Broke and Homeless

Christmas came and went without a peep from Kurt. Not even a card. Or a demeaning text meant for someone else. Assuming he was busy embracing impending fatherhood, I had pretty much forgotten all about him.

January in Ohio can be a tough time for filling vacant rentals. Those who haven’t spent every last dime on Christmas generally don’t want to move in the bitter cold and snow. Anyone who wants to is likely being evicted. Having a handful of vacant units to fill, I jumped into action when Kurt reached out on January 8. He was sleeping in his car and wanted to move in that night. He had $20 to his name, he said. At the time, we only had unfurnished rooms available. It was late in the evening and bitter cold outside, so I offered him an air mattress and told him he could come pick up the keys. I threw some spare sheets and blankets into the washer and waited for Kurt to respond, which he did…six days later. It must have been fate; by then we had another tenant who pulled a Kurt, moving out without notice from a furnished room at Roselawn. I asked him, “When do you want to pick up the keys?” Once again, I waited.

Most people would be irritated at this point. But I had a feeling there was more going on with Kurt; I was thinking mental illness and I was concerned for him and for his pregnant girlfriend. If my hunch was right, they needed some time apart. I tend to overthink. I also tend to think I can save the world, or at least some of us who live in it. So I reached out to Kurt the next day around 11:00 am. To my surprise, he said his girlfriend’s parents were helping them look for houses to rent so they could “live together as a family”. Great! I was encouraged to know he and his girlfriend had the support of her family; it gave Kurt and his situation some credibility in my eyes. But by 5:00 that evening, things had, once again…changed. His girlfriend and her parents had a “blow up argument” he said. They were staying with her sister for the night. He threw in that he was “broke” (again) but assured me he had a roof over his head, at least temporarily. Very temporarily, I learned the next day, when–you guessed it–Kurt was again ready to move back in.

This is where things got messy(er). Whether it was from my desire to help a soul in need, or simple desperation to fill a vacant unit (or maybe just be done with this), I’m still not clear. But I bent “The Rules”. I did not run a new background check and I did not verify his employment or income when he told me he was still working at the limo company. Had I done those things, I would have found that he’d been fired from that job in November; right around the time he made his split-second departure from Roselawn. Carelessly, I rented a unit to a tenant with no income and agreed to let him pay the rent and deposit later. When he got paid from the job that I didn’t know he no longer had. Lesson learned. Well, eventually.

Kurt had little money and apparently only the clothes in his car. So, along with his keys, I left a bag on my porch with some canned goods and pasta and a few warm blankets. And $50 of Christmas cash I’d been hoarding. Because I had everything I could ever need and more, and he was just down on his luck.

Perhaps it wasn’t so coincidental that a few days after moving back in to Roselawn, Kurt lost his job. At least that’s what he told me when, instead of contacting me as promised to make payment, he texted me asking to borrow money.

Room for Rent?

I didn’t hear much from Kurt after the incident with Blue Van Tenant, aside from a few texts that were clearly meant for someone else…named Bryn. The texts were nasty and accusatory, laden with profanity and grammatical errors so horrendous that even auto-correct couldn’t make sense of them. But the intentions were clear, even to me. They were meant to demean, hurt and belittle someone. At this point I still had no knowledge of a girlfriend, boyfriend or any other relationship of Kurt’s. As far as I knew, he was still just the hard-working, pleasant college student who had climbed the Uber ladder up to a dispatch job at a local limousine company. Apparently “college student” wasn’t my only false assumption.

Nasty texts aside, things remained pretty quiet at Roselawn, which is why I was caught off guard by Kurt’s “notice to move out thirty minutes ago” text that came at the beginning of November. It was perfectly crafted, detailing how clean and void of “holes or other damage” he had left the room. Not one grammatical error. Even “fiancé” and “pregnant” and “really short on money so please can I have my deposit back even though I’m leaving without a notice and haven’t paid the rent” were all spelled correctly. Four days after he moved out, he started asking to come back.

