My financial aspirations are pretty modest, I think. I want enough to have a nice home for myself, my husband, our growing daughter, two cats and a goldfish. The house we have now is perfectly fine. But I would like to repave the crumbling driveway and put in a two-car garage with some storage. No Mercedes. No Cadillac. Maybe a new Prius V, though.
And I have no desire to profit from other peoples’ misery. That’s a common misconception about landlords – that we’re all like Joe Pesci in The Super – GREAT movie, by the way! The only tenants who don’t like me are the ones who don’t pay their rent. Who sneak in a dog and let it crap everywhere. Who leave garbage all over the place. Who move out and leave me with over a thousand dollars in junk hauling, spackling holes and deep cleaning the apartment. Those tenants think I’m the worst slumlord ever. I mean, look where they were living!
Landlords have a PR problem. We operate in the shadows because we don’t want tenants like the ones I just described finding out where we live and harassing our families. We hold our properties in LLCs because if we have a slip & fall lawsuit, we don’t want to risk losing the house we live in. Actually that’s not the only reason to hold a property in an LLC – running a rental property is like running a small business with a lot of expenses. A LOT of expenses! And we need to be able to itemize those expenses against any income for tax purposes. It has nothing to do with being shady. But it’s no surprise we’re silent when a situation comes up like Wilkes-Barre passing the One Strike ordinance. We keep our heads down and just hope it doesn’t happen to us. Hope someone else will make it go away before it does happen to us. I am guilty of this – when the ACLU filed their lawsuit against One Strike I thought we’d been saved. And then 110 Madison St 2nd Floor got shut down by One Strike. Not my building, but too close. We helped the guy find it and buy it. Helped him renovate it. He gave us power of attorney to oversee it locally. And it got shut down because of the actions of a tenant. So now I’m an activist. Now I’m standing up for landlords’ rights.
When I testified at the appeal hearing for the Madison St One Strike shut down, I started spouting out solutions – ways the city & landlords could actually work together to solve the crime problem. I was shut down – bring it to City Council they told me. Well, I did.
I had 5 minutes to speak. My speech was 4 minutes and 58 seconds long. And it got a standing ovation at the end.
“My name is Kelly Rafuse. As you can see I am a rather average middle-aged woman. A mom of a pre-schooler. A couple weeks ago I found myself storming into an apartment house on Madison St to confront a known drug dealer named Moses.
You see, I’m a Landlord. I own a small, local business that manages that apartment house. The second floor unit had just been shut down by One Strike, and I was talking to the neighbors to find out what happened because I got no answers from the police. One of the neighbors said she thought this Moses was in my building – so I went marching in armed with nothing but my red-headed temper to throw him out!
Well, thank God Moses wasn’t there.
We need to change some things, so that landlords are not afraid to call the police. Because right now if I call the police and they come and find Moses dealing drugs with the third floor tenant – I get another unit shut down. And that might kill my business.
We really should be working together to quell this crime in Wilkes-Barre. It’s out of control. Was it 10 shootings in the past month? And the Mayor blames property owners. Well guess what – property owners and managers are on the front lines in this war.
Are there slumlords out there adding to the problem? Sure there are – there are bad landlords just like there are corrupt politicians. But the majority of us care about the city – we don’t want these thugs living in or visiting our properties and doing their dirty business. But we need your help. You codified One Strike into law. You can codify some changes to it that will help landlords be part of the solution. Because right now we are pretty helpless.
Here are some ideas, and I’ve written them down for you to take home.
**Across the river Edwardsville has a Tenant Registration requirement. They know who is living where and if there are potential problems they know which landlord to notify. Landlords like to be notified of problems. We do NOT like to be kept in the dark and then suddenly find our property shut down!
**I wrote this Drug Free Living Space amendment to all my rental agreements. Your city solicitor Bill Vinsko called it a “brilliant document” – but even though it says here I can throw someone out on suspicion of illegal activity – I actually can’t. I put this in my lease in the hopes that it will nip potential problems in the bud. But YOU may be able to give this document some teeth. I am asking the city for some help with the eviction process – and back-up if we get hauled into court by a tenant who feels his rights have been violated.
**Most importantly, we need a blueprint approved by the city that good landlords can follow to avoid having our property rights taken away because of the actions of others.
**Let’s start with the tenant selection process. Can the city provide us with a list of approved services for background checks? My company uses the Pennsylvania Department of Justice Portal and e-renter.com. What would you like us to use?
**What is your criteria as far as criminal background? Spotless? I prefer spotless. Most applicants with spotless records don’t want to live in Wilkes-Barre because of the crime. For the last 7 years my company has approved applicants with misdemeanors on the record if their other references check out, and we’ve never had issues – even at Madison St – the kid with prior misdemeanors was just found innocent of all charges from the raid that shut down our unit!* (Actually I spoke in error here – the kid with prior misdemeanors was NEVER CHARGED in that raid. His brother, with the squeaky clean criminal background check, was the only one involved!)
**We need the city’s criteria for tenant’s backgrounds in writing. And give us some leeway for existing tenants. We can’t kick them out but we can decline to renew their lease when it’s up.
**Do you want our manager to do quarterly inspections of all units? We can do that. In fact it’s already in our lease that we can. We’ll even fill out a form for you if you want to write one up.
**What is the procedure if we suspect illegal activity? I think for everyone’s safety we should be able to notify the trained, armed police force to come handle any potential drug dealers. Without fear of our unit getting shut down.
**Can the city codify signs of illegal activity that we should report to the police? I‘ve come up with a few on my Drug Free Living Space document. But I’m not a trained police officer. If there are other things we should be looking out for please let us know.
**And what protections do we have if our tenants get busted for drugs and we’ve had no complaints – no reason to be suspicious?
**Every call that comes into our management office and our maintenance number is recorded via Google Voice and transcribed to an e-mail. Google Voice is free and every landlord can set one up. We can show you our log of complaint calls.
**If we can show you we followed your tenant screening blueprint, and that we followed procedure regarding complaints, or that there were no complaints – then please yes evict the drug dealing tenants. But let us re-rent the place to someone decent. And let us reopen the unit within a reasonable amount of time, 7 days is what I’m requesting.
In the coming weeks I am booked to speak at two Real Estate Investors Association meetings locally. I am also tentatively booked to speak to investors groups in the Lehigh Valley and New Jersey. I will be talking about One Strike, crime and property rights. If there is anything you would like me to tell these investors, my cell phone and e-mail are on the printed materials.
The message I want to leave you with is that Landlords want to work WITH the city to solve this crime problem.
Thank you very much for your time and consideration.”
Next week on Ginger Snapped – the consequences of stepping out of the shadows. A top secret meeting with a city official. An internet troll Hellbent on stopping my activism. And being appointed to the task of creating a public relations campaign to improve the image of landlords. Sure, why not, I have time!