Being a landlord in the ghetto is a quick education.
When I first bought rental property in East Cleveland, I was a typical suburban kid. I mostly believed what I had been told about race in college: that black underperformance was due to racism, whatever that was. At the time of my purchase in 1981, East Cleveland was still a partly white suburb with good schools, public services, and the other amenities that make suburban life comfortable. It was just two miles east of bustling University Circle, Cleveland’s cultural center. It had hospitals, factories, and businesses, and was once the home of John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in the world. Had I been more astute—or, I should say, more racially aware—I could have foreseen the disaster that East Cleveland was to become. There were still a few whites left, but I didn’t realize they were moving out so quickly.
My youthful enthusiasm was soon tempered by the reality of black behavior. After I started renting, I commented to one tenant that another tenant seemed to have a lot of visitors, including people rolling up in wheelchairs. He replied, “Don’t you know? She’s a hooker. She’s turning tricks in there!” My enlightenment continued when a tenant’s boyfriend came out with a butcher knife in his hand to ask me to repair a pipe in her unit. He had no shirt on, his pants were dangling, and I don’t think he had just been helping his girlfriend chop meat. It dawned on me that things were different here than in white suburbia.
When new tenants moved in, I would often get a call that the locks were broken, and find a heavy dead bolt smashed out of its frame, supposedly as a result of normal usage. This was usually the result of a jilted boyfriend who would not take “no” for an answer.
One day I was inspecting a broken window when a muscular black guy named Devon—newly released from prison—walked up and asked if I had any work for him. I told him no, thank you, I did not need any help. He glared at me and walked off. The next time I stopped by, a tenant showed me a newly broken window and said Devon had done it, and that he said to tell me that unless I paid him off, he would break all my windows. She told me not to worry about Devon, though, because he was back on crack and would soon lose the muscle he had put on lifting weights in prison. About a month later, Devon was shot and killed on the East Side.
Soon I established a rule as a landlord in East Cleveland: Never go there after dark. If you had to go, it was best to go in the morning before most people were awake. I broke this rule one night when my son was playing in a hockey tournament in nearby Cleveland Heights. A tenant called to say she had the rent, and I told her I would swing by to pick it up after dropping my son at the rink. I parked at the police station across from my building and walked up to my tenant’s front door. My tenant gave me the rent and we chatted for a few moments when I heard three gunshots from the parking lot behind my building. My tenant said, “Mr. Bill, you best be leaving.”
Why was I collecting rent in the first place rather than have tenants mail checks? Most blacks don’t have checking accounts, and even if they do, after a few bounced checks you just ask for cash. Section 8 tenants always make their deposits in cash. If you ask any inner-city merchant or repairman, he will tell you blacks mostly pay cash. Part of it is that they just don’t trust banks.
I also rent to middle-class whites in the suburbs, so I can compare black and white tenants. Running credit checks on whites often turns up financial difficulties: a foreclosure, medical bills, or sometimes a bankruptcy from a failed business. Usually I can overlook these problems if the applicant has a good explanation. Running credit checks on blacks is meaningless, especially if they are on welfare. They have no income, pay no taxes, and are effectively wards of the state. They never go bankrupt because of medical costs, yet seem to get healthcare whenever they have a sniffle.
Most of my white tenants want to repaint a room or make other upgrades. They take pride in their homes, even if they are rentals. I never had black tenants ask me if they could repaint or make upgrades. They took no pride in their homes and showed no interest in improving them.
I almost never saw books or other reading material in my black tenants’ apartments. Television and rap music seemed to be their only diversions.
Anyone who has spent time in a black area soon notices the trash. Blacks don’t dispose of trash in containers. They consume an enormous amount of processed and fast foods and just drop the wrappers on the ground.
When black tenants moved out, willingly or by eviction (and most had to be evicted), they left huge piles of personal property, much of it perfectly usable. There seemed to be an inverse relation between their income and the amount of stuff they left behind. After tenants moved out I would fill large trash bags with almost-new clothing. They would also leave behind appliances, pans, and dishes, and I was always amazed at why these supposedly poor people would abandon perfectly functional items.
One of the frustrations of owning property in black neighborhoods is the great difficulty of finding qualified repairmen who are honest and willing to work in those areas. There seems to be an endless supply of black men who call themselves Mr. Fixit but can’t fix anything. A number of times I would get business cards or phone numbers of supposedly multitalented black repairmen. They would show up with no tools and tell me I should supply the tools.
Blacks didn’t seem to have a realistic sense about the worth of work. Cutting the grass was a typical example. My property’s lawn took about 45 minutes to cut, but virtually no one in this area of high unemployment was willing to do it. The one man I was able to find wanted $325 to cut the grass. He was unemployed and seemed to have no skills, yet this was his best price. At least he had a broken-down lawn mower that he pulled along behind his bicycle.