At first I thought he was following up to see if the room had been rented in hopes of getting some of his deposit back. I felt a little sorry that he hadn’t understood the 30 day notice requirement; many people choose to forget about that when it makes things more convenient for them. I assured him we had the room ready and listed for rent on the same evening he moved out and were actively showing it. “My relationship is pretty fucked (right now). If it doesn’t work out soon, I’ll need to move back in.”

In just four days, Kurt had gone from being the supportive father-to-be who wanted to take care of his family, to being so over his fiance’ and their unborn child that a rented room on Roselawn seemed as appealing as The Marriott. Which, apparently, he thought we were running. But he had been a decent tenant, he needed a place and we had a room. I told him he was welcome to move back in, as soon as he paid November’s rent and late fee. I also encouraged him to work things out with his Baby Mom Fiance’; and then I waited for his response. It must have taken some thought; it was January before I heard from him again.

Kurt & the “Mother Lover”

“So my life has abruptly changed; my fiance’ is pregnant.”

A few weeks before I received his 30 second (as opposed to 30 day) notice of intent to move out, Kurt had been just a bit…off. Up until that point, he had been considerate, respectful and helpful, rarely complaining about anything. When he did have an issue, it was valid and reasonable and he approached it almost apologetically, usually with a lighthearted wit. I often found him to be entertaining. About six weeks before he moved out, a few hints crept out that the easy-going, even tempered, working man who basically kept to himself, perhaps had a little side of mean and nasty. It was just enough to give me pause, but really nothing concerning. I chalked it up to a bad day and forgot about it. But looking back…

“This asshole has me blocked in and he and his mother lover are not here.??” — text from Kurt

The owner of the blue van was another tenant, a young (and very spoiled) college student whose mother spent an odd amount of time at Roselawn, looking out for her adult son. Both Mother and Son had been complaining about Kurt, accusing him of stealing food and several other issues that were nearly impossible to prove. They had apparently left the van behind Kurt’s car and then left in another vehicle; a completely unreasonable and passive-aggressive thing to do. I certainly understood Kurt’s frustration, but the way he presented it was completely out of character for the Kurt I knew. I immediately called him just to be sure he wasn’t in the midst of slashing tires.

I absolutely (big word) never lie to tenants. So before contacting Blue Van Tenant, I asked Kurt if he had somewhere to be. “I’m going out to lunch,” he said. A valid reason to request driveway egress, I thought, as I called Blue Van Tenant. His indignant response to Kurt’s plight: “He probably just needs to go get beer.”

I specifically recall feeling a bit protective of Kurt. He just did not strike me as a drinker. Not that there’s anything wrong with drinking.

At 2:00 in the afternoon.

In the middle of the week.

Unless you, yourself have an alcohol abuse issue that you’re working very hard to ignore. And because we drunks like to stick together, I decided that Blue Van Tenant was making it all up.

The driveway blocking incident was the last in a very long line of straws for Blue Van Tenant and his “mother lover”. The conversation that ensued regarding their disrespect for fellow tenants, as well as for their Landlords, resulted in a formal request for them to vacate the premises. They were gone the following month; Kurt remained.

Mark one down for the Drunk Team.

Becoming Landlords

In 2002 my husband, then a full-time law enforcement officer, began investing in real estate with his father. The original intention was to buy low, rehab cheap and quickly flip “a property or two”. The real estate market in our suburban Summit County area wasn’t favoring cash poor rookie investors; the houses we did buy took too long to resell and the net profit wasn’t quite worth the effort. We either had to make a larger initial investment or step outside our middle-class comfort zone into areas where houses were cheaper. We chose the latter and soon became the proud owners of more than 40 rental units among 10-12 properties, most within walking distance to the University of Akron. So much for flipping houses; we were now Landlords. We were hoping to provide decent, affordable housing to mostly students, which worked well in the handful of multi-unit properties we acquired. Most of our investments were along East Buchtel Avenue in Akron’s Middlebury neighborhood, just east of the University; beautiful, Victorian homes built in the late 19th Century when Akron was becoming known for its rubber industry.

