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

March 1, 2012

City Journal:

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.

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.

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 makeit 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 aganef,” 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…

Read it all.

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