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.

Meet “Landon”

He was startled awake by the silence. Spider-Man was over; he always fell asleep before the end. In the creepy sliver of light peeking through the curtains, he knew things didn’t look like they should. And it smelled funny, like when his Grandma left his Paw Patrol tee-shirt in the washing machine too long. His bed made a big squeaky noise when he sat up and he knew that he wasn’t in his bedroom. Panic and fear took over and then his thoughts. Scary thoughts that had no place in the head of a four year old. But they stayed there. Like Nick , the mean kid next door who never seemed to know when to go home.

The bed next to him was empty, the covers bunched into a ball on the floor. His Mom was there before, watching Spider-Man with him. But really she was just playing on her phone. His eyes scanned the room, landing in the corner where the light creeped from under the bathroom door. Untangling from the covers, his little feet hit the floor just as a slamming door outside shook the room. Then voices, loud and laughing, passed by the window, making shadows on the wall as they stumbled into the night. He ran to the window and climbed onto the metal humming box; his Mom said it would make the room cool. Peeking through the curtain, he saw the voices, still loud and laughing, getting into a car. His tummy felt wavy and then calmed a little as he realized his Mom wasn’t one of them. He ran to the bathroom door, peered through the crack. His mom spent a lot of time in the bathroom; he probably should have looked there first. He knew better than to bug her by knocking, but if he could just see that she was in there, then maybe he wouldn’t feel so much like crying. His tummy did the twirly thing again; he could see his clothes were still on the floor and now so were the sweatpants his mom was wearing earlier. Gently, he pushed the door open, knowing he’d be scolded for disturbing her. But he was wrong.

He hated crying and being a sissy, but sometimes being brave was extra hard, especially in a weird place like this. The room at the motel was old and tiny. And now he knew that his mom was nowhere in it.

She was more like his sister, really. Landon was born when she was 21 and still trying to find her way in the world. As a child, she struggled to feel okay, never really measuring up to what other people felt was normal. At 18, her vulnerability didn’t go unnoticed by Landon’s father. She was captivated by his rough good looks and bad-boy attitude. He treated her like an adult, introduced her to adult things. Nothing else mattered when they were together, not even Landon. Living with her parents made it easy for her to come and go; to put off parenting until she was ready. She knew that Landon didn’t really mind; but then again, he had never known anything different.

He climbed back onto the box by the window and pulled the curtains open. There was no one out there now, just the eery yellow lights that tried to brighten the parking lot. The road out front was dark; he couldn’t even see the plastic play house that excited him when the man dropped them off at the motel. 45 minutes was a long car ride, and his legs felt like they needed to run. But his mom was in a hurry and promised he could play there tomorrow. Now he didn’t even want to. He just wanted to go home. He wanted his Grandma. And his cat.

Thoughts of his Grandma made the wavy feeling move from his tummy to his chest and into his throat. Grandma never got angry when he went looking for her at home. Most of the time he didn’t even have to. When he couldn’t sleep, he could call her name and she’d appear almost before her name left his lips. She would curl up in his bed sometimes and stroke his hair, singing quietly in her sweet, soft voice until he drifted off to sleep. Even her smell- like cookie dough and coffee- was comforting. Grandma made him feel safe. The wave left his throat and turned into a noise he didn’t recognize, scaring him even more before he realized it was his. He was crying now, giant heavy sobs that made his tiny body shake. He didn’t care if he was a sissy; he knew this was bad. Even at four, he knew that he had never been all alone, and certainly not in a creepy, smelly place like this.

He took a few deep breaths and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his pajamas. He had to find his Grandma.

Because he was certain that she’d never be able to find him.

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 “Bryn”

She was uncomfortably pregnant, resting her left hand on her belly, chain smoking with her right

She had a large presence; her strong voice could fill a room even at a whisper. She was rough on the surface with large features and a metal stud on either side of her lower lip. Her hair was long, thick and wavy, tossed into a sloppy pony-tail with shocks of natural brown peeking through years of layered box color. Tattoos were plentiful yet not overwhelming and not exactly tasteful. Most were names, some from her past, a few giving nod to current relationships; “Landon” above her heart and “Kurt” encircling her left ring finger. She had scars on her arms. Her face was puffy and her legs were swollen. She wore an oversized black tee-shirt, black leggings and black Addidas sandals that cut into her feet. She was uncomfortably pregnant, resting her left hand on her belly, chain smoking with her right.

Her demeanor was childish, much like a teenager still believing the world revolved around her. She was the star of the show, chattering details of her pregnancy between drags from her Traffic cigarettes. Her baby was due in six weeks, on June 6 and she was having a little girl. She had been “sick” throughout the pregnancy and her blood pressure was elevated, the baby would probably arrive early. And yet she beamed with pride.

She spent most of her time with Kurt at the house on Roselawn, in the small rented room meant for only one person. That was a hard and fast “Landlord Rule” and probably the reason I’d heard so little about her. But they were beginning to disrupt the other tenants; their arguments were getting out of hand, food was coming up missing and they were asking to borrow money on a regular basis. Through conversations with an annoyed tenant, I learned she used to be a heroin addict, was somewhere in her mid-twenties, lived with her parents and had a son who was in elementary school.

Nothing about her fit with clean cut Kurt with the squeaky clean background, who was pinching pennies in a rented room while on the straight and narrow path back to middle class living. Nothing about her impressed me.

Everyone has a story.

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.

Tiny Matters

Everyone has a story. Some parts of our story are mundane, littered with insignificant events, people and places that render no special meaning; they just are. But if we dig deep enough, we will find moments in our story, maybe entire chapters, that shape us into who and how we are today.

Somewhere in my mid-thirties I started to explore my story. I’d take little peeks here and there, and if I didn’t like what I saw, I’d slam that cover shut so quickly you’d lose a finger in the binding if you were close enough. Little by little, I began to uncover glimpses of truth that, for years I had chosen not to see. It was hard. Some of it was sad. Most of it scared the hell out of me. And so I ran from those truths, straight into a bottle of wine a few times a week. Sometimes two bottles and sometimes nightly. Then margaritas. Soon it was tequila with barely a few splashes of lime.

I knew I needed to quit but my want to wasn’t on board with that. And then all of a sudden my story took a plot turn. I got sober. I discovered my truths. It changed me and it’s still changing me. And so I’m sharing it, in hopes that a snippet or two might change you.

It all started with two drunks, a heroin addict and a tiny baby.

And tiny matters.