I became an activist when the City of Wilkes-Barre interfered with one of my business interests by shutting down an apartment with their One Strike law. A tenant was caught at his kitchen table dealing marijuana. We as landlords are assumed accomplices to his drug dealing, therefore we are punished without due process by having our ability to earn rental income from that unit suspended for six months. Damn right I’m going to speak up about this!
Now, in addition to working, raising a little girl, and building a business – I am blogging, speaking, and apparently offending people.
The latest person I offended really breaks my heart because I thought we were kindred spirits in the realm of entrepreneurial real estate. This person told my HUSBAND (not me, to my face) that they were afraid being associated with me would be damaging to their reputation. And why was I poking the bear?
I am poking the bear because the bear needs a good poking. Because I am not afraid of bears. Where I come from, northern Vermont, we hunt bears. Wrastle them! I was bullied in middle school and learned to stand up for myself, and that’s how I’ve lived my life ever since. So if that offends you, go off in your corner and be offended. But stay the Hell out of my way! And what did you think telling my husband would accomplish? Did you think the man of the house would come home to his castle and tell his little wife to sit down and shut up? Not likely!
OK. I’ve vented and I feel better. And did you notice I did not call this person out by name or even give any identifying information? That’s because I respect this person’s concern about reputation. I hope they will offer me the same courtesy when speaking of me in public. #takethehighroad.
The internet troll
Maybe it’s not fair to call this person a troll. But then again he referred to me as “Ms. Refuse.” The last time someone deliberately misrepresented my family name to equate it with garbage was sometime back in middle school.
Dave6969 is all I know him as. He’s been haunting my husband’s business Facebook page with his hateful comments. And he shows up in the comment section of articles written about my One Strike activism. I believe I met him once – he spoke at the City Council meeting I spoke at (my speech that got the standing ovation!) He seemed timid. He said he hoped Wilkes-Barre’s homeowners would be involved in any rewriting of the One Strike law. And I agree with him -homeowners should be involved because we’re all in this together. But he disappeared before I could talk to him after the meeting ended.
Here are links to two articles Dave6969 has added his comments to. And I’ve added mine as well. Please feel free to add yours. I really like the lively discussion that’s going on in the Times Leader article. I enjoy lively discussions as opposed to insult-fests.
A secret meeting
Something else happened the night of the City Council meeting in which my speech got a standing ovation. My husband and I were approached by a city official and invited us to a meeting about our ideas for reforming the One Strike law. This was a top secret meeting, and as far as I can tell, nothing has come of it yet. But I felt like I was listened to. One sliver of hope that common sense may prevail in Wilkes-Barre. All I want is a blueprint that landlords can follow, approved by the city. And if we follow that blueprint while screening tenants and managing our units we will be held blameless if that tenant ends up committing a crime.
Apparently I’m going to have to go speak at another City Council meeting soon.
Opening for the D.A. at the Wyoming Valley Real Estate Investors Association meeting
My accidental activism career has landed me a few speaking engagements, the latest was at the May 26th meeting of the Wyoming Valley Real Estate Investors Association. I was to be the opening act for District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis. Association Director Jim Yarwood told me I had about 10 minutes, and he’d give me the signal when Stefanie arrived so I could graciously give up the stage. Having brought Aretha Franklin out on stage during the course of my 30 year radio career, I was up for the challenge.
Here is how I addressed that crowd:
“Good to see you all here tonight, my name is Kelly Rafuse and like a lot of people in this room I am a Wilkes-Barre landlord. My husband, Steve Franco & I founded Good People Good Homes together in 2008. It started with one 6 unit building – then a double block, then another 6 unit – we started pulling boards off abandoned buildings and bringing them back to life. It was exciting! We chose Wilkes-Barre because it was where we lived.. and I believed and still do believe in this area. In 2008 Wilkes-Barre seemed to be on the upswing – abandoned storefronts downtown were turning into new restaurants and bars. Wilkes University & Kings College were expanding. Two new tech start-ups were based in NEPA. They just put the riverfront park in. We had no problems filling our rentals. People were moving into the area to escape from places like New York and New Jersey.
