Landlords have an image problem. When you think about us at all, the pop culture stereotypes I listed above are what likely come to mind. And we don’t do much to refute that image, mainly because we’re too busy. A lot of us have jobs and families in addition to being landlords. Our tenants like us or they don’t – usually the ones who don’t are the ones who don’t pay their rent on time. So how much credence can you really give them when they call you a “slumlord?” This happens to all landlords eventually. The first time it happens it’ll hurt like Hell. “How can someone say that about me, I’m a nice person! I rented once, too, I know what it’s like!” But then you grow a thick skin and move on, and you’d better if you want to continue renting out property.
We put our rental properties in corporation names instead of our own – which to the outside world may seem like we’re trying to pull one over. The reality is holding rental property in your own name is a business mistake that opens you up to all kinds of liability. Holding your property in an LLC separates your business life from your personal life, and that’s just smart. It’s also smart to use a PO Box or UPS Store mailing address and never let your tenants know where you actually live. Again, this is not being squirrely, it’s being safe. I’ve had many wonderful tenants, some of whom I’d be happy to invite into my home today, now that they are no longer renting from me. I’ve also had psycho tenants from Hell who started out as wonderful, friendly people. If I have to evict you after two months of unpaid rent and promises to pay that went unfulfilled, you snuck a dog in and let it crap everywhere, and you left me a house full of garbage, old mattresses, and a beat up couch, I’m going to come after you. And if I have to do that, I don’t really want you knowing where my 5-year-old goes to sleep at night!
And we’re pretty silent politically. Unless our personal residence is in the same town where we own property, we can’t vote, even though we pay taxes. I have no say in who is the next mayor of Wilkes-Barre, although that affects my life and financial well-being more than who is the next mayor of the tiny borough in which I live. So the only way we can make ourselves heard politically is through activism. And who wants to do that? Think about the average landlord – saddled with a full-time job outside of renting property, raising a family, doing their best to keep up with rent collections and paying the enormous amount of bills most people don’t realize landlords have to pay. Only a crazy person would want to add Activist to that list… um… case in point. Chalk it up to my red-headed temper. This ginger snapped and became an activist. Somebody had to!
I’m so sick of people thinking I’m rich because I’m a landlord. Hardly! My properties do throw off a nice income, but it’s offset by expenses that you wouldn’t believe if you’re not a landlord yourself. Some expenses are expected – taxes, utilities, sewer fees, insurance, the mortgage. We set aside a percentage of rents each month to take care of routine maintenance items. Then there’s the unexpected – a roof starts leaking, for instance. If you own your home, think of anything that could go wrong in your house – furnace, hot water heater, an infestation of carpenter ants. Now multiply that by nine buildings – that’s what I deal with every day! Someday, when I own a couple hundred units, the income even after those expenses are paid will be enough to sustain my family in our current middle-class lifestyle, without myself or my husband needing to have another job. Notice I said our current middle-class lifestyle – even then, as landlords of a few HUNDRED apartments, we will not be rich.
Because people think I’m already rich, some not-so-great tenants think it’s perfectly fine to skip a month’s rent, because after all, I can afford it. These same people feel no qualms about moving out and leaving a mess behind, because they’re “sticking it to the man.” Eat the rich, right?
Another point I want to make – what is so bad about being rich if I was? I find my political leanings moving further over to the right as each year goes by. My husband and I worked our asses off and continue to work our asses off building this business. We have taken on a great deal of personal risk and signed our names to a mountain of debt to make it happen. The end goal of all of this is to be comfortably well-off, if not stinking rotten filthy rich. I grew up poor. I got by on my wits all my life. Everything I have I fought for. And that includes this business. That doesn’t make me a slumlord, that makes me a hard-working American dreaming the American Dream. I am proud of this!
