This baby boomer had lived most of his life under the thumb of a landlord. It was always the same refrain: The landlord did as little as could be done for the tenant. This is just the way it is in a capitalist society. Before this current era of the absentee landlord, one could understand how many of the residential rentals were in my old Brooklyn, NYC. That being a two family house saw the owner living in one apartment and the tenant in the other. Many owners needed the rents to help with their mortgage payments and taxes. This was not too bad a system. Of course, since the landlord lived in the same building, many of the issues tenants needed addressed were in fact addressed… to a point. Yet, many were not! As a divorced man renting an attic apartment in the 1980s, my landlord was an elderly widow. I lived there, above her apartment, for 10 years. The house was old and in need of upgrades, especially the oil burner and radiators. The radiators needed to be bled to assure better transmission of the heat upstairs. The oil burner, during coldest winter, would shut off a lot and needed to be reset. My apartment, in an attic arrangement, would get hit with crosswinds during cold spells. Her thermostat was in her living room and when she went to Florida for the winter she kept it set at too low a temperature… for my problems upstairs. She had her apartment locked up, so I would have to turn on my kitchen oven on bitter cold nights to keep the tiny apartment warm. When the oil burner actually shut off, I had to go next door to our neighbor Dominick (who had a key to her house) to restart the burner.
As discussed in previous columns, when I married my first wife, we lived in a two family house owned by an absentee landlord. He lived in New Jersey and I never actually met him during the four years we lived there. One time, when my son was a year old, my wife called me at work and said that she discovered giant bugs in the bathtub when she was preparing his bath. I called Frank, the landlord. He said not to worry, he would come by over the weekend and put Chlordane down the drains. When I asked my wife’s uncle, who knew more than I did about such things, he told me Chlordane was a carcinogenic and illegal in NY State. I called Frank back and told him. He laughed and said “Oh, it’s not illegal in New Jersey. I have been using it for years to kill bugs.” I told him to use it in his bathtub and let his wife and kid take a bath afterward. NOT in my bathroom!
After my second marriage, my new wife and I were renting an apartment on Long Island. We had no choice as we could not afford a house back then. Apartments were in what is called a ‘Sellers Market’, much demand for rentals with limited supply. We found an upstairs apartment in an old house (really old) that was once a one family home. It was advertised as a ‘Three bedroom’, yet the whole place was 800 square feet. The stairway had no banister, which kept my elderly parents from being able to visit us. The bathtub had wall tiles loose and occasionally falling into the tub. The joke I told was about our kitchen refrigerator: “It was so old it had arthritis.” Once again, I never actually met our landlord. He owned 19 such houses and we mailed in our rent each month. The first winter we were there we had a tremendous snowfall… at least two feet of snow. I called him up to tell him he needed to clear our stoop and sidewalk. He told me I needed to do it. I said, “John, you take $ 50 off of my rent and I’ll do it.” He sent his son over with a snow blower that afternoon.
By 1994 we decided to move to Indianapolis for two reasons. One, my son wanted to transfer to college there, and two, we could better afford to buy a home there. Our plan was to rent for a year before deciding if we wanted to stay, and then buy. When we arrived we could see that 90% of rentals were in big complexes. After visiting a few, we rented a three bedroom apartment. All the apartments were in three story structures. We arrived right after Thanksgiving and signed a seven month lease. Within a few weeks we realized what a nightmare we had jumped into. First, as my wife was at the kitchen sink the entire faucet just broke apart, and water was flying all over. A similar thing happened in the bathroom sink a few days later. Then, the crème de resistance occurred during a rainstorm. My son and I were sitting in the living room watching a football game when the ceiling started leaking… not in just one place but throughout the living room. Then, the same thing happened in our master bedroom. We found out later that this giant Chicago real estate corporation had recently purchased this 200 unit facility. The word was that the former owners had done nothing to upgrade the place for years. The new owners did not do much except give it all a fresh coat of paint and sparkle. They never did anything to fix the dilapidated roofs. We were able to threaten the corporate landlord and get out of the lease ASAP.
Since the 2008-09 housing bubble burst, more and more real estate corporations, and more and more individual entrepreneurs, behaved like sharks. They circled in and bought up foreclosed and underwater homes at fire sale prices, converting them into rentals. Read Aaron Glantz’s bestselling book Homewreckersto learn about this utter contemptible greed. Having lived through this time after time, it is disgraceful how millions of our fellow working stiffs and retired working stiffs have to put up with these Land Lords! With all the money the government can always come up with (i.e.: The TARP payouts to the Wall Street predatory firms in 2008-09) let’s have Uncle Sam begin buying up privately owned rental property (residential AND commercial) and give the public a fair break. Imagine, through Eminent Domain, having a mega unit complex become owned and operated by the local community. The renter pays at least 25-50% less than when it was privately owned. On top of that, and this is key, perhaps 10- 25% of the monthly rent goes into escrow. If the renter wishes to buy the apartment all the escrow money can be used for a down payment. A nation of owners of their own residences (and even business locations) will see more concerns for the good upkeep of said properties.
No more Land Lords!!!