SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
July 28, 2019

The Landlord Follies

 

Every couple of years, New York’s Rent Guidelines Board gets together to decide if the rents on the city’s rent-stabilized apartments are going to go up, and by how much. The public meetings surrounding the decisions are always boisterous, cantankerous affairs, with middle-class tenants arguing they have to work three jobs to cover the rent as it is, and can’t afford another hike, while landlords argue the cost of maintaining these buildings continues to rise, so rent hikes are necessary if they’re expected to keep making repairs. I guess I can sympathize with both sides.

            That said, and not to rub anyone’s nose in it, but since I moved into this building ten years ago, my rent hasn’t gone up a penny. Oh, if one of the other two apartments opens up, Milo, the landlord, will jack the rent on that apartment up to market value, but so long as we stay put, we have nothing to worry about. He’s never even threatened to raise our rents. There’s a reason for this.

            The building’s mortgage was paid off a long time ago, my landlord isn’t at all interested in putting any money into repairs or improvements, and so the three rent checks he gathers from the tenants every month are gravy to him. The building doesn’t cost him a dime except for real estate taxes and the occasional emergency (a collapsed ceiling or busted sewer line) and generates a monthly profit. It’s an easy set up, so why hassle the people who live there?

            I learned about Milo’s lassez-faire approach to landlording a few weeks after I moved in. It was January, a tough winter that year, and it suddenly struck me I’d been wearing a hat and gloves around the apartment for the past three days. I finally asked the people who lived upstairs if it was normal for the building to be this chilly. No, they said, the furnace had died again. They’d sent Milo a note about the situation, and suggested I do the same. Three days later, after four or five increasingly desperate pleas, a repairman finally arrived, though he’d been instructed to do only what was minimally necessary to get the furnace running again and leave it at that. Milo’s been told repeatedly by repairmen that the furnace, which I’m guessing was already used when it was first installed in the basement a century ago, was in dire need of replacement, that the chimney was filling with debris, and there was only so much they could do to keep it going. He wanted to hear none of it. Do you have any idea how much a new furnace would cost? As a result, we can count on the heat going out every two weeks or so over the course of every winter. And with that clogged chimney there’s the ever-present threat of carbon monoxide poisoning, but hey, with a rent that’s not even being threatened with an increase, these are minor inconveniences.

            Over the decade I’ve sent Milo emails asking if he might fix leaky ceilings, broken doors, malfunctioning washing machines, a crumbling building facade, any number of things, and have received no response at all. They were polite and friendly notes, too. I’ve had neighbors here in the past who’ve threatened him and called his mother filthy names, and I’ve noted how his willingness to act on a maintenance problem diminished exponentially every time you called him a motherfucker or insulted his mom. Then I discovered that no matter how polite you were, there was simply no willingness on his part to make basic repairs.

            Over time we’ve learned that if it’s a problem that requires an outside repairman, it’s just easier and faster to contact a repairman yourself, pay him out of pocket, and take the charge off the next month’s rent. Milo’s cool with that, and in fact he’s cool with anything that means he doesn’t have to think about the building at all.

            He did respond to the four floods I experienced when I lived in the basement. In one case he sent his uncle, kind of a Russian Jackie Mason, who surveyed the situation and told me, “Well, see whatcha got here is a lotta water on the floor. And whatcha wanna do is get that water off the floor.” Then he left. Another time he sent a slow-witted cousin, who surveyed the situation in the bathroom (where the sewer was still backing up), then turned around and walked out of the apartment without a word, never to be seen again. In still another case, his brother showed up with a wet-vac, which was nothing short of miraculous. And after the hot water heater exploded, Milo actually deigned to replace it, which shocked everyone. In none of those cases did Milo ever appear on the scene himself, taking care of whatever was required of him over the phone. In fact after ten years I’ve likely encountered him in person maybe half a dozen times.

