To be a landlord is to be imprisoned in the last form of sanctioned slavery in this country. It is the only job that the worker cannot quit if he so desires. Whether his tenants pay him or not, he must service them. If he ceases to service them, he is fined or put in jail. If he tries to evict those who do not pay him, it is at his time and expense that he must go to landlord-tenant court. He cannot establish his own fees (rent) for the services that he provides. He cannot enforce leases or contracts if a city or state legislates lower rents or increased services.
He cannot pick and choose his tenants.
He operates from a position of powerlessness in a world in which those to whom he provides services (his tenants), who came to him of their own free will, treat him as a Robber Baron, a Capitalist Pig, a Slumlord.
They destroy his property. They break his lights. They throw garbage down the toilet, and then sue him because the light is out in the hall or the toilet is stopped up.
And they win.
They embody the son who kills his parents and then appeals to the court for mercy… because he is an orphan.
And the courts do grant mercy. Not to the slain parents. To the “orphan”.
In 1965, my Uncle Jack was sued for $25,000 by a tenant in a building he owned on Ogden Avenue. This tenant was the sole occupant of the third floor, where he lived with his mentally retarded daughter. One of her symptoms was to dance and jitter uncontrollably. The lawsuit alleged that this retarded girl had slipped on a ketchup-smeared potato chip bag outside her door (only the tenant, his friends, and family ever came to the third floor; there were no other visitors). After slipping, she supposedly fell down a flight of stairs to the second floor, turning the corner as she fell, bounced three feet in the air (the height of the window sill), and then bounced out of that second story window.
Uncle Jack lost the lawsuit.
When he took the case to appellate court, claiming that it was an improper verdict since people don’t “bounce,” the appeal was denied.
The supreme court refused to hear his case.
Uncle Jack sold of all his buildings.
We, though, still had ample reason to visit Chicago’s South Side. After my mother managed to get our family relocated to Glencoe, my father, fearing that his chickadees would become stratified by breathing the rarified air of the North Shore, started to take one or more of us along with him to the city every week or two, so that we would have a working knowledge of poverty and never forget how lucky we were.
So it was that Samuel Reuben’s children waited in the car outside his buildings as he changed locks, fixed plumbing, cleaned gutters, or collected rents. We spent hours staring at the bleak, gray, ugliness of garbage-strewn sidewalks, watching the joyless shuffle of aimless people, and absorbing through our eyes, minds, and hearts, our own unimaginable luck in not having to live there ourselves.
Over the years, my mother has written me many, many letters from the passenger seat of the car, beginning: “Dear Shelly, I’m writing this as I wait for Daddy …”
We all waited for my father. It was our job to keep him company on the drive to and from the city. To make sure that he didn’t fall asleep at the wheel. To talk about the stone that was rejected, Horatius at the Bridge, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Uncle Jack’s roll of string.
Fortunately, at about the same time that my father’s buildings became a total loss, he bought a piece of land in the suburbs that became known in the family as “Lake and Manor.” On that patch of green, he took a big financial risk and built a small shopping center.
His risk paid off. The revenue from Lake and Manor helped my parents to recoup their losses, and justified my father’s belief that real estate is destiny.
“You can’t lose if you buy land,” he said. “Because they aren’t making any more of it.”
It was the one investment my father made that lived to take care of him, despite the inevitable conclusion we had come to about his other properties … that he “loved not wisely, but too well.”
Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit shellyreuben.com
Copyright © 2009, Shelly Reuben