City Journal

Bert Stratton
The Landlord’s Tale
A member of a maligned class explains, among other things, how he keeps up the neighborhood.
Winter 2012

Landlord-musician. I’m a hyphenated guy. Depends what kind of cocktail party I’m at, whether I say “landlord” or “musician” first (I play clarinet in a klezmer band), but I don’t try to hide the landlord part. I should: everybody hates landlords. Nobody paid rent as a child, so people think they should live free as adults, too. The walls, heat, and water—that should be free, like the wind, rain, and baby food.

Illustration by Jock
Illustrations by Jock

I used to feel guilty about charging rent. I hadn’t done anything to deserve it, other than maintaining a building—a building I hadn’t even built. Now that I’m middle-aged, though, I feel fine collecting rent. Somebody has to keep these old buildings from falling down.

Landlord-musician. I know one more in Cleveland. He’s a tough guy who wears a toupee, plays accordion and trumpet, and tells dirty jokes. He’s got a strip center on the West Side of Cleveland. “Strip center”—strange term. It’s short for “shopping strip center.”

I don’t have any strip centers. I do have about 25 storefronts: Main Street–style buildings in Lakewood, Ohio, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland. On the street level are stores. (I’ve rented to art galleries; they all go under. Things that don’t go under: beauty parlors, tanning salons, yoga studios, and bars.) Above the stores are apartments, about 160 suites in total. Like Disneyland’s Main Street, but with real mice.

A landlord friend turns up his speakerphone to demonstrate how much his tenants love him. Some kid on the other end asks if he has to hook up his own washing machine and dryer at the rental house. My buddy says, “No, we’ll supply that. Save your appliances for down the road when you buy a house.” The kid is happy.

My landlord friend rents houses in Cleveland Heights—the East Side—to medical residents, Case Western Reserve Ph.D. candidates, and Cleveland Institute of Music students. These people are high achievers with no time or inclination to trash an apartment. Has my buddy ever rented to a stripper? No.

Cleveland’s West Side, where my properties are, is a little dicier. My company screens tenants big-time. (We did let a stripper in. Make that “exotic dancer”—exotic dancer with child.) We do criminal and civil court checks, credit checks, previous landlord checks.

That’s called “keeping up the neighborhood.” Sound middle-class? Yep: we’re making a civic contribution—offering people a decent place to live in a decent neighborhood. That’s probably a bigger civic contribution than the one my band—Yiddishe Cup—makes. My plumbers and custodians keep up appearances. Every day, we create an art installation called Decent Neighborhood.

My Webb Road building is a perfect example. It has a Lebanese mini-mart guy and a Korean dry cleaner on the ground floor; upstairs are a Suzuki violin teacher, a United Express flight attendant, a truck driver, a welder, and so on. By and large, everybody gets along; in fact, some marry each other. That’s bad for business. They move in together, and I have an empty.

Illustration by Jock

After I raised the rent a mere $10 per month on a flower-shop owner, Toby, my father, smiled and said, “You’re a nice guy.” I think Toby’s smile—a rarity—meant he was glad I wasn’t a total hard-ass like him. We had arrived.

During my dad’s final days, the Cleveland Clinic nurses called him “Chief” because he was so bossy. A doctor said, “You’re a hard one.” Toby answered, “That’s right. It’s my life.” A nurse wondered if my father was in the medical field because he carried a stack of homemade medical folders. He was flattered. The closest he’d ever come to the medical field was a dental-school acceptance in the 1950s, but he couldn’t afford to go because he already had children.

Years later, I sat at McDonald’s with my elder son, Ted, 28. The first generation (my father) scrapes, the second generation (me) tries to keep things on keel, and the third (Ted) needs tutorials in toughness because it doesn’t remember the first. I told my son not to forget the little things: pens, checks, camera, Post-it notes. I said, “Lesson One: Write everything down. You don’t want to think about ‘cold water leak, Apt. 24’ all day.” Lesson Two: Be wary of restaurant workers, particularly chefs and servers. They come home late, party hard, and wake up the solid-citizen tenants in the building. Lesson Three: ABC, for “Always Be Closing”—closing a deal, that is, which, in my case, means collecting the rent. That’s from a David Mamet play and was an inside joke between my son and me. My son, like every other young person, enjoys quoting movies verbatim.

I thought of a non-movie line for Ted: “If the tenant has not mailed his rent, say to him, ‘Do not mail in your late rent. Hand it to the custodian. Hand it.’ We don’t want to wonder if the post office has lost the check.” Ted seemed more interested in his burger. I wasn’t up to Mamet’s standards. “The job sucks on some level!” I said. That got Ted’s attention. “You make it interesting. It took me a while.”

