November 19th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Housing the Troublesome

There goes any hope of the landlord fixing any of my problems with the apartment. We got the following notice on our doors today (some details omitted):
With the help of the St. John City Hall housing inspector we found some people without occupancy permit lived in [address in our apartment complex omitted]. The walls are covered with mold. ¶ We wish every tenant can help us check your rooms, make sure there is no any mold and no water damage either. If you find any problem, please contact me any time.
(Don't pick on the grammar. English isn't the owner's first language.)

Which means yet another unit that can't be rented until it has been, at an expense in the many thousands of dollars, gut rehabbed. This comes as they haven't even finished rehabbing the unit below me, although I gather they're getting close. I don't know the back story to the unit mentioned in today's memo, but I do know this one, more or less, and it relates to the reference to "people without occupancy permit" in the newer case, too.

You see, about a year and a half ago, I happened to meet my new downstairs neighbor in the hall. While I was helping her with something, she mentioned that these were rough times for her. She was on disability like me, but making a lot less. (Lower initial earnings, obviously, for those of you who don't know SSI/SSDI in the US.) And even with the Section 8 housing voucher, where the federal government was picking up all of her rent that exceeded 1/3 of her income, she was having a hard time making ends meet. So she was really looking forward to the day that her boyfriend got out of prison and moved in with her.

I really wish I'd mentioned that to the landlord. I decided to give them, to give him, the benefit of the doubt, and I'm still paying for that. Within months, they'd been evicted. I didn't hear the details right away, but I started hearing construction noises below me, heavy construction, almost immediately. Over the course of the next year, the landlord had to replace the carpets, the floors, the doors, most of the walls, and all of the major appliances. For reasonable privacy reasons, nobody has told me all of the details, but one telling detail emerged: all of the walls had huge holes punched or kicked into them. Given a second chance after paying his debt to society, this guy immediately engaged in some kind of orgy of violence and property damage that at least cost her her Section 8 voucher, which at least rendered her homeless, and which tore up her apartment so badly that the rebuilding cost is killing the landlord's ability to afford critical routine maintenance on the rest of the apartment complex. I've got 18 problems on a broken-items list that I turned in to the landlord, 3 of them critical -- critical as in they're rendering the apartment hard to live in and causing further damage to the building that is eventually going to run his repair costs up if he doesn't address them now. But from his point of view, what's he going to do? He's now got at least two units that can never be rented at all without investing thousands and thousands of dollars into practically rebuilding them from scratch, and no sooner did he get close to finishing the first one when the second one came along.

See, you'd think that Section 8 would be a great deal for landlords. They can set the amount of the rent to almost whatever they want it to be. The law says "fair market rate" but it has a ridiculously generous definition of "fair market rate" and even that definition isn't very well enforced. They can take any tenant that the government grants a Section 8 voucher to, charge them a pretty reasonably affordable 1/3 of their after-tax income for rent, and without showing any paperwork of any kind thereafter simply bill the government, every month, for free money equal to the difference. If they play clever (and illegal, but seldom enforced against) games with that "fair market rent" they can set it so high that they make money even if the tenant never pays, because whether or not the tenant does, the government pays. And they can, and do, evict any problem tenants. So what's not to love? Why is it so nearly impossible for so many people who get a Section 8 voucher to find a landlord willing to take them? This kind of thing: the fact that the tenant that you screened may be reasonable and safe, but you have no way of knowing who they'll take in. For anybody to move into any residence in St. John, Missouri, as in almost any city or city suburb, requires a piece of city paperwork called an Occupancy Permit. It has to list the names of everybody who lives there, and in theory the law requires you to update your Occupancy Permit whenever the person(s) living at that address changes. And in the case of rental property, you bet the landlord is supposed to be notified; it's both in the lease agreement and in city law. And here's why.

There are people with a long history of not paying their rent, of tearing up property, of engaging in violence, of attracting criminal gangs to the property, or (in too many cases) more than one of the above. And you better bet that any sane landlord who's had one of these tenants reports this to whichever tenant screening company that he uses, and that he checks any new tenants and their permanent or semi-permanent guests with that screening company, that he pays that company to search the list of reports from other landlords. But all the screening in the world does little or no good, because it doesn't answer the following question. If somebody's lived a life that has wrecked their credit rating so buying a home is out of the question, and somebody has burned enough landlords that nobody will rent to them, and the shelters won't take them because of their record, and the jails are full, and the cops sweep the streets, where do these people go? Where they go, frankly, is into the homes of people they talk into taking them in, into the homes of relatives who "have to" take them in, or of people who feel sorry for them, or who may, Gods help us, even feel attracted to them. At which point they commit the grave sin of abusing that hospitality by destroying their host, their host's home, and their whole neighborhood.

I'm not talking about "Million Dollar Murray" here, the kind of person who imposes such high costs on society that a case can be made that it's worth it to assign them a full-time keeper at public expense to clean up after them and make them stay out of trouble. Much lesser nuisances than that can destroy a house. We ought to know; four rented houses in my neighborhood have had to be bulldozed just in the last three or so years. And what they can do to an apartment building has to be seen to be believed. And it can be as trivial as this: if there is someone living there whose name isn't on the lease and there's no time to hide the evidence of this, does the person whose name is on the lease call the landlord to get it repaired when the toilet leaks? Or a pipe ruptures? Or there's a small electrical fire? Or the refrigerator malfunctions? Or an insect infestation sets in? Anybody living there legally would, but once somebody's shown kindness to someone not allowed to live there, they don't dare. In this neighborhood, not only would they face the prospect of homelessness if they were caught having unlisted roommates, they could even be facing deportation if the landlord got angry enough to call La Migra.

And I honestly don't know what we're supposed to do with people who either don't know how to take care of themselves or who don't care how badly they tear up the place they live. It's not like we can shoot them for either of those things. We can evict them when we catch them; I've even had to do that to a roommate myself once, when she was creating a horrible health hazard in her room. But that just moves the problem around, inflicts it on somebody else. Because they do go somewhere. There's an environmentalist slogan that you can't really throw anything away because there is no such place as "away." Well, you know what? You can't really throw anyone away, either, for the same reason. Never mind the ethics or morality of throwing people away, it physically can't be done because, as they say, there is no such place as "away."