Real estate can be an appealing investment, but slum properties pose their own special challenge. As some of you know, I own a few such properties, purchased with the hope that we might be able to fix them up and improve the neighborhood. You know: do well by doing good, and all that.
It’s a long story (see: Chapter 2, “Never Buy Real Estate Over the Phone“), and from an investment standpoint, you would almost surely be better served by buying shares in a publicly traded real estate investment trust. However, rather than reprise the whole thing here, I thought I’d just give you today’s slice:
Today, my property manager reported to me, was the day the sheriff came to put the people in Apartment 4 out on the street.
This is something no one feels good about, for all the obvious reasons, plus one more: if the sheriff is coming, that means no voluntary accommodation could be reached. (Usually we just work something out with the tenant and swallow our losses.) And that means the full formal eviction process was necessary, adding at least another $375 to our cost.
The tenant in Apartment 4, I’m told, was a heavyset white woman, a recovering addict, referred to us by the Human Resources Service (a government agency).
We are certainly not above renting to recovering addicts, who need a place to live too, and when H.R.S. sent her around we apparently rented her a small one-bedroom apartment — $350. She agreed to live in it alone, and reviewed with us and signed our standard list of good-neighbor rules. Rules like: no drugs, no loud noise that disturbs the neighbors, and so on. Not long after she got the key, I’m told, her boyfriend moved in, and we got reports of the frequent coming and going of strangers — the kind of activity that appeared to be drug-related.
The city of Miami relies largely on landlords to rid their buildings of drug activity. The city appears overwhelmed by the prospect of doing it through police action. If a building is cited repeatedly for harboring drug activity, what eventually happens is that the city (believe it or not) tears the building down. One two-story apartment building on our block suffered just this fate. It’s now a vacant lot.
Anyway, in a constant battle to keep the neighborhood on a gradual uptrend . . . and not eager to see our building bulldozed . . . after two months we asked the tenant to leave. But sensing she might not, we plunked down the $375 to go through the formal two-month eviction process. That meant losing a good chunk of rent, because we’ve found that tenants, while being evicted, do not pay. So instead of getting $1,400 for the four months she would be there before we could get the apartment back ($350 times 4 months), we would get $700 less our $375 in eviction fees, or a net of $325, less the cost of water and sewer and taxes and insurance and management, repairs and, of course, the mortgage.
This is a tough way to earn a profit, and leads some landlords to abandon their properties, which is one reason neighborhoods remain mired in decay.
Anyway, that’s the background. Here’s the new twist. It seems that if, at the final stage of the eviction, when the sheriff comes to actually put people out on the street, the address on his work order varies at all from the address of the property, the whole process goes back on hold for at least another two weeks.
This is presumably done to assure that sheriffs don’t go around evicting people from the wrong apartments — a practice no one could favor.
Knowing this, our tenant and her cohorts apparently removed the address from the front door of the building shortly before the sheriff was due to arrive. Pried off the little metal numbers.
Fortunately, our guys spotted this and, unbeknownst to the tenant inside, quickly spray painted the numbers back on.
When the sheriff came, minutes later, and knocked at Apartment 4, he was met with complete ignorance. You have the wrong address! This is not such-and-such number! We don’t know what you’re talking about!
And had our guys not restored the address just in time, that would have been the end of it, for two weeks, anyway.
Instead, everyone went out to the sidewalk where the numbers did indeed match the work order. Five people were evicted from this small one-bedroom apartment.
(Often, in a situation like this, the air conditioner would have left with them, costing another $350 or so, but in this case, perhaps not expecting to have to leave for another two weeks, they took only what was theirs.)
What exactly were five adults doing in our one-bedroom apartment at 11 on a weekday morning? I don’t know for sure. But a good guess might be that the apartment was being used as a place to do drugs. Not to sell them, necessarily, but a place crack addicts could come use them and crash, in exchange for a small fee or a cut of the crack.
My property manager called H.R.S. to report what had happened. H.R.S. told him there was nothing she could do, and that, if asked, it would now set about trying to find the woman we had evicted another apartment — another chump landlord. That’s their job.
(Given that our tenant and her boyfriend knew to remove the street address from the building shortly before the sheriff was scheduled to arrive, we got the impression they may have been around this block before. And with taxpayer-funded H.R.S. help, it looks as though they’ll be around it again.)
I’m less angry about any of this than sad. On one level, of course, one can and should blame the addicts. Weren’t they listening when Nancy Reagan told them to JUST SAY NO? But one should also blame the pushers and, when you think about it, the absent fathers or rotten schools or overwhelmed teachers . . . not to mention the lack of midnight basketball programs and big-brother/sister programs and church programs and good jobs — or any jobs, in some cases . . . some dismal combination of which led these five adults, who were children once, to be in that one bedroom at 11 a.m. on a Friday morning.
Maybe the answer is just more cops, prisons and homeless shelters. But how vastly much more efficient if we could find the resources to prevent the problem in the first place (or at least a larger chunk of the problem than we’re preventing now).
From your feedback to prior columns, I know some of you feel government — at any level — has no rightful role in any of this (except the prisons) and that left to their own devices, the good people of Miami will solve this problem by themselves. I don’t see it. Rather, I see the affluent sections of the city simply breaking off from the problem areas — as Aventura, a few miles from my little slum, seceded from Miami not long ago — so as to be able legally to say, “not my problem.”
Well, that’s not the right solution.