Back in 1986, my father dragged me to a lightning-round tutorial with Cousin Gershy. Gershy looked horrible—three strokes and two heart attacks. He said, “You’ve got that little curl in the tail—that little something different—that something the new treatment doesn’t cure. You’re in trouble. They say, ‘We can’t straighten out your tail. You’re dead.’ That’s what the doctors tell me.”

Gershy had shotguns over the mantle, plus a horn from a longhorn steer and plaques that read SHALOM. “You wouldn’t believe it, but I used to be a shtarker,” Gershy said. (Strong guy or bully.) I believed it.

Gershy’s steer horn cost $50. At one point, the gun dealer who had sold it to Gershy decided that he wanted it back. “Gun dealers is a funny ballpark,” Gershy said. “He could shoot me, but a deal is a deal. That’s the way it is.”

Gershy owned a shopping strip center on Mayfield Road in Cleveland Heights and wanted to sell it. His price was too high, Toby said. “If the kid is interested,” Gershy said, looking at me, “I’d come down.” “It’s up to the kid,” Toby said. “I’ll work with him,” Gershy said.

Driving home, Toby said, “Gershy has mellowed.” Mellowed? “And he’s a ganef,” Toby added. (Thief.) “Don’t buy anything from him.”

I didn’t.

At McDonald’s, I told my son, “If a real-estate broker claims operating expenses are just 45 percent of gross income, he’s delusional.” I slid a Wall Street Journal across the table. “Take it. Take the paper.” The Journal was the best I could offer. I didn’t see any Gershys or Tobys around. Unless you counted me.

How hard is this to understand? “If the applicant is approved and makes a deposit—and then decides not to move into the apartment—the deposit will be forfeited.”

Nobody gets it. . . . “I changed my mind.” “My mom just found out she’s terminally ill.” “I’m going back with my wife.” “I should have told you I’m an alcoholic and need to move into a sober house.” Business is business. I hang on to the deposit.

An applicant once stopped payment on her deposit, a bank check. That worked—I didn’t know you could stop a bank check. Nice move. She got me.

I get a lot of late rent checks, too. Some landlords charge $50 for a late check. I charge $20. Late fees are a no-win situation—you charge more and the tenant goes into debt even more quickly. I learned that lesson about late fees from an old-time Cleveland landlord who made a million and lost it and made it back. He wound up killing himself because he lost a million the last time around.

A lot of real-estate guys are gamblers like that, but I’m not. I went into real estate because it was the family business. It was an odd fit. Real estate isn’t a field for University of Chicago types, and I was a University of Chicago type. Actually, I went to the University of Michigan, but I visited the University of Chicago a lot when I was in college. I liked how the U of C students laughed at the jokes in all the right places in cult movies like Harold and Maude. The movie itself wasn’t that funny, but the students were.

I do my own “forcible entry and detainers.” That means evictions. First, I serve the deadbeat tenant an eviction notice. Then I go to court and, for $85, fill out another piece of paper, called a “forcible entry.” On the form, under “cause of action,” I write: “Tenant owes back rent.” I used to write novellas, like “wherefore plaintiff prays to receive damages and the cost of this action”—waste of time. The tenant is broke; you’re not going to get anything by writing more.

I occasionally lose a case, usually on oddball stuff, like when an AIDS victim claimed I didn’t rent to him because of his illness. I hadn’t known he had AIDS. We settled for $620, and I was fine with that. You know what a discrimination case can cost? Another AIDS victim wanted to move from the fourth floor to the first. I didn’t want that; the guy was always late with his rent, and I would have to repaint his old suite and his new one. He got a lawyer who said I was discriminating. I said, “Can I help you with that couch?”

I sometimes hire a lawyer for legal complications—matters beyond the workaday. For instance, the city wanted to ban basement dwellings because the mayor thought below-ground suites were a throwback to the dark ages when custodians lived underground and stoked coal-fired boilers.

My lawyer brought a stenographer to the city hearing. The city guys were impressed. A group of babushka landladies who also owned basement rental units were there as well. Afterward, they all thanked me for stymieing the city’s effort.

Here’s some free legal advice. Do not discriminate against people with kids. Federal law prohibits it. Do discriminate on age—on the young side—if you want. But be consistent. For example, you can ban adults under a certain age, say 22, from your apartments. That means 18-to-21-year-olds can’t live in your buildings, which reduces the partying and the potatoes stuck in the toilet trap.

When you try to evict a party animal, you need to quote verbatim from the Ohio Revised Code, Section 5321.05(A)(8). That’s the part that requires a tenant to “conduct himself and require other persons on the premises with his consent to conduct themselves in a manner that will not disturb his neighbors’ peaceful enjoyment of the premises.” You have to use that exact language.

