2017-03-24 / Letters

Renter feels pain of establishing a home

To the editor:

Last week in South Portland, I attended my first ever city council meeting. To my surprise, I spoke (shaky voiced) at the podium. The topic was rent stability and protection. Most of the attendees were landlords. Even though I no longer live in that city, I had for a few months at the beginning of my southern Maine housing crisis. In life I was doing “all the right things.” I paid my own way through college. I found jobs that expected me to have that degree. I then found some additional part -time work to pay off my student loans. I was raised believing that education is one of the few investments that will eventually pay for itself. I found a small single bedroom apartment and lived there for more than five years. I always paid my rent on time and rarely spent anything on social expenses. Meanwhile, there was a wage freeze.

In 2015, ownership of the building I lived in switched hands to another family member and the building manager quit because, for one, the neighborhood (near the West End in Portland) felt unsafe. The police were showing up regularly. There were girls working the streets. I once walked through the beginning of, and then witnessed and reported a violent mugging across the street. A homeless couple started squatting in the basement. I reported it to the new management company. It was quarantined. The management company was fired and the rent immediately went up. I could no longer afford to stay. In truth, I had always been paying more than 30 percent of my income. It is my belief that most people do and have been. Housing is an absolute priority so poverty will go under the radar until you start cranking up the cost to the absolute breaking point and expose it. Or, you can have your income invasively confirmed. Money is a sensitive topic. People prefer not to discuss it if they have too much and people prefer not to discuss if they have too little. Even having just the right amount, it feels like a topic to avoid. My poverty felt exposed when I finally gave in and made an inquiry into affordable housing. Even my typical office job income, the same income I made at a full time position expecting a college degree, was too low to be approved for low income housing. It doesn’t make sense.

I continued working full time, growing my own business on the side and rented a room (temporarily) from family in South Portland. I was not on the lease but they needed help and (though also well educated and highly skilled) could not find a job that paid them appropriately for the skills they brought to the table. For better opportunities, they moved out of state and I moved into a one bedroom with my then boyfriend.

We signed a one-year lease and split the rent. We were respectful, quiet and paid on time every month. After just a few months, droves of real estate agents began disrupting our lives and parading through our apartment. Then we received an eviction notice (prior to our lease ending). The building had been sold. We did nothing wrong. Our lease, it seemed, meant nothing. The new developers were a large company with many units. They were chomping through the city scooping up multi-units that individual owners were either cashing in on or could no longer bear the weight of. They were allegedly being renovated and rents were being nearly doubled. We (my partner and I) were merely a number and one that was insignificant to the bigger picture. I still don’t know what that picture is, just that we weren’t a part of it.

We moved to another small one bedroom apartment. The management company had us sign a paper stating that we did not have bedbugs in the previous building. We did not. I asked if they had had any trouble. They said that by now all buildings have had them at one point or another but that our unit was clean. The very first night as we lay exhausted in bed getting ready to finally relax with a glass of celebratory wine, bed bugs started crawling down the walls of our bedroom that was only just wide enough for the bed itself. They crawled in by the dozens. It was horrifying. They had been in the ceiling, dormant, which they can be for up to a year without feeding. The unit had been vacant for several months and the previous tenant (turns out) had them. I later found out that the building regularly has them. We had to stay in the apartment while treatment was ongoing. Human breath wakes them up. We stayed as live bait in our own new home. Eleven people helped us move and we felt we had to disclose the infestation. It was extremely embarrassing. One was bitten and had to treat her car and apartment. The landlord did not help pay, but luckily I have family in pest control who were able to help us out. Our apartment and life was bagged up. We acquired additional unplanned expenses and lived in complete chaos for the first three months. We still paid rent on time, sometimes wondering why we were paying so much to live that way. It was a battlefield. My skin blistered, wept, burned and itched for weeks. My partner, who held an upper management job, had a serious mental breakdown shortly after all of this. I’m sure our living environment did not help. We were released from the lease (by our request) due to the bedbug issue, having waited until it cleared. He found a job up north and I temporarily moved in with family, this time in Westbrook. It’s hard enough to find reasonable housing and even harder when you’ve just escaped bedbugs. I moved into seasonal housing (my fifth move since 2015) in Old Orchard Beach. There are so many vacancies here over the winter. It makes me sad. So many people are in need of a roof over their heads but cannot sustain the transience that I have am now managing to navigate.