The problem is, the crime moved up here from the cities too. Drugs are big business here. And our little Mayberry, RFD police force couldn’t handle it. Too many willing customers. Too many willing recruits for the drug trade. Drug dealers aren’t stupid – they recruit people who can pass a background check to rent an apartment. Once those tenants are in, they can move in with them on the down low. Or in a lot of cases – use the apartment as a hub for the merchandise.
Wilkes-Barre is not the only city where this is happening, but that’s small comfort to those of us who are living through it!
If dealing with drug dealers in your rentals wasn’t enough of a nightmare, the city of Wilkes-Barre has passed a Stalin-Era Code Enforcement ordinance. They call it “The One Strike Law.” If anyone – tenant, guest, babydaddy - ANYONE – is arrested on your property – Code Enforcement can shut the unit down, or even the whole building down, for six months. You, the landlord, automatically have IMPLIED KNOWLEDGE of the crime. There is no due process. Your unit is shut down. You can appeal it, within 20 days for a cost of $100, and five weeks later get a hearing in front of the board of Code Enforcement. Yes, the same people who shut you down. When your appeal is denied, you can get a lawyer and proceed to the Court Of Common Pleas, but no landlord has done that, because the cost of a lawsuit is greater than the lost rent. There is fear of retaliation if an investor has other units. It’s hard to find a lawyer willing to take on such a case (although we DID find one!)
YES the ACLU has challenged One Strike. Wilkes-Barre is trying to get the case dismissed because none of the landlord plaintiffs tried to sue the city in the lower courts before bringing the federal lawsuit.
Wilkes-Barre isn’t the only city with a law like this. Scranton has one. Hazleton, Williamsport, I heard Philadelphia will just take the deed to the property away under Civil Forfeiture.
This is spreading like a cancer. Are you scared yet? Outraged? Listen to this – candidate running for Luzerne County District Attorney (here I played an audio soundbyte from Vito Deluca talking about using PA’s civil forfeiture laws to seize properties from these “absentee landlords”) that’s Vito Deluca. This is a guy who makes a living as a criminal defense attorney, getting these drug dealers off! If you’ve been a landlord for awhile, you’ve already figured out the criminals have more rights than you! DeLuca’s a democrat, so he just might win. If you can vote in Luzerne County PLEASE vote for Stefanie Salavantis!
WE – the real estate investment community – have been disturbingly silent about this, and it’s about time we speak up, collectively.
That is why I’m here tonight. I want you to start thinking about what our collective response should be. I am perfectly happy to be the mouthpiece – I’ve already opened my mouth. One of our investors buildings was hit by One Strike – I called the media – got us on the news – local TV, Talk Radio, the newspapers – as local landlords fighting this unfair One Strike Law. I started a blog called Ginger Snapped – it’s at GoodPeopleGoodHomes.com chronicling a redheaded mom trying to grow a rental real estate business who ends up fighting city hall. Our investor did not want to persue a lawsuit. I, however, do not fear retaliation – if one of MY properties gets shut down I already have a lawyer who specializes in suing overreaching municipal governments. And he has amended complaints to include retaliation – amazingly the retaliation stops!
We real estate investors who meet in groups like this all across the region can be a pretty powerful lobby. We need to start organizing. I am offering my 30 years experience working in the media to help you. You can reach me throughgoodpeoplegoodhomes.com – or just see my husband – the tall redhead who’s here every month, he kind of sticks out in the crowd.
NOW…– let me leave you with a more positive thought. Warren Buffet said “when people are greedy be scared. When people are scared… be greedy.”
Some Wilkes-Barre landlords, particularly out of town landlords, are desperate to get out. They are selling rented properties cheap. And some are offering very favorable seller financing terms. I’m actually thinking of adding to our portfolio. I am not going to let the criminals win. I am not going to let a misguided city ordinance chase me away from my investments. Ordinances can be changed. We have the power. Let’s use it. Thank you.”
The outcome of that speech to the WVREIA. Stefanie Salavantis was delayed at a previous engagement and never made it, so I ended up on that stage for over an hour! After my 10 minute speech I led a discussion that ended up with a general concensus that everybody hates landlords, and we really need a public relations campaign.
And guess who got assigned to run that campaign? Sure, I have time! More about that next week…