(My) Housing Crisis

This past spring, I almost found myself homeless.  Yes, I have a Harvard Law degree, a stable career, savings, and credit.  What’s the stereotype, oh, yeah, that I must have substance abuse or mental health issues.  I have neither.  After leaving school, I never would have thought in a million years that I would experience such stress or instability in my life or my housing situation.  But when a landlord is entering your apartment without notice, turning off your heat, harassing you at work, and putting down rat poison where your dogs might eat it, any educational or financial advantages you might have rapidly fly out the window.  I couldn’t move immediately – it was the middle of the semester – but friends helped and I found a convenient hotel.  Within a month and a half I had cobbled together a rental arrangement with a colleague, and in the meantime had shipped the dogs off to a dogsitter to keep them safe.

I didn’t think to look up my landlords on any of the legal databases before signing my lease – seemed like overkill.  After all, the apartment seemed to be well-maintained, and that, the location, and the price were what I was looking at, mostly.  After the abusive behavior started, I learned that the landlords had been sued close to a dozen times by their tenants – and they lost every time.

Unfortunately, my experience leads me now to believe that for those who rent, housing instability is just one bad landlord away.  This is not necessarily based on the tenant’s financial situation, although slumlords and conditions of disrepair typically tend to go hand in hand.  (Of course there are plenty of people who live in very modest situations, but who have good landlords).  It’s common to bash landlord-tenant law as being over-protective of tenants, and you hear people complain about tenants who don’t pay and how difficult it is to evict a tenant.  Let me tell you that I was grateful and appreciative of every single one of those legal protections when my housing troubles began.  It’s the abuses, the hard cases, that the system is designed for – because housing is a necessity – and that was exactly what I was up against.    

My housing story has a happy ending.  But I was lucky – to have the support network and resources to fall back on that others might not.  What I learned is that housing instability can happen to anyone, and that our “safety net” is made of gossamer.

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12 Responses

  1. Jack says:

    Who lost every time, the landlords or the tenants? Sorry you wenth through that nightmare. We almost rented in a similar situation, but found out about the landlord’s criminal record in time.

  2. Miriam A. Cherry says:

    Landlords lost… And thanks for the sympathy…

  3. Orin Kerr says:

    If you name names, the guilty landlords will be only a google search away for the next potential tenant….

  4. Frank Pasquale says:

    I helped some small claims litigants with their complaints against such landlords. Sadly, they are all too common.

    I would not name names, if only because a) they might litigate some frivolous defamation lawsuit against you, and b) they’re just one corporate name change away from evading “naming and shaming,” unless the googling would-be tenant is a bit of a sleuth.

  5. A.J. Sutter says:

    It’s brave of you to share your story. Unfortunately, bad landlords are not the only housing risk: job instability can lead to housing instability for anyone, too.

    During a global recession about 20 years ago, I lost my job after 10 years in Big Law firms. It took me 3 years to find steady employment and income. As a solo lawyer, my first year was not-quite-scraping-by, my second year was OK, and my third year was a barren desert. At that time my spouse didn’t work, and we were renting a house in L.A. A few months I could make the rent, and many others I couldn’t even pay part of it. Amazingly, it was the landlord who was the angel of the situation: he forebore on our rent, waiting to get paid until after I was working in Northern California and had gone through a divorce. If not for his kindness, we, and our dogs, would have been out on the street.

    Of course, unlike your situation, being a landlord wasn’t this good-guy’s main business: he was an engineer, renting out the home he’d grown up in. My point is less that there are some nice landlords than that no matter how good one’s job is in the legal profession, you could lose your home more easily than you realize. And nowadays, even equity partners are not immune.

  6. Shag from Brookline says:

    For the flip side, consider the movie Pacific Heights. Scary.

  7. Miriam A. Cherry says:

    Thanks everyone for the comments, and for being supportive. @AJ, I’m sorry to hear that you also went through a period of housing instability. It’s terrible to go through these things, but it has given me a new insight into housing issues, now that I’m on the other side of it. @Orin & Frank: I went on record with the St. Louis city inspector about the problems, and I’m not afraid of defamation because what I have stated is true and accurate, and the owners seem to be afraid of courts (they’ve lost a lot of cases there). But at the same time, the owners have used numerous shell corporations to hide their assets and posting the address isn’t going to do any good. They do advertise on Craigslist, and if there were a board that just dealt with landlord issues, I would post the address there. But I haven’t seen anything like that. They do seem to market to people coming from out of town – and they always have units available because they cannot keep a tenant for more than a year. I wish there were a way to warn people on craigslist…

  8. Alec Levine says:

    If your former landlord was sued nearly a dozen times, there must be a few dozen more lawsuits that could have been filed, and weren’t.

    Before I embraced nihilism, I briefly worked for an organization that “provided information” (but never, ever “legal advice”) to tenants and small claims litigants. Your experience with your landlord is not atypical of the people we assisted; your resources and support network are, however. If landlord-tenant law is “over-protective” of tenants, the landlord-tenant relationship is still unbalanced–especially in matters that require legal representation. “Landlord-tenant attorney” is a synonymous with “eviction technician” or “unlawful detainer machine.”

  9. anon says:

    It is hard to understand this post without background information about why the landlord engaged in such activities. Did you not pay the rent? Did you damage the property? Did you have a month-to-month rental contract, and the landlord was within their rights to ask you to leave, and you refused to leave? Did you disagree about price changes? I truly don’t understand — sane landlords are dying to get good tenants, and they don’t throw them out without a damn good reason. And why could you not move in the middle of semester? The rest of the world does not live on the academic schedule. People find rental properties every day. Law profs with savings and credit can afford to put a security deposit on a modest rental without much advance warning. I am truly sympathetic, but I just cannot make sense of this.

  10. West Looper says:

    It sounds awful, but you didn’t “almost become homeless”. Homeless is nowhere to live and no means to find temporary shelter. There was never a possibility (unless I am misunderstanding) that you were going to spend the night on a park bench.

  11. Miriam A. Cherry says:

    @anon3:42am: To answer your questions, yes, I did pay my rent, I did not damage the propery, I had a year lease, which had five months left to go, and there were no price changes. Your questions seem to be based on the premise that the landlords were acting rationally. I don’t think they were. The dispute was triggered by my request for repairs. Mice had gotten in the building, and I also had a pipe leaking – instead of fixing the problem, I was blamed. As for moving in the middle of the semester, that is the busiest time of the year for my work. Moving is very disruptive, and I thought I could brave it out (at least for a while, I did).
    @West Looper: If you found out someone was entering your apartment randomly, how would you feel? I did have to seek out temporary shelter with friends. “almost” means “almost”, I never wrote that I was on a park bench.
    @anon (that I deleted): If you are interested in a genuine dialogue, please feel free to post under your real name. Also, don’t be a troll.

  12. SRM says:

    Anon (#9) wants to believe there “must have been some reason” for the landlord to engage in such behavior, but if bad behavior does not occur without provocation, then–if, indeed, the tenant was the provoker–the same question would have to apply in reverse (what did the landlord to to provoke bad behavior by the tenant?). And, if the tenant had, say, failed to pay the rent, the landlord had lawful means to redress the situation.