College Green, Iowa City, Iowa, 1999
My first residence out of college was a single-room sublet with a communal bathroom and kitchen in a giant old house. My roommates and I were in a band and we recorded an album in the attic. I was underemployed, temperatures hit record highs, and I was in the midst of a protracted, summer-long breakup with my college girlfriend. Of course I have fond memories of the place.
Any elisions in this timeline represent long stretches without unpleasant interactions with landlords, and uneventful tenancies make boring stories. I rented many apartments throughout Iowa City and Chicago before my first full-scale landlord-induced meltdown, which set into motion a series of motifs I’d revisit over the next eight years:
1. The Initially Nice but Later Incompetent and/or Crooked Landlord;
2. The Lost Forwarding Address;
3. The Unhinged Phone Call and/or Letter;
4. The Fuck-Off Money;
5. The Admittedly Unwise Decisions on My Part; and
6. The Ineffectual Legal Half-Measure.
Northeast, Minneapolis, Minn., 2005-2006
Shortly after I was accepted to grad school in Minneapolis, I rented a place sight-unseen via email; an alum of my program needed a roommate. Our apartment was the ground-floor unit in a large, extremely neglected house. We were burgled once (the back door was rickety enough that the culprits simply forced it open); the shower was a cold trickle, the bathroom floor was missing tiles, and there was a two-inch gap between the window pane and the frame in my bedroom window.
Our landlord was a single mother who lived on the second floor and was working on a Ph.D. in American or maybe Gender Studies. She was sweet, but when we asked her to fix the shower or the windows she told us she’d “already done everything [she] could” (Motif #1). I will call her Martha Nussbaum, despite my affection for her namesake’s work.
When we moved out, Martha called us to say she’d lost our forwarding addresses (Motif #2), that she was withholding our deposit, and that we owed her even more money to fix up damage to the apartment (damage that had undoubtedly been there for years before we moved in). We each sent her letters pointing out that because more than 21 days had passed since we moved out, she actually owed us our full deposit plus late fees, according to state law. Martha responded with Motif #3, sending us each extremely long letters (mine was seven single-spaced pages) enumerating the ways in which we were terrible people, had ruined her heretofore pristine property, and had put her daughter’s life at risk by allowing our apartment to be burgled. With mine, she enclosed a check for $7, the fuck-off money she’d decided I deserved according to her mysterious calculations (#4). I never cashed it.
Yes, it’s possible that we could have cleaned the place better when we moved out (#5), though with such derelict properties it’s hard to tell where mess ends and decrepitude begins. I can’t claim complete faultlessness, but, in a dynamic that has become unsettlingly familiar over the years, there is a great leap between me neglecting to take care of some basic tenant-maintenance matters and an adult, in some cases decades older than I am, maligning my character and screaming at me.
I went to the University of Minnesota’s free legal-advice service and met with a woman who told me I had a pretty strong case. She called Martha and, after getting an earful, got her to agree to giving me $55 (#4 revisited), which she never paid. In retrospect, I should have just taken her to court (#6).
Lowry Hill, Minneapolis, Minn., 2009-2010
This was a tiny unit in an old brick building in a nice part of town, which justified the relatively high rent for closet-sized kitchens and a sinking foundation. The superintendent was a man whose actual name was Michael Jackson. The unit I moved into had been painted garish colors, so Mike kindly bought me paint and my girlfriend and I had a grand old time painting the rooms together.
Mike was nice enough, but after a few months started offering the tenants deals where we could get rent reductions if we paid him in cash (Motif #1). I foolishly took him up on this offer (#5) until I began having qualms, which was also around the time the landlord (whom I’ll call Bill O’Reilly, for reasons which will soon become apparent) found out about the scheme, fired him, and replaced him with an affable hipster who was probably younger than me.
