Where’s the Guilt?

Where’s the Guilt? August 24, 2015

15698224630_85fddfa509_zI’ve had the experience of dealing with renters from time to time, though more in the capacity of property manager than as landlord. It has been one of the ugliest, most unpleasant things a person can go through in business.

You might say, “Well, everybody knows that—people don’t really respect what they don’t own.” True, I suppose, to a degree. But then, I’ve rented property for most of my life, in one way or the other, and it would be a slander to myself not to qualify such an adage. I’ve kept up the places and paid my rent. I’ve given them back to their owners in as good a shape as they gave them to me, “normal wear and tear accepted.” So I think there’s something else behind what I’ve gone through. Let me relate my woes:

Let it be said that this property is in a prime location, is practically brand new, and is marketed at a price that would chase away the kind of folks who aren’t paying much, so don’t care much. A professional set is the target audience and a professional set, by and large, has been interested in leasing it.

But you’d be surprised at what even professionals are capable of doing. The first group of people came well recommended and had good references; they had the money and were anxious to move right in. They were in transition (which now I know is always a dangerous state—volatile and unpredictable).

Within months, they pressed demands for windows free of smirches (glare?) and gravel that did not “ping” beneath the undercarriage of the car when it was driven over. There were wasps outside the barn (this is a rural area I’m talking about), and you could hear traffic from the highway. Rent was withheld, vulgarities volleyed, and in the end, they skipped out owing a shocking balance and damaging the property in a vindictive assault.

It doesn’t matter that the law was on my side. Try enforcing the law and see what happens. You make the lawyer rich and wind up standing in line behind other people they’ve treated the same way when they declare bankruptcy.

Another tenant with a good job came, one who wanted some stability. Again, no bad references or credit. But just like the first time, before long the money wasn’t there on direct deposit day and excuses began to pour in. Every month was torture—grace periods were exhausted beyond the limits of grace—and at the end of that year, a deal had to be cut to pay the last amount owed over time, itself a nightmare.

Burned twice, you can’t help but be wary the third time. The next group came in with good manners and good references (a worse than worthless exercise). Nevertheless, with a week, one of the parties wanted out of the lease that was just signed and the other wouldn’t return phone calls about it. Like the repetitions of hell, rent payments were late and took inordinate amounts of time to collect. Lies flew about like birds flushed from cover. Wild parties, unpermitted fires, dogs never anticipated by the lease—the covenants of the agreement were turnstiles to these folks.

When the owner had had enough, it was another Herculean task to get the tenant out. The walk-through revealed a state of horror, as did the burden to haul away things and clean up the property—efforts frustrated by the holdover lessee who padlocked the gate to protect some hunting equipment that should’ve been removed the week before.

Security deposits don’t begin to cover the amount of time and trouble it takes to get out of such situations. Threats of what you’ll do—the credit damage that will be exacted, the police who will be called, the attorneys who will be loosed—none of these things have the effect that I once expected for them to have. That is, they don’t have the effect that they would have on me.

And that’s the difference, I guess. Because without a sense of shame, without a concept of honor, you can get away with anything. If you don’t care “what it looks like,” or “what people think,”—in the good meaning of those terms (i.e., “I don’t want to be known as someone who doesn’t keep my word, pay my debts, respects what belongs to others, etc.”), then this is the world for you. Just walk away from your obligations, become judgment-proof, and you get off scot-free. You can count on nobody going to great efforts because it will be more costly to do so than it would to suffer the loss you’ve inflicted.

Which is why I find it strange that guilt has become something people try to “get past” and “not feel.” You should feel guilty for things you’re guilty of. But the less you care, you really can get away with murder. Even with a conscience, you can go wrong more often than not; without one, there’s nothing to get in your way.

 

A.G. Harmon teaches Shakespeare, Law and Literature, Jurisprudence, and Writing at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His novel, A House All Stilled, won the 2001 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel.

The above royalty free image is attributed to Don Graham on Flickr.

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