The Coming and Going of a Bad Rental Property on a Reasonably Quiet Street

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This story has two parts. First, from my perspective and second, the “real” story and an example of how a well-meaning landlord can unintentionally do harm to an improving street.

My wife and I bought a home in Forest Park Southeast (increasingly known as The Grove) in March of 2006. Our street was relatively quite from the start. We didn’t get a great deal on our home, but we also avoided the drug dealers and other issues that had largely disappeared from our street by the time we moved in.

Our biggest “complaints” were focused on people not mowing their grass, general lack of maintenance of properties and litter. And that’s not bad. So when we saw a landlord putting a fresh coat of paint on a property we took heart. Sure, the rectangular vinyl windows look awful in the arched brick openings, but at least there’s new paint!

This April that all changed. One side of the two-family property had a new tenant. We tried to be sensitive to the dozen or so kids who played football on our street; they’re just kids playing. We weren’t going to say anything about the group of teenagers who sat on the steps, sometimes drinking beer; they weren’t really causing any harm.

But things got worse. A rock was thrown through our front window by two 8-year-olds who thought throwing rocks was fun. Fights starting breaking out late night in front of this apartment. The police were called. A friend had a car window broken and backpack stolen from in front of our home at 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday. Teenagers we recognized from the neighborhood began knocking on our door, each asking for someone different, looking past us as we answered. The police were called numerous times.

We began to assume that we were dealing with a negligent landlord and that this was going to be the new normal on our street. We talked about whether we wanted to move. We were disappointed that after three years of general progress in the neighborhood that we were taking a step back. We were mad.

From time to time we would talk with the tenants, they seemed nice, if a bit uncaring. In the three bedroom apartment were a mother, her brother, her son and an uncle. Others appeared to be staying there at times.

Then, last week we looked across the street and saw people in the apartment using candles. Their electricity was off. Two days later I looked out to see several children with garbage bags clearly full of clothes and toys sitting by the curb. It was a sad scene. The next day everyone was gone, no curtains, no blinds, no lights. We were happy, but didn’t know what had happened.

Yesterday I saw a man and woman outside the apartment that was now vacant. I walked over to ask what had happened to the former tenants and what was happening now. This is the quick story.

The landlord owns five properties and lives in the neighborhood, not much more than a block away. The landlord moved to the neighborhood in the 1980’s and purchased multi-family buildings for as little as $12,000. The person is now retired, and receives income from these properties. There is not a lot of incentive to convert the buildings to condos, sell to developers or put much into improvements. The buildings are all stable and presentable if not especially attractive.

This past year the apartment in questions was rented to a friend of the landlord. A couple months later he asked if a girlfriend could move in. OK, said the landlord. A month later the brother of the girlfriend needed to move in. OK. Then an uncle. OK. Then the original tenant and his girlfriend had a disagreement resulting in a fight that we witnessed; clothes on the ground, screaming, shouting, threats. The original tenant moved out.

The girlfriend asked the landlord to stay and although skeptical, it was agreed that she could stay on a trial basis. Then the problems described above really took off. More people visiting, more people pounding on their door at 5:00 p.m. only to enter and leave quietly five minutes later, etc. And the landlord was getting an earful from the longtime tenant in the adjoining apartment.

The landlord visited the apartment several times to ask the tenants to be more considerate of neighbors. Nothing worked. Finally, after several months they were evicted. The landlord expressed regret that he had ever let his property become a problem and offered contact information should I ever have an issue. The prospective renter promises to be more responsible, and I have no doubt will be so.

Even decent landlords struggle with finding quality tenants. Managing a property isn’t easy and we’re lucky that in the end the landlord recognized the problem issues. To be cynical, the last straw was likely that the tenants stopped paying their rent. Otherwise I wonder if anything would have been done. In my opinion the rent remains too low on the property and with few, if any, changes a higher rent would attract better tenants. Unfortunately that’s not up to me.

That one apartment had changed the atmosphere of a city block. It remains a fragile balance and this episode highlights the need for residents to know neighboring landlords, to be vigilant and register complaints. It’s encouraged us to report more complaints as its reinforced that it not simple negligence that can create a bad situation, but a number of factors and we can be part of the solution if we act.

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