            As frustrating as it can be, having a landlord like that can be a blessing as well, given he never sticks his nose into anyone’s business here. We can do whatever the fuck we want to the apartment, and he never says a word, maybe because he’s never stepped foot in the apartment since I moved in. I’ll take that.

            It may seem strange and unlikely, but I’ve really come to like Milo for his simple, outright craziness. He and his brother own a few buildings in the neighborhood, and in fact Milo used to live on the first floor here, until shortly before I moved in. He’s since relocated to Long Island with his wife and kids, though several members of his extended family still live on the block. Whenever possible, he only stops by the building once a month and then early enough that he can come and go without actually running into any tenants. He comes to pick up his mail (which is still delivered to this address) and clean the quarters out of the coin boxes on the washer and dryer. But here’s the kicker. When the mail arrives here every day, it gets dropped on a small table in the entry hall. When possible, Morgan will sort through it, grab Milo’s mail, place it in his basket, and leave the rest on the table for the other tenants to sort out for themselves. Sometimes there can be quite a bit of unclaimed mail on the table. In some cases it’s addressed to people who haven’t lived here for years, in others the neighbors aren’t terribly vigilant about grabbing their own mail, so it can pile up. It doesn’t matter whose mail is there—whenever he stops by to get his quarters, Milo simply scoops up whatever mail is left on the table and whisks it away with him. Other people’s medical bills, bank statements, pay stubs, it doesn’t matter. Knowing he tends to stop by around the first of the month, we always try to make sure to grab our own mail in a timely fashion, to get it out of the way before Milo swoops in and snatches everything that’s left. I’m still convinced he absconded with at least two checks addressed to me, but he never said a word about it.

            Now, here’s where things take a funny turn.

            Milo was the financial director for, um,  a local charitable organization. He’s a big, burly bald guy of about fifty who dresses in Armani suits and drives a gleaming white Lexus. When I want to get in touch with him, I have to send an email because he’s in the habit of changing his phone number every two or three weeks and never handing out the new one. I’ve long surmised, only half-jokingly, that he must somehow be connected to the Russian mob, just given the suits, the car, and his behavioral quirks.

            Well, a couple of weeks ago the nice Russian woman who lives in the basement asked if I’d heard the news about Milo. I hadn’t.

            “He was, what you call arrested? He stole $58,000 from a charity, and he admitted it. I do not know what is happening now, but I am worried they might come and take the house?”

            I thanked her for letting me know—I really hadn’t heard a thing about this—then excused myself and went upstairs, where both Morgan and I started looking into it. Sure enough, the story was out there. Milo, financial director of the charity, had pleaded guilty a week before to embezzlement charges for stealing $58,400 from its vast coffers. The charity, in a public statement, made it clear they were very shocked and disappointed in him.

            This was both a surprise and no surprise at all. Kinda funny, actually. I wasn’t worried about the house considering the paltry amount involved. In fact that was the one disappointing thing about the whole story. I mean, he’s clearly a little unbalanced, he’s in a position like that, and he only grabs a measly fifty-eight grand? What a cheap, small time loser! Even more pathetic, he’d apparently spent it on gym memberships, Pandora subscriptions, and renovations on his own damn house. And now he’s pleaded guilty to federal charges. From what I’ve gleaned of the situation, he might actually consider a stretch in a federal pen a blessing compared with what his own family might do to him for messing with the charity and bringing shame down on them that way.

            Back in our apartment, though, several questions remained.

            Even if no one was going to try and take the house away over something that penny-ante, where do we send the rent checks now? And who was going to collect the quarters from the washer and dryer? And who were we supposed to contact this winter when the heat went out again or the bathroom ceiling collapses? Did we even have a landlord anymore, or were we now on our own? Were we now officially some kind of Proudhonian anarcho-syndicalist commune? Well, there was just one way to find out, I figured.

“Dear Milo,

         Hope all’s going well. I was just wondering if you might be able to swing by and fix the front doorknob before you head off to Leavenworth?

         All the best,

         Jim

 

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