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.