Peaceful enjoyment: that’s the goal.

Before I hire a building manager, I interview the candidate at his residence. One man’s house had no front stoop, and he had four dogs in the living room. There was hardly any non-dog space in the house. We did the interview in a bedroom on the third floor. There was a big bird up there.

How about a doormat that says GOT BEER? I hired a woman with that doormat and she worked out well. She was a steady worker and controlled her drinking.

Ethnic factory workers are usually solid, too. Too bad they—ethnics and factories—don’t really exist any more. Benny Artino, one of my building managers, worked the day shift at Eaton Axle. His wife, Betty, was the world’s best cleaner. She wanted to be buried with a can of Comet. I gave her an unlimited cleaning budget. She liked to vacuum every day. I didn’t try to stop her. Why would I?

One of my worst hires was a cocaine addict. She ran up my Home Depot account with charges for an air compressor and a toolbox, which she fenced. But the $50 gift certificate she bought was over the top. After I fired her, she asked me to meet at Taco Bell and reconsider. My father had given an employee a second chance once, and she had repaid my dad and stayed on the job. But my custodian—the cokehead—said, “I have a few shopliftings but I never stole from people.”

Was I not “people”? I stuck with fired. But I didn’t say, “You’re fired.” I said, “If you turn in the keys this weekend, I’ll pay your moving expenses and give you $400, and I won’t call the cops.” Sometimes it pays to move people.

I once employed a custodian whose family was “a bunch of burglars,” according to the investigating cop. Why the cop had waited so long to tell me, I don’t know. All along, the custodian’s kids had pilfered tools and lawnmowers from me, but I couldn’t prove anything, and besides, I liked the guy. He was a hardworking “hillbilly”—his term. I was his “little bitty buddy.” His kids took the master key and broke into an apartment across the hall. Then they committed a botched burglary down the street and confessed to that, plus my break-in. My custodian had to move out. “See you in the funny papers,” he said. Six years with me—and then, so long, because his kids were crooks.

Illustration by Jock

One day, I discovered human excrement in the basement of one of my properties, an unlocked vacant store. (The store was unlocked because we had a carpet crew coming in, but we didn’t know when.) Why the trespasser hadn’t used the toilet—which worked—was a mystery.

I offered the building’s manager $25 to clean up the mess. He said, “I’ll take $38.75.” I said $40. He stuck with $38.75. He said, “A good bottle of Scotch is $38.75. Scotch malt whiskey, my God in freaking heaven, the joy of it!”

I ran into the carpet foreman and asked if he had taken a dump in the basement. Why not ask? He said no. He was an odd guy, though. For instance, nearly every time I saw him, he would make an off-key remark about Jews. “Jews are cheap,” that was his favorite. He told tenants, “Stratton won’t put anything good in because that costs money.” I got rid of him a couple of times. But he did good work—and he was cheap—so I brought him back.

He said, “It’s Chanukah time. We’re best buds. Can you pay me up front?” He had no idea what he was talking about. Pay him up front? Best buds? He said Scrooge was Jewish. No, I said, Scrooge wasn’t Jewish. He answered that I was a “Reformed Jew” and that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I asked him to stop talking about Jews, but he couldn’t help himself. He told me his mother was Jewish. He repeated, “We’re best buds, Bert. Come on, pay me. You know I’m going to do the job tomorrow.”

I didn’t pay him. Feces happens. But I did pay the building manager the $38.75.

A tenant almost sued me for icicle damage to her body. A falling icicle had grazed her shoulder. She said it was a 25-pound icicle.

She wouldn’t have won. There is no law stating that I control the weather. Icicles are in the playoff series, nature division, along with cardinals, sycamores, and lightning bugs. And there is no way to prevent ice buildup unless you put a heating cable in the gutter. But she might have endlessly bugged me, so I told her to take some money off her rent.

At the Webb building, the icicles look like Niagara Falls in stop-action. The alleyway in back should be declared a national sanctuary for icicles, it’s so frigid and dark. A college film crew shot a crime-action movie in that alley. They strewed litter to make the alley look worse. (They picked it up afterward.) They also spread rock salt to melt the snow and ice. Use the snow, use the icicles, I wanted to tell them. Work with it.

When the police call at 2 AM, I can usually guess the script: A drunk has fallen through a storefront window. A lot of people are coming out of bars at 2 AM, and some of them are falling through windows.

I’ve rented to a couple of bars. That state liquor license, that’s gold for a working-class guy trying to enter the middle class. A bar can change its name and ownership, but it’ll always be a bar.