After I moved out and three weeks went by without any returned deposit, I called Bill. He told me that the new super had never given him my forwarding address (#2), then told me I was “a nice enough tenant but a horseshit painter,” and that he was withholding funds for re-painting. I’d left the walls as they were because the super hadn’t raised any objections about them during our walk-through. If anything, I felt like I’d done Bill a favor since my colors were much more palatable than the previous tenant’s.
I pointed out to Bill that none of that really mattered, deposit-wise, since it had been more than 21 days since I’d moved out and that he now owed me my full deposit, plus a fee, etc. I even cited the Minnesota state Tenant’s Bill of Rights, a pamphlet I’d picked up during my Ineffectual Legal Half-Measures with Martha, hoping to give my words a patina of formality.
This was a mistake. Bill, screaming now, told me that “that Bill of Rights is a bunch of liberal bullshit [I] can cram up [my] ass,” and that “[I] could go ahead and take [him] to court, because [he] wins those cases 99 out of 100 times.” He then hung up, preventing me from asking him why he’s been to court 100 times.
I sent Bill a letter officially asking for my deposit back, plus fees, or I’d take him to small-claims court. He wrote back, calmer now, and despite his early confidence in a courtroom victory, suggested that surely there must be an amicable solution. He offered me about $300, which was too much to be fuck-off money but still considerably less than my deposit. And, in keeping with Motif #6, I accepted, because conflict makes me physically ill and I just wanted to be done with Bill.
Hamline-Midway, Saint Paul, Minn., 2012-2013
After Amanda and I got married last summer, we wanted to rent a house where we could have a dog. Unable to find such a place in Minneapolis within our price range, we did the unthinkable and moved to Saint Paul. To certain partisans of either Twin City, moving to the Other One is an act of betrayal tantamount to going from Mac to PC or voting for the Other Party. We had our doubts about crossing over, but we were reasonably happy with our surroundings, and any misgivings we have for our Saint Paul spell have nothing to do with the city and everything to do with our landlord.
Our new landlord lived literally across the alley from us; for reasons we never deduced, he’d moved his family into a new house one hundred feet to the south and was renting out his old one. He was a personal-injury lawyer, so let’s call him Robert Kardashian. Robert loved us at first; he told told us we were ideal tenants. We told him we had a cat and wanted to get a dog; he said he’d allow pets with a pet deposit. When we sat down to sign the lease, our first red flags went up: he wanted a pet fee—not a deposit—of $50 a month, per pet, non-refundable. This would amount to an additional $1,200 if we lived there for a year, kept our cat, and got a dog. We signed the lease anyway (Motif #5), and he said perhaps we could renegotiate the pet fee when and if we adopted a dog. We were charmed enough to believe him.
Robert was often visible through our rear window, since the lease he’d drawn up allowed him to continue gardening in the backyard and using his/our garage. He already felt too close for comfort, and we couldn’t help feeling like he was ripping us off. Our conversations with him were amiable but strained; he had a way of hijacking any discussion by free-associating aloud at great length before finally delivering his bad news or nonsensical ultimatum. When we informed him we were planning to adopt a rescue dog and asked if he was still willing to renegotiate the pet fee, he held forth about how he was already doing us a favor because he’d researched the rental market and should be charging far more for rent, and wished we didn’t have any pets at all (both things he should have expressed before we ever signed a lease), before finally announcing that we still had to pay an additional $50 a month. A simple “no” would have sufficed.
This additional $100 a month on top of our already steep rent, and our burgeoning resentment toward Robert, is what truly catalyzed our decision to begin the house-hunting process. We figured it would probably be at least a year before we even found, much less closed on, a place we liked. Instead, thanks to an amazing realtor and a favorable market, we found a newly renovated house back in Minneapolis almost immediately. We talked to Robert about leaving the lease early, and he agreed to let us if we found new tenants, which we immediately did. We confirmed our closing date with our realtor and informed Robert of our move-out date.
But of course nothing was ever that simple with Robert. The amended lease was accompanied by a letter that began in very officious legalese before lapsing into run-on sentences about news stories he’d heard regarding widespread delays in closing dates due to irregularities in the housing market.