The Rubber Capital of the World

In the later part of the 19th Century, rubber factories began to establish in Akron, Ohio. As cars became more widely accessible the demand for tires increased and so did the demand for factory workers. Families migrated from across the U.S. to find work in Akron’s factories. The rubber manufacturing industry exploded, along with Akron’s population, and in the early 20th Century, Akron was the fastest growing city in the entire nation, rendering it the “Rubber Capital of the World”. European competitors eventually swallowed the Akron factories along with over 30,000 manufacturing jobs. Between 1970 and 1975, Akron lost an estimated 23,000 residents. As of 2017, Akron had suffered a 31.9% decrease in population since its peak in 1960 and is currently considered one of America’s stagnating metropolitan areas.

Welcome to Roselawn

During the housing bubble of 2004-2005, we purchased a three story single family home less than two blocks from our existing properties in the same Middlebury neighborhood. Roselawn Avenue sits a block or two away from Middlebury’s busier streets like Buchtel Avenue and Exchange Street. At the time, the homes were relatively well-maintained and many were still owner occupied. Between 2005 and 2015, among a rash of mortgage fraud schemes, the housing market crashed and Akron experienced a huge spike in foreclosures. Between 2013 and 2017, the city saw a surge in drug activity as the heroin epidemic took hold. It wasn’t long before the quaint street of Roselawn was dominated by drug dealers and criminals, making it difficult to find solid tenants; selling would result in a significant loss. We stuck it out for several years and in 2017, we turned the house on Roselawn into rented rooms, just to keep it consistently occupied. Once famous for rubber manufacturing, Akron quickly became known for heroin trafficking and overdoses.

Akron’s Middlebury Neighborhood

  • 70% of homes were built before 1940
  • 56% of homes are renter occupied; 26% of homes are vacant
  • Median household income is $24,744
  • 45% of the population lives below poverty level
  • 15.1% of the population is unemployed
  • Nearly 1/3 of adults 25 or older did not graduate high school

My youngest two kids graduated from their upper middle class high school in 2015. Soon after, they began experiencing the tragic losses of classmates taken by the demon heroin. Many of these kids were the elite in our community; star high school athletes and high-performing academics who suffered the demise of poor choices. As my kids were faced with the cold reality of early deaths, my heart for those who suffer addiction and substance abuse grew. My research instinct kicked in and I scoured articles and statistics in search of reasons and solutions, as if I alone could solve the problem. The crisis truly hit home for me when I learned of the overdose of a kid from our town; it happened a few houses up from one of our rentals in Akron. Until that point, I had somehow been able to separate our rental world from our family home, as if there were some sort of impenetrable barrier between Akron and Stow, which sit just nine miles apart. I was smacked in the face with the realization that no one is untouchable by substance abuse and addiction. There was no reason–other than the pure grace of God–that my kids hadn’t been victims. My hard-line, black and white views toward “drug addicts” slowly began to change.

And then Kurt came back to Roselawn Avenue.

Meet “Kurt”

I first met Kurt when he rented a room from us in Akron. For $260 a month he got an 8 x 10 room with a bed, a chair and a storage bin in a house shared with four strangers. Right on the bus line in what once was called the Rubber Capital of the World.

His application showed he was an Uber driver, his emergency contact was a cousin. He had lived in Vegas for several years, at one point becoming successful selling real estate. He was friendly and well spoken on the phone, and his background was spotless. I wondered about his story.

He came to collect his keys wearing the same smile I heard over the phone. He was neatly dressed with dark hair and deep brown eyes and a long slender nose; Slovakian with a slightly receding hairline. Small and thin in stature, built much like a wrestler. He was not stunning to look at; and yet, something about him was quite charming. For six months he was a model tenant.

Then he moved out without notice and sent me a text: “So my life has abruptly changed; my fiance’ is pregnant.”

And yet, something about him was quite charming.