Unless it’s demolished. I razed a bar once—the Stop-N-Go. The city replaced it with a shopping center. Was I against eminent domain? Not in this case. The Stop-N-Go was a hole, and we got a good price. The only real loss, civically speaking, was the bar’s secluded back-door entrance, which was behind a warehouse. Nobody could see you go in. Mailmen in uniform especially liked that.

We sprayed a tenant’s suite for cockroaches, and it didn’t work. The tenant wrote a letter demanding that we do it again; if we didn’t, she would put her rent in escrow. She worked in a law office.

We sprayed again. Then we sprayed the whole building. About $1,000 worth of spray. She still had bugs, so she called the city’s buildings department, which sent out its newest, most gung-ho inspector, who decided we needed to point the chimney, plane the boiler-room door in the basement, and fix up everything in between. Which we did.

Then she complained again. So we brought in a guy with cockroach poison-gas “bombs.” He zapped her apartment, including a direct hit on her coffeepot. A dozen cockroaches scampered out. She had gotten a used coffeepot from her boyfriend. That roach-infested coffeepot set me back $2,000.

I planned not to renew her lease, but she told me she was leaving anyway. That annoyed me. As did her 20-pound bond legal stationery. She wasn’t even a lawyer.

On move-out day, she left her mattress and air conditioner on the lawn. I had to move them to the Dumpster. And I didn’t deduct anything from her deposit. She was an okay tenant. Her only major negative: she had dropped a dime on me, times 20,000.

I knew a building inspector who could smell rats. That’s what he claimed, anyway. He didn’t even have to see the droppings. I also knew a custodian who could jimmy almost any apartment door with a credit card.

My own talent—somewhat dubious—is figuring out if a tenant has skipped out or not. First, the tenant hasn’t paid his rent. That’s a given. I knock loudly on the tenant’s door. No answer. I yell “maintenance” a couple of times and bring out the master key. I yell “maintenance” a third time, and I step into the apartment.

A couch, a bed . . . always. Skippers leave behind the heavy stuff. TVs, too. Everyone upgrades his TV on move-out. Some small items stay behind: beer bottles, pennies, unopened bills. Usually enough junk to fill three or four trash bags. The stove: broken and greasy. The refrigerator: always missing some shelves. (Why?) Underwear and socks: gone. No socks, no tenant. The guy has definitely skipped.

If I’m not completely sure the skipper is gone, I have to file an eviction. I buy eviction notices by the carton. I go to court every two months. The deadbeats rarely show up, and if they do, there’s nothing to talk about. They didn’t pay the rent; they have to move.

My friend the nice-guy landlord knows all his tenants, and sometimes they screw him out of four months’ rent because he’s so nice. I know another landlord who takes some of his tenants out to dinner. At Christmastime, I used to buy chocolates for tenants. I spent over $1,000 and got thank-you notes from 1 percent of them. My dad thought I was nuts.

I used to keep a folder called “goodwill” in case some reporter phoned and said, “Can I speak to the slumlord?” I’d whip that folder right out. I haven’t needed it yet.

Real estate is like life. It’s not orderly. One day, two-bedroom apartments are moving; the next, nobody will touch them. Some years, tons of tenants move out in January; in other years, everybody stays. There is no pattern to anything in real estate. The only certainty is that 10 percent of your tenants will give you 90 percent of your problems.

I try to avoid certain tenants in the hallways. If I say hi to some of these people, it’s going to cost me at least $400. Could be a new stove or a bathroom tile job.

I had a tenant whose wristwatch played Beethoven. I talked to him, and it didn’t cost me a cent. He had moved to Cleveland from Buffalo to teach guitar. His family ran a musical-gifts company, he told me.

I had another tenant who enclosed a poem with her rent, something about wildlife outside her apartment window. “The hawk waits / A dignified duration. / Flies.” Not bad. I told her to take $25 off her rent—once.

I had a tenant who regularly won the Miss Cleveland contest for transvestites. Young guys would crawl in through his ground-floor window. The cops—and I—did not like that. Too many visitors is a big negative.

William, my drug-dealing tenant, also attracted a lot of traffic, which was bad for the hallway carpet. The cops told me to stand to the side of the door—not directly in front—when I gave him his eviction notice. The cops were right next to me. William said he wasn’t dealing drugs. But he did move; I guess he didn’t like the cops knocking on his door.

The basic rule in Cleveland real estate is that the landlord gives you a fresh coat of paint, a clean refrigerator, and some heat, and you give him a third of your income. And you figure you should be paying a whole lot less than that.

Or else you do pay a whole lot less than that and move into a ramshackle apartment in a lousy neighborhood.

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