(Robert’s correspondence, like his speech, throbbed with first-draft sloppiness; I had to read his letters multiple times to decoct their meaning. His sudden shifts from the elevated diction of his profession to informal and meandering non-sequiturs made his correspondence sound like it had been written by a Yale 1L on peyote. I feel sorry for his clients.)
The apparent upshot of his letter was that even if our closing date was delayed, we still had to be out of the house, and he would not let us stay a day longer. Okay, boss.
Despite Robert’s expert real-estate analysis and Dickensian ultimatums, we closed on the house with zero delay or hassle. Having learned my lessons with past landlords and internalized all the motifs (or so I thought), I gave Robert our forwarding address in writing. I had the house professionally cleaned. We even agreed to vacate a week early so that Robert could do some maintenance; we thought maybe he’d even refund us that week’s rent. By now we should have known that was a very naïve hope.
Longfellow, Minneapolis, Minn., infinity and beyond
The day after we’d vacated Robert’s house and turned in our keys, he sent us an email dangerously close to embodying Motif #3: a litany of ways in which the house was apparently still a mess, including the memorable phrase “the whole house smells like a cat,” which Amanda and I have adopted as one of those grim one-liners that couples invoke in times of much-needed levity.
Amanda and I freaked out, because, in keeping with Motif #5, I hadn’t done a walk-through after the cleaners left, because I’d had very good experiences with the company in the past. But it was possible they’d missed some things, and I was willing to pay whatever it took to end our tenancy amicably, so I called the cleaning company and arranged for them to return to the house, do a walk-through with Robert, and clean absolutely anything he wanted them to, at our expense. They did so, I paid for it, and we assumed all was resolved. (Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.)
Exactly 21 days passed before we received a letter from Robert containing our deposit, minus deep deductions for cleaning tasks he’d decided to perform himself. This meant we’d paid for all this cleaning twice: once when the cleaners did it, and once when Robert did it. (He paid himself $40 an hour for rudimentary tasks like wiping off the windowsills; we theorized that because he’d been in the professional sector for thirty years, he thought $40 was now the minimum wage.)
And please don’t forget about the $600 in non-refundable pet fees we’d paid. Robert used $425 of this sum to ostensibly make the house smell less like a cat, which means he pocketed $175. He also took $125 out of our security deposit to change the locks, an unnecessary procedure not covered by damage deposits, according to state law.
In keeping with Motif #6, we decided to challenge Robert on only one point: the $125 for changing the locks. We sent off a very polite letter asking for that sum, and waited. A week later, Motif #4 came hurtling into our mailbox in the form of a lengthy screed (three single-spaced pages, this time) that, in keeping with Robert’s rhetorical style, was one-third legalistic obfuscation and two-thirds hysterical grousing. On the first page he informed us that he wasn’t going to refund us the money for changing the locks because we moved out early, but offered us $27 in fuck-off money. This made no sense, but was airtight logic compared to the next two pages, which were mostly devoted to telling us what disgusting people we were (his actual charge was that we “lack basic hygiene”) because he found some cat litter on the basement floor, and his broken toilet, which remained broken even after he’d come over and “fixed” it, wasn’t flushable. (“It is standard practice to flush a toilet after use” is a sentence he actually typed.)
As I read Robert’s crazy letter, all the other motifs descended on me like angry, estranged relatives. My face grew hot, my stomach contracted, and I became paralyzed with impotent rage. I am not prone to flashes of temper; I don’t scream at people; I’ve never hit someone or threatened to. I don’t belong to a boxing gym or go to a firing range, so I don’t really have any of the stereotypical outlets for my anger. I can only silently fume and then look for legal recourse.
There is a tenant-advocacy organization in Minnesota that provides free advice over the phone. They told me I probably had a strong case, but an in-person consultation would cost $75 an hour. With very little money to begin with, and an uncertain outcome in court, we dead-ended at Motif #6.
