For those who have read my previous work, you know how I feel about landlords, especially absentee ones… and most especially corporate ones! In the mid 1990s my new wife and I (each with one kid) moved from Long Island, N.Y. to Indianapolis IN. Quite candidly, we were tired of renting apartments and could not afford the high cost of ownership on Long Island. We had just experienced a terrible situation, one that many renters faced and still face nationwide: The absentee landlord. Now, mind you, it is bad enough to have to rent from a landlord who happens to live downstairs from you. My youth was spent living under such conditions, whereupon the landlord always felt like he or she was doing you a favor for renting to you… I guess the fact that you had to pay a tidy sum did not factor into their thinking at all. The Long Island situation was even worse than that. We rented the upstairs apartment in a really old house that needed lots of work… and received very little or none. My 80 year old parents could not visit us because the stairway had no banister. The tiles from the bathtub wall were falling into our bathtub, and our refrigerator most likely had arthritis it was so decrepit. Still, we paid close to $ 1000 (this is the early 1990s, mind you) for an 800 square foot apartment… wherein the door to my stepdaughter’s bedroom (if you can call a room that small a room) would not close without banging into the mattress. When it snowed the landlord did not attend to shoveling or snow blowing the stoop and sidewalk. When I called to complain he answered “Why don’t you do it?” I told him A) I would do it gladly and take $50 off of my rent each month or B) If the area was not cleared ASAP the code enforcement office would get a call. His son came by within 30 minutes with a snowblower.
So, onward to Indianapolis, where I had a client and where my son wanted to attend college. Before we would buy a home we decided to stay awhile and rent to see how things transpired. We checked out the ‘apartments for rent’ ads and realized that in Indy most of the rentals were in large corporate owned and operated complexes. The city did not have many two family homes like we had in NYC. When we drove over to the first rental complex, situated, according to my client, in a nice neighborhood, the place seemed pristine. The model apartment in the main building looked like out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The lobby area had two racquetball courts and I was really into racquetball at that time. The rental price for twice the square footage of our Long Island apartment was $300 less… a dream come true… or so we thought. We signed a 7 month lease and moved in right after Thanksgiving.
By early December we were in our new first floor apartment and all seemed well. They did have a rider in their lease agreement that no live Christmas trees were allowed. Well, the four of us wanted one, so my son and I bought one and sneaked it in through the back lanai one snowy Sunday. We set it up right front and center in the living room, figuring that since we expected zero visitors no one would find out. The tree was beautiful and fresh as can be and we reveled in decorating it with beautiful new balls and colorful lights, as we were all in the spirit of a fresh start in a new city. One evening, as my wife was doing something in the kitchen sink, the faucet just popped off suddenly and shot water all over… an omen of things to come indeed. A few days later there was a tremendous rainstorm. As my son and I sat watching a football game on television, the ceiling above us just poured water all over the carpet… and our Christmas tree! It was coming down inside our parlor so fast and furious that we pulled out the Christmas lights and placed pots throughout the living room to catch the mess. I was livid! What a joke this apartment complex was! To add insult to injury our master bedroom started having leaks as well.
The following morning I got on the phone and called the corporate offices in Chicago. When I reached them I demanded to know who in the hell was the person who managed our property in Indianapolis. The woman said it was Bob Collins and put me through to his extension. I got his answering machine and left Mr. Bob Collins a real dressing down! I told him that I was prepared to go to the Indiana Attorney General’s office to lodge a complaint against his phony corporation. I also said that I was a writer and would get through to the Indianapolis Star newspaper to give them a ‘really great consumer story’ about cheap construction of a rental complex’s roofs and fixtures. I told him that the whole ‘illusion’ of the model apartment was a sham. If he didn’t get that roof and my ceilings fixed I was going to give him and his corporation HELL! Well, that was at 10 AM and within 15 minutes the phone rang. My wife answered and said it was Bob Collins. Boy, do I get results or what? I grabbed the phone and was anxious to see how he was going to weasel out of this affair. “Mr. Farruggio, I’d like to come by and bring our facility maintenance supervisor with me to check out the situation and try to rectify it.” I said “Ok, how soon are you going to be coming down from Chicago?” He jumped in “We can be over in five minutes. I just happen to be at your complex all this week.”
They could not write a funnier comedy script than that of our family hustling around to get that live Christmas tree out of the living room before Collins got there. Where to put it? It would be too visible on the lanai so… of course, the master bedroom! I grabbed it by the stand and literally pulled it down the hallway into our bedroom, with balls and other decorations just falling and smashing onto the rug. As I pulled it my wife and kids scooped up the damage. We got it into the bedroom just as Collins was at our front door. “Quick”, I told my stepdaughter, “Stay in our bedroom and keep the door closed. I’ll tell him you’re not feeling well and asleep in our bedroom.” The tree, with the lights and decorations dangling, sat right by our bed. Collins and the maintenance guy came in, gave us the five minute B.S. about this all being an aberration and how the roofs never had this happen before (yeah, since your company just took over ownership of the complex less than a year ago) and more blah blah blah. He offered to move us to another unit, but we already knew we would be out of here within a month or two or as soon as we could purchase a house. I demanded to be let out of my lease (it only had 6 months left on it) and he said he didn’t have the authority to do it. I left him with the thought that he or his company had not heard the last from me!
Collins got back to me a couple of days later and let us out of the lease obligation. We spent the next two weeks before Christmas sleeping with the tree branches hanging over us as we slept. At least the pine scent was appreciated. That was about the only joy we got from that whole rental apartment experience. Sadly, literally millions of our fellow Americans have to put up with these same conditions by landlords, especially absentee ones. ‘Free market’ my ass! What we need to make a better society for most working stiffs out there is community owned and operated nonprofit rental housing. What if the local community owned the rental properties and then gave the tenant a chance to buy his or her unit in the near future? Imagine a caveat of perhaps 10% of each month’s rent being held in escrow towards a future down payment on a mortgage… everyone would win… except the predator absentee landlords!