The last few years have been like surviving a fire. Most everything is just gone. Some destroyed (and never replaced) after the quarantine. Others destroyed (and never replaced) due to the bedbug infestation. I then just starting letting go …. of childhood keepsakes, the art I’d been creating for decades, new furniture that (in some cases) I had just purchased, boxes of beautiful books. They became things I’d have to carry… and carry… and carry around.

I listened to landlords at that meeting express their frustration at not being able to get ahead, frustrations with tenants failing to pay. I realized that many tenants and small rental property owners have become the brunt of the same joke. We’ve been told all our lives that there are certain things you do in order to climb the proverbial ladder: You go to college and you buy property. I’ve done one of them. It helped me secure a job that kept me below the poverty line. I began to see that these landlords and I had been living and working and striving and investing in different but similar ways.

An investment can fail. My business could fail. An expensive college degree could fail, even as an honor student. Rental unit ownership can fail but nobody talks about that. I heard a lot of landlords saying that they bought property because they no longer wanted to be insecure in their own family housing. They saved every penny and spent their blood, sweat and tears to buy property to get themselves out of an unstable housing situation. We are all driven by the fear of losing the roof over our heads. It’s a primal fear. For those of us who saved every penny and invested blood, sweat and tears differently, there should not be an implication that we should lose the roof over our heads simply because we sought stability in a different way. What I saw at the meeting from landlords did not sound like stability to me. I do not regret not buying a multi unit.

I am invested in this state because I invested in becoming a licensed massage therapist in this state. I am invested in this part of the state because I have spent the last eight years developing relationships with other business owners and growing a local clientele base. It was not a mistake for me to save and invest in something other than property. There are so many unrepresented renters who invested their blood, sweat and tears in varying other ways. Investment diversity should be celebrated. We need it in communities to thrive.

I heard from landlords at the meeting, “it’s not my job to deal with income inequality. I have a mortgage to pay.” Tenants are saying, “It’s not my problem you bought real estate that’s falling apart while you are self teaching the skills required to maintain it or one that’s now crawling with bedbugs, I can only give you so much of my paycheck.” “It’s not my fault that there is a wage freeze, I can only work so many hours.” I heard a lot from council members about educating tenants regarding their rights. I wonder, has there really been enough education for landlords regarding their risks? As a non-homeowner, I have felt an extraordinary amount of apathy toward rent induced poverty. Can you actually imagine though what would happen if every person who experienced unstable housing bought a multi unit? Who would we rent them to?

I see loved ones work themselves to the bone fixing, maintaining and managing property. They have perhaps watched me doing the same to build a different kind of small business. We work hard. I see it. I get it. It turns out, success as the result of college education is not a sure thing the way we were told to expect it. It turns out, success as the result of property ownership is not a sure thing the way we were told to expect it. Big or small, multi-unit property ownership is a business. Landlords, like many of their tenants, are entrepreneurs in the making. Success as the result of starting a small business is never a sure thing, that is something we’ve probably been told. If a landlord is running their business poorly, there should be consequences as there are for all business owners. I believe there is an inherent ethical risk in a business that supplies a necessity rather than a commodity. Are landlords being educated about these risks? Good business owners know that keeping an established client is good for business. It’s good in the service industry. It’s good in the health care industry. It’s good in the housing industry.

It’s disappointing to believe you’ve finally climbed up that invisible rung only to find that the ladder is a circle, you may have miscalculated your risks and you’ve got 99 new problems. Families are at risk of falling apart from the strain. Landlords, I hope, are educated about, and held responsible for, the business they are running without constantly sinking under the weight of the process itself. Non-rental homeowners should be micromanaged even less. What they do with their own home/ property is mostly their own business. Tenants, however, they are like patients purchasing a necessary treatment. They are not the antagonists of home ownership goals. Somewhere along the way, this has been lost. If tenants cannot pay rents due to wage stagnation but landlords cannot pay mortgages without those increases, we are looking towards each other about a problem that has nothing to do with either of us. It is neither of our faults and we need to gather our calmness and wisdom and refocus this frustration on what is really happening.

Amanda Carlson Old Orchard Beach

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