I woke up on the first of February, Imbolc, the feast of Saint Brigid, to another text message. The landlord, the Lost Girl said, was at her door demanding the rent in cash. And he wasn’t going to leave until he got it.
She had woken up very early to get her children on the bus for school. Their new house is far out of the way of the school, but she didn’t want the boys to switch schools in mid-year, so in order to get them to the bus stop she has to pack them in the car and drive two miles. When she got back, she found out that her bank account was shorter than she thought, and she was going to have to make up a couple hundred extra dollars quickly.
She thought she could mail rent and have the full amount in the bank by the time it got there. But then the landlord showed up demanding cash.
I said that didn’t make sense. Her lease didn’t say anything about cash– I read most of it myself when she moved in. It was the thickest lease I’d ever seen. As far as rent, it just said that $850 was due on the first of the month, with a $40 late fee if it was later than the fifth, and ten dollars per day thereafter. She should mail him the check like everybody does in this neighborhood. As long as it was made out the first and postmarked the first, it wasn’t late.
The Lost Girl said that the landlord had refused a check. She said he wanted the full $850 in cash, in hand, by nightfall. After that he would not take her rent until the fourteenth when he came back to town, and when there would be significant late fees. Nothing was allowed to go through the mail. He refused to give her an address to mail but said he would not be at the address in the letterhead on her lease. He didn’t want checks, cashier’s checks or money orders, and he wasn’t interested in taking some of the cash now and the rest by check later either. Just $850 in cash.
The Lost Girl was told that she had until “the end of the day” to hand him eight hundred dollar bills and one fifty. To me, “the end of the day” means five O’clock or nightfall, but she says he came back again to yell at her before two.
I have friends who are lawyers, though they’re not in state. I also have friends who work with Job and Family Services and have seen everything before. I consulted with them because I am not a lawyer or a social worker. They all confirmed that if there’s nothing in the lease about demanding cash, the tenant is not required to give cash. In fact, the tenant is not supposed to open the door to the landlord if he comes in unannounced; Ohio law requires 24 hours’ notice. This is interfering with her free enjoyment of the property and it’s against the law.
The problem is, there’s the law and then there’s the law. The Lost Girl signed a three-month lease until April. Three months, eight hundred fifty dollars a month, mandatory monthly inspections. That was what she signed on for. She said the landlord promised verbally to give her a rent-to-own lease for nine hundred fifty a month, in April, if she was very very good. And she was desperate. This was the only landlord who hadn’t done any income verification before letting her sign a lease. Her time was up at the miserable townhouse, and eviction proceedings would begin next. She couldn’t have an eviction on her record.
I had been suspicious about how eager the landlord was for her to sign the lease, personally, but I didn’t have any better ideas. I said she had to be careful with rent-to-own because it could be a scam.
“Oh no,” she said, “It’s a real house. He showed it to me.”
I didn’t know what to say.
Dangling homeownership in front of the poor is like dangling the key in front of a prisoner.
The Lost Girl would’ve done anything to own a house, and the landlord knew it. It was only three months. She would do anything the landlord wanted no matter how ludicrous, until April, to get that rent-to-own contract.
It had only been twenty days. So far, the Lost Girl says, the landlord has refused to fix the furnace because “getting a bigger furnace would be too expensive,” so she’s still using borrowed space heaters so the children don’t get sick. He has yelled at her and given her thirty days to put up curtains because he didn’t like the blankets over the curtain rods– and I don’t think that visit was one of the monthly inspections either. He has yelled at her that she’s not allowed to store toys on the porch but will have to get a shed. He shut off their water when he found out the Lost Girl didn’t have the water transferred into her name fast enough– and I realize that that last one is probably legal for him to do, but it’s still a rotten thing to do to a pregnant woman. The electricity in the house is so bad that she blows a fuse and has to reset the breaker every time she plugs something in. The house is in such bad condition that her cousins are visiting to put up drop ceilings at their expense. It only has one smoke detector in the whole two-story building. And it’s the only rental in LaBelle that I know of which didn’t come with its own fridge and oven. And now, she says, here he was at her door unannounced, harassing her for cash. True, if she’d refused to open the door and just mailed the check to the address on the letterhead on top of the lease, the law would have been on the Lost Girl’s side. But then he certainly wouldn’t give her the contract in April and then the law would be on his side. She had to play “Simon Says” and obey.
I was ready to throw the phone at the wall.
We have nothing to give her right now. We ourselves are so behind on bills I’m not sure how we’re getting through February– and that’s before we can finish fixing Serendipity. All I could offer was solidarity. The Lost Girl’s family isn’t even offering her that much right now. Her friends who do want to help her are as poor as we are.
The landlord left town and will not be back until Valentine’s day. She’ll owe him significantly more in the middle of the month now.
The baby comes in about two weeks.
I don’t know what we’ll do in April.
I hope you’re frustrated reading this.
I am too. I want you to feel my frustration, and then to imagine what it’s like to be a pregnant woman with four other children and an abusive ex, who just wants to care for her children and go to nursing school, who finally got a path to homeownership, stuck in this situation.
I’m trying to frustrate you by telling you this story, because I want you to understand that getting out of poverty is not a matter of having some good luck and a happy ending. I had hoped that the new house was the happy ending. But that’s not how it works. When you are poor in America, you face setback after nightmare setback, again and again, all the time. Of course it’s frustrating. Of course well meaning people wash their hands of you and don’t want to help anymore. Of course it’s tempting to try and blame the victim for being stupid: who signs a lease for just three months, on a house in that bad shape, when their income is so low it will be a marathon trying to pay the rent? But it’s hard to make smart choices when every choice you’re given is a stupid one. All the victim is trying to do is stay alive.
I want to frustrate you by telling this story, because I want you to understand that the housing market in America is completely out of control and this is a crisis. It should not be too much to ask that six human beings, five of them children, have an inhabitable home for more than three months.
I also hope there’s some pro-life guardian angel here in the Ohio Valley who wants to help fix this situation, because I am out of ideas. This is far bigger than I am. I’ve never been good at fixing anything.
That’s what I’ve been thinking about this weekend.
Let’s try to make it a better world this week.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.