Some of you have read the background of this already (hint, hint), about the fellow suing me for $4,000-plus for locking him out of his apartment and stealing his brand new TV and other valuable furniture. I’ve never met the man, whom I have called “Mr. B,” but if he’s correct — if we really did lock him out of his apartment, I would surely want to make it right with him.
Instead, I am convinced that my property manager is telling the truth. He says that when things weren’t working out, he offered Mr. B $150 or $200 to give us back the keys (thus saving us the cost and time of the eviction) … that Mr. B agreed … and that, offered a chance to take his stuff (most of which had been assembled from curbside cast-offs, including the TV that had no picture tube), he said he didn’t want any of that junk — and left.
Not a word of complaint until about nine months later when I was sued by Legal Services of Greater Miami. That was in December 1996.
It makes me a bit nuts to recount all the time and effort (and legal bills) that have gone into this so far. And yet if we just settle, what message does that send? “Just go to Legal Services and, worst case, you strike out. But it’s free (the taxpayer pays), and since you’re unemployed, whatever little time it takes you is not much of an inconvenience.”
I happen to support the concept of Legal Aid for the poor, but I also support the concept of calling someone before you file a lawsuit and the concept of “good judgment” when it comes to weighing which cases merit representation.
Anyway, after a time we got an offer asking us to settle for $1,250. And then it just sort of faded away. We figured Mr. B had lost interest.
But no, it’s back. Having already been deposed ourselves ages ago, we were now to take Mr. B’s deposition April 20, and so my lawyer prepared for it, and promptly at 9 a.m., he and my property manager and the court reporter and the lawyer for Legal Services were there waiting for Mr. B. When by 9:40 he hadn’t shown up, someone called his car service (he is eligible for free transportation), and somehow we got word that he hadn’t been feeling well and wasn’t coming, and we’d have to reschedule. Which we are now doing.
This cost Mr. B nothing. Not even a quarter to call and say he couldn’t come. It cost me my lawyer’s time, my property manager’s time, and the court reporter’s time.
Meanwhile, we have gotten a new offer to settle, this time for $900, under a statute I think actually makes a lot of sense, designed to encourage settlements. It says we don’t have to pay the proposed $900; but if this proceeds to trial and he actually is awarded at least that much (or maybe 75% that much, I can’t recall), I’m then liable, also, for Mr. B’s legal fees from the time of this offer on. In other words, I’d get a bill from Legal Services for representing Mr. B at trial. (There’s some question whether Legal Services actually filed this properly. But if they did, that’s the way it would work.)
It’s not a bad law, because if it were a case where I should have salted the ice on my stairs, and I’m just stalling … or I disagree about the degree of injury or something … well, this makes me think hard about stalling any longer.
But it isn’t that kind of case. (Fortunately, the stairs rarely ice up in Miami.) Mr. B paid us a few hundred bucks to live in our apartment for a few months. He proved an undesirable tenant from our point of view (believe me, we hate to lose even mediocre tenants); we offered him some cash to go; and he did. At least that’s what my property manager insists, and my big-hearted property manager is anything but tough on the tenants.
So we’ve said no to the $900, and that’s where it now stands. The net effect of Legal Services’ efforts in this case has been twofold:
- to drain what will be at least $5,000 from the “good guys” — money I initially offered to donate to the homeless organization of Legal Aid’s choice, so long as not a dime of it went to Mr. B;
- to increase homelessness.
Why has Legal Services’ actions increased homelessness? Because we’re now even warier than before about renting to someone without first and last month’s rent and decent references. Which leaves out every homeless or about-to-be-homeless person in Miami. We still try to help when we can but are now more likely than before to leave 15 or 20 apartments vacant rather than risk tenants who will pay $100 to move in and then destroy the apartment before finally being evicted, a three-month process that costs a minimum of $375 plus the lost rent and the damage.
Which is why our first attempt, before starting eviction, is to work out something friendly and voluntary as we did with Mr. B.
But Legal Services has taught us it’s even more expensive to give people a chance than we thought.
Perversely, one good way to help the homeless would be to enact laws making it easier to evict people in certain circumstances. Localities should pass ordinances that allow for a “starter lease” or some such. In English, Spanish and Creole — or whatever were appropriate in that locale — it would very clearly explain that, in return for being allowed to move into a $20,000 piece of property with little or no financial security and insufficient references, the landlord would be entitled to an accelerated eviction process if it didn’t work out. This would make it easier for landlords to take chances on people down on their luck or of questionable background, while leaving undisturbed the protections for ordinary tenants. And for those down on their luck who gradually were able to build a decent track record and/or a security deposit, the accelerated-eviction provision of the lease could, under certain conditions, automatically expire.
Don’t vote against funding for Legal Services; administered sensibly, it’s a program a compassionate society should have. But the people involved in this particular case have demonstrated poor judgment from day one.