A PR Campaign for Landlords
When I led a discussion at the Wyoming Valley Real Estate Investors Association in May, we came to the conclusion that landlords need an image makeover. We were talking about Wilkes-Barre’s One Strike Law, born out of Mayor Leighton’s blaming landlords for Wilkes-Barre’s crime problem. Landlords are an easy target – unless we live in the city, we can’t vote. And we have that pop-culture image of greedy, rich slumlords profiting off misery. So if a municipal government decides to stomp on our property rights granted by the United States Constitution, who cares? There’s no sympathy for landlords, because we’re a scourge on the landscape anyway. We decided that perception has to change. And since I opened my big mouth, the leader of the Association appointed me to head up this PR campaign.
Now, how exactly am I going to do this?
I have some ideas floating around in my head. I’m not sure what kind of a budget I’m going to have to work with, if any, and that will determine what actually gets done. But this is what I’ve come up with:
Landlords are people. We’re your neighbors. And we’re investing in your neighborhoods.
I plan on using the web, social media, traditional media (TV/Radio/Print ads) and live events to spread this message. The first goal of the PR campaign is to put an average human face on landlords. A friendly face. An honest, hard-working face. The face of your next-door neighbor who has all the same life challenges you do.
The second goal is to show all the good landlords do for the community. In our case alone, we rescued two buildings in Wilkes-Barre that had been boarded-up urban blight. One of those, on West River St., has historical significance as being at one time part of Wilkes-Barre Academy. What a sad fate had befallen it – abandoned and dilapidated, squatters living in at least one of the apartments, essentially a six-unit crackhouse. Now it’s been brought back to life, home to families and Wilkes University pharmacy students alike. And it’s back on the tax rolls – and let me tell you we make QUITE the contribution to City Hall, Luzerne County and the Wilkes-Barre Area School District. Not to mention our mercantile taxes – a percentage off the GROSS rents collected, before any expenses are even taken out!
And let’s talk about some of the ways landlords contribute to the local economy – the handymen, plumbers, and electricians we hire. The landscapers and grass-cutters. Home Depot, Lowes, Main Hardware, Petro Ace Hardware in Pittston, RJ Walker, Mesko Glass, Window World – those are just a few of the vendors our company pays on a regular basis. There’s Perdomo Refrigeration, a local Wilkes-Barre business we contracted for appliance repairs. Laid to Rest Pest – another local business we use for all things bug & rodent. And it’s not just blue collar business we support - the attorneys and tax accountants get a piece of the pie, too. And let’s not forget the professional property managers affiliated with local real estate brokers. Not all landlords self-manage.
Landlording – It’s A Wonderful Life
What would Wilkes-Barre be like if all the landlords suddenly disappeared? Or even if, Jimmy Stewart-style, we never existed in the first place. Block after block of abandoned buildings, boarded up and rotting. Junkies sleeping on the floors. Plying their trade in the darkened hallways. Think it’s bad being the only homeowner on a street full of rental properties? Imagine being the only homeowner on a street full of boarded-up crackhouses, grass and weeds grown up to the windowsills.
Yes it would be nice if there were more homeowners and less tenants in Wilkes-Barre. Sure, that makes sense for the single-family homes. But a lot of the housing stock in Wilkes-Barre is multi-family – they were built as rentals and will always be rentals. So the city needs to find a way to co-exist with landlords.
I’m excited about creating this campaign. I think we need to start by building a website that we can promote through social media and a traditional media ad campaign. The website will highlight some local landlords and their success stories – how their rentals contribute to the well-being of the neighborhood. It will highlight some flips-in-progress – I believe this will be of interest to a lot of people because of the popularity of house-flipping reality shows. It will have an education section for people who want to become landlords, and landlords just starting out. It will have a section for investors to connect. It will have property listings – rental properties for sale, apartments for rent. All of our feel-good PR commercials we’ll produce for TV, radio, print and social media will point back to this website, which will remain long after the campaign is over as a resource for landlords, renters and investors.
I’m making some changes in my current business so I can free up some time to work on this. More on that in future Ginger Snapped blogs.