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“Don’t shoot the messenger.”
It’s a saying that takes on new importance once delivering devastating news becomes your job. It was also what I chanted to myself each time I rode up the elevator of an unfamiliar apartment building with a notice clutched in my hands telling some folks that they had three days to pay their back rent or else they’d be tossed out.
I’m a person who has lived in 25 different places, so having one true home where I can keep my stuff and rest my head is the most important thing to me. I never imagined I would be the one taking that away from other people.
I’d only been working as an assistant at a real estate office for one week when my boss approached me with a proposition: One of his clients who owned some apartments in a nice neighborhood had tenants that owed back rent to the tune of $4,000, and he was looking for someone to do the dirty task of getting rid of them.
“How much does it pay?”
“This sort of thing normally runs about $300.”
It seemed expensive just to have me deliver some paper, but I wanted the extra money. When I quoted the landlord the price I’d been recommended, he readily agreed. I thought for sure he might haggle or balk at it, but all he asked was, “How soon can you post the notice?”
Giving someone three days to pay back more than $4,000 is pretty much a guarantee they’ll be leaving instead; after all, if they had that sort money, the rent wouldn’t be overdue in the first place.
While I was filling out the forms, I messed up twice and had to re-do them before I could make my way to the apartment. If the names and addresses aren’t spelled perfectly, then the paperwork will be rejected in court and the whole process must be repeated.
As I checked my work, I found myself learning about these tenants. They were a couple; the woman was a nurse.
“A nurse must be nice. She must be reasonable, right? This will be fine,” I thought, trying to convince myself.
When I knocked on the door of the delinquent renters, no one answered. I figured I’d gotten off easy. If no one was home, I could just post the paperwork on the door for them to find. Just as I was pulling out the duct tape, however, a woman approached, clearly heading for the door in front of me.
“Are you Jessica?” I asked.
She replied in the affirmative and I handed her the paper. She took one look at it, said, “No, I don’t accept,” and threw it back in my face.
Jessica opened her front door and slipped inside. I’m still not entirely sure why, but I picked up the notice and tossed it in after her before she could close the door fully. After a few seconds, she realized the dreaded sheet of paper had made it in with her.
She opened the door again, shouted, “You dropped this!” and threw it at me a second time.
“Throwing it back doesn’t mean this didn’t happen!” I shouted back.
After taping the notice to her door, I walked back to my car, confused and startled. A few minutes later, Jessica and her roommate came down to the parking lot. They apologized, and later they begged me to help them out by placing them in a different apartment owned by one of our other clients.
The next boot I had to give was a little tougher. It was a family I’d actually met once or twice, since they were tenants at a property our company managed on behalf of its owner. I went inside, spoke to the woman and saw her two cute kids running around. Unfortunately her boyfriend had paid the rent late more often than on time, so my boss decided to give them a 90-day notice.
In a month-to-month lease, you can get rid of anyone at any time with a 90-day notice and a reason that isn’t totally petty. The woman was stunned when I handed her the paperwork. She looked shaken, but this time there wasn’t a game of hot potato.
The boyfriend, Marco, called the office and yelled profanities at my boss for about 20 minutes and said if they were getting kicked out anyway, they wouldn’t bother paying the rent. As it turns out, this wasn’t the wisest of strategies. They got served with another notice, this time from our lawyer.
For some reason I’ll never understand they contested the eviction and chose to bring it to trial, but when they showed up to court (late) they decided not to fight it after all, and signed off agreeing to the exact same terms as if a judge had ruled in our favor without so much as a word of complaint.
When you’re evicted, you can apply for an extension on the eviction that can be granted for a maximum of 40 days. The couple said they would do so, but never followed through on this either.
On the eviction date, when I showed up at the house I thought I’d missed the sheriff, who was supposed to come and lend a hand, but two guys hanging out in T-shirts and jeans turned out to be the sheriff and deputy I was looking for. The tenants had left hours ahead of the them.
“Oh yeah, we don’t dress in uniform for these things,” the deputy explained. “Places tend to be dirty and if they’re violent or have weapons they don’t want to see a guy in uniform.”
Thankfully these folks didn’t have either, but they did leave behind piles of broken furniture and one of the doors sported a hole that looked like it most have been made by a fist.
While it’s never a good feeling to force people out of the place they call home, it was at least easy to mitigate my guilt with the two aforementioned cases. They brought it on themselves in one way or another, I figured, though there's no way to know if it was true. If they’d paid their rent, if they’d paid on time, there would have been no reason to eject them. These are things that everyone thinks to make themselves feel better. If we do everything right, we believe that nothing bad will befall us. Such ideas appeal to a universal sense of justice.
Sometimes there is no universal accounting. It’s not common, but sometimes you get dispatched as the representative of life’s unfairness.
The last and most recent home I was sent to empty out in exchange for money in my pocket was occupied by a nice family. They were a good family, the sort of family who always paid their rent on time, who never complained and greeted me warmly.
Our client had purchased a six unit apartment building full of families, and as an assistant I got saddled with the menial task of going around to every family and telling them there was a new owner they’d be making out their rent payments to.
The family in unit six were kind and inviting. When I went back to the office to talk to the new owner, a middle-aged man who looked and sounded like the cheeriest, friendliest guy, he looked over the building’s stats. The one empty unit had just been renovated and re-rented at a much higher price than the others.
“We need to get rid of number six. I want to re-do it and charge more rent,” he said
Later my boss, who had also met the tenants, bemoaned the fact that it had to be number six.
“That’s a shame. They’re the ones I liked most. Nice people. But that’s the nature of the beast. It’s about profits, nothing personal.”
I felt horrible, but there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t risk my job, not to mention that of my boss, by asking the owner to reconsider—especially when his decision made the most business sense.
On my way to deliver the 90-day notice, I almost chickened out. I posted the papers on the door without knocking, and left in a hurry because I didn’t want to face them. I made it about a block away before I decided to turn back around and knock on the door.
I figured that I owed it to these people to at least give them an empathetic human being to talk to. I did walk back and knock on their door, but as fate would have it, they weren’t home.
Of course they saw the paper on their door and called the next day. They pleaded not to be forced out of their apartment. They had children who biked to a nearby school, and it was unlikely they’d find rent as low as they had been paying anywhere else in the neighborhood. I found a vacancy in another apartment nearby owned by another of our clients, but at $500 more a month. They didn’t follow up on the lead.
I still felt horrible as I sat in a nice restaurant days later with the owner. He had a large spreadsheet printed out detailing the apartments, and kept going on about the order in which he’d displace the remaining tenants so that he could fix up the other units and rent them out at higher rates as well.
He must have caught my dismayed look, because he said, “I have to think like a business person. It’s nothing personal.”
This is still my job, and I’ll likely have to toss the rest of those tenants when our client decides it’s time. It can’t be personal, not if I want to keep my job.
The most important things I’ve learned through this work are to pay the rent before you buy groceries, to always get at least a year-long lease if you don’t want the possibility of receiving a notice telling you to scram, that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and to please, never shoot a messenger.