At this point you might be experiencing a certain nagging skepticism that usually manifests as two utterances of paternalistic devil’s advocacy: 1. Maybe the author keeps having bad luck with landlords because he’s just not a very responsible tenant; and 2. This guy sounds like he has a real axe to grind and can’t let it go. He should shit or get off the (broken) pot.
Both of these points are fair, to some extent. In response to the first, I will point out that I rented nearly a dozen apartments that aren’t on this list, because everything turned out fine. But in the cases I’ve described here, Motif #5 does apply: There are wiser, more responsible choices I could have made along the way; damage and irregularities I should have documented; sketchy scenarios I should have avoided; walls I should have repainted.
My beef with Martha, Bill, and Robert isn’t so much that they found me at fault: in every instance I acknowledged my errors, and my complaints would still have merit even if I’d done everything perfectly. My exasperation stems from the fact that that, as soon as they were challenged (politely, reasonably), Martha, Bill, and Robert immediately went from 0 to 100 on the Hysterical Childish Behavior Metric, rendering reasonable negotiation impossible. In every instance, I was the younger, ostensibly less empowered party, yet I maintained a dynamic of professional decorum; they were the ones who tipped their hands by having epistolary and telephonic meltdowns that, while undoubtedly genuine, are also strategic: They’ve learned that they can get their way if they just kick and scream enough, derailing the argument and exhausting the other party. What I did wrong or could have done right becomes immaterial.
The International Law of Mansplanatory Fault Finding still dictates, however, that at least one person bang out a comment thusly: “I can’t believe how naïve you were. Here’s what you should have done. ADMONITION THE FIRST …” etc. We see this tendency to second-guess the complainant and side with The Man in everything from customer-service interactions to wrongful arrests. It’s a weird impulse that causes strangers to give violent criminals, financial institutions, and overzealous law enforcement the benefit of the doubt, concluding that because the victim didn’t do everything completely perfectly, his or her grievance is not legitimate.
Not that I consider myself a victim. To do so would be gauche and insulting to actual victims, which brings me to my hypothetical reader’s second point, that I have an axe to grind. Another fair point—after all, the thousands of words I’ve just devoted to Robert certainly suggest as much. But I’ve dwelt on Robert here only in a clumsy attempt to impart a larger cautionary lesson to those patient enough to keep reading: that, even when our axes cry out for so much more grinding, it may be time to give the old grindstone a rest.
I have to choose my battles. I am older and (marginally) wiser than I was earlier in my rental history, and so very, very tired. I didn’t take Robert to court; I didn’t accept his fuck-off money; I didn’t seek any sort of redress or revenge. More tenacious or litigious readers might consider this a failure of character, but I can only speak for my desire to forget the whole incident. Initially, I wanted to keep fighting, hire a lawyer, humiliate Robert. But I could see that my crusade for justice was already stressing Amanda out, even scaring her a little. I apologized and asked her how she could be so calm, why she wasn’t seething like I was. She said that if we didn’t turn our backs on Robert right away, and permanently, he’d gain more ground than he already had. She said she hated Robert so much that she didn’t want to allow him one more second of rent-free metaphysical residence in our heads or home. She said the best revenge was living well, without Robert in our lives. (I was wise to marry someone smarter than I am.)
So weep not for me. My complaints are petty, my axe already ground to slivers. Weep instead for the tenants, great in number and multiplying every day, who live below the poverty line and risk eviction every month; who lack any sort of advocacy or legal representation; who might not be fluent in English, much less legalese; whose education might have stopped in high school; whose access to shelter relies on the mercy of truly corrupt slumlords who make Martha, Bill, and Robert look like Mother Teresa. Owning a home is often a pain in the ass (and I would know), but renting an apartment is a rigged game where the winner is the person who yells the loudest. I feel a hundred times more empowered dealing with a clogged sewer in a home I own than I ever did dealing with Martha, Bill, or Robert. They are bullies, and you can’t truly win against bullies. You can only walk away, and fight the fights that really matter.