I grew up during the bad years. Urban Renewal had come within block of my father’s buildings. New government-subsidized housing projects were competing with old, store-front apartments for the same tenants. The government didn’t have to pay the taxes. The landlord did.
I never saw any of my father’s building during their prime. I never saw one of them give him an ounce of pleasure or a penny of profit. Instead, I saw them impose on his very being a depth of exasperation and disillusionment that bordered on grief. And when or if ever I was tempted to understate the horror of owning and managing buildings in slum neighborhoods inhabited solely by welfare recipients well-versed in every aspect of system manipulation, I remember how, during the last days of his life, when semi-conscious from the effects of medications, my father would mutter, not his wife or children’s names in loving delirium, but cry instead to unsympathetic judges that the tenant on Roosevelt Road hadn’t paid his rent in six months…that the woman on Halstead Street had shoved a shirt and two jackets down the toilet to deliberately break the plumbing…that he would fix the furnace on Milwaukee Avenue as soon as he could find a repairman, but that repairmen were afraid of going into the buildings alone.
The four saddest words in the English language are: FOR SALE BY OWNER.
By the time my father realized that his buildings were an unredeemable loss, no real estate agent would list them. Every prospective buyer was a hope to hang onto until it, too, plummeted. All avenues were investigated. He tried to donate the buildings to a local college or university, but no institution of higher learning wanted them. He tried to give them away to friends or enemies, but they had enough problems of their own.
And so my father stopped paying his real estate taxes, and hoped that his buildings would be seized for non-payment of taxes.
I remember so many phone calls late at night, “Mr. Reuben, there’s no heat,” and my father getting out of bed to drive into the city and take care of it. I remember a terrifying time outside one of his buildings when he and Michael were collecting rents, and a robber pulled out a gun and demanded that my father hand over his money. Sam leaped into the driver’s seat of the car, Mikey dashed around to the passenger seat, and they tore away home. I remember hours, days and weeks spent in landlord-tenant court (witness his letters to me on the backs of summons forms), trying to convince a judge that, like any other professional, a landlord was entitled to payment for the services that he rendered. Inevitably, the judge ruled that since shelter is a human need, all human beings have the right to a roof over their heads. Therefore, Samuel Reuben’s tenants did not have to cough up money for the months that they’d already lived rent-free, nor could my father evict them in a timely manner, thus guaranteeing that they would continue to occupy one of his apartment without paying their rent.