinking they were probably poaching rental income from us. It gives you an idea that “family” around this place extends only to those born, raised and never left here.

They drained the propane tank dry (that’s probably why they packed up so quickly—they didn’t want to fill the tank again) and they’re still hauling shit out of there. They’ve not paid rent for December nor will they do so but we can’t change the locks until the 30 days’ notice on the lease is up plus I do want to give them a chance to get their shit outta there, otherwise I’ll hafta do it.

Our story is typical and not all that bad when compared to other stories I've gathered over the last several years from other small-time landlords, accidental or otherwise.

This sucks. As my wife puts it “how did I turn into this person?” We’re not cut out to be landlords, especially accidental ones. Despite this, we’re still liberal. I would have no trouble having them get food stamps, medical care for their baby, etc. But fuck if I’ll ever rent to em again and if anybody asks me about the experience…

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