Since over 90 percent of the people living in East Cleveland are at or below the poverty level, a landlord soon learns about Section 8, the subsidized housing program. Section 8 provides rent assistance so that tenants pay no more than 25 percent of their income for rent and utilities. Since most tenants’ income was either very low or zero, a typical tenant would owe only $15 or $20 of the rent for a $700 unit. Tenants usually did not pay even this modest share, and it wasn’t practical to evict them in order to collect this small amount, and a court would not enforce a collection. This meant that they essentially lived rent free.
When I first bought my building, East Cleveland was still partly white and in high demand, and a single small newspaper ad would draw 50 to 100 phone calls. But it was in high demand only for blacks; I had just one white tenant the whole time I owned the building. Virtually all the callers were single women with children, most on Section 8. For a black girl, “getting her papers” from Section 8 and setting up a household was a rite of passage and source of pride, because it meant she was now an adult. As she had more children, she became eligible for larger subsidies to rent bigger units. By the time I sold the building more than 20 years later, East Cleveland was a city of last resort, and ads drew few responses. Section 8 and its black clients had moved on to other, nicer cities.
My top priorities when screening black Section 8 applicants were that they be able to speak at least marginally intelligible English and have what appeared to be somewhat normal lifestyles. When I would advertise, many phone replies would start with something like, “This is Ruby. How ya doin’?”
Many voicemail messages were unintelligible. A caller who began with, “Hello, I am inquiring about your rental,” moved to the top of my list.
When scheduling showings for a unit, I quickly learned that blacks seldom keep appointments. At first I would schedule showings 15 minutes apart to allow time to talk to each prospective tenant. Eventually I learned to schedule all the showings at the same time, since for every ten applicants, only one or two would actually show up.
It became clear to me that the best black tenants were older women, and I eventually rented only to them. I collected less rent from these tenants, since subsidies were based on the number of bedrooms a family needed, but older women were more stable and did not come with the teenagers who really caused problems. My relations with most of these women were amiable. Once when I was collecting rent, my tenant told me, “I knows, Mr. Bill, yous be needin’ yours monies.” I used that line whenever I collecteed rent from that tenant, and we always had a laugh.
After I agreed to accept a Section 8 tenant, I filled out paperwork supplied by the tenant, and the tenant returned it to the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA), which would schedule the unit for an inspection. CMHA was almost completely staffed by blacks and suffered from it. CMHA would send a letter informing me of a morning or afternoon inspection, but without a specific time. The inspectors I dealt with had only a cursory knowledge of construction and building codes. A freshly painted unit with no obvious defects usually passed. The inspectors had a few key things they looked for, especially window locks and smoke detectors.
Inspectors never reported the results of the inspection on the spot. The owner had to wait for results to arrive by mail. The owner had ten days from the date of the inspection to make required repairs, but the report might arrive only two days before the re-inspection deadline. If the repairs weren’t completed by then, Section 8 would not subsidize the rental. The reports were often illegible, and no inspectors, managers, or case managers I dealt with ever answered their phones, so it was sometimes impossible to know what work was required.
Once I was at the CMHA office dropping off some leases when I walked past a room where white guys were staring blankly at piles of paper. I asked them what they were doing, since white people were an unusual sight at CMHA. “We are the auditors,” they replied. “How is it going?” I asked. They shook their heads and said, “This place is such a mess, it is completely unauditable.”
There was an adjunct of CMHA in Cleveland, a small nonprofit agency that received funding to help CMHA process backlogged Section 8 applicants. The nonprofit was white-run and a pleasure to work with. It had qualified inspectors who answered their phones and who worked with landlords to help them pass inspections. Unfortunately, after two years, the units handled by this agency would revert back to CMHA.
My building had a rear parking lot that was lightly used, as most tenants didn’t have cars. It was just a large open area not visible from the street. In the summer, I kept getting calls from tenants saying that young men were using the parking lot as a hangout to smoke dope (and I assume sell it), drink, and harass the tenants. I called the police and explained that all of my tenants were single, elderly women, and were terrified of these young men. I asked if the police would please send over some officers to chase the men away away. My building was very close to the police station. The officer on the phone said they were too busy, and hung up. Refusing to take no for an answer, I called back and told him this was a dangerous situation that could result in violence towards my tenants. The officer said, “I told you we are busy, stop bothering us!” and hung up again. Black, of course.
The police were eager to investigate me, however. A unit I was repairing was repeatedly broken into and vandalized. I suspected a local resident, but the police did nothing beyond taking my statement. I reported damage several times, but the police did nothing. Most of the vandalism involved stealing pipes, so I installed plastic pipes. I returned one day to find the plastic pipes gone and water flooding the unit. This could only have been done from malice, to destroy property and cost me money. The shut-off valve was also damaged, so I had to go to Home Depot to get a tool called a street key to turn off the below-ground valve at the street.
As I was shutting off the water, the police showed up and asked what I was doing. They didn’t care about the break-ins and damage to my property, but told me that only the water company could shut off water. A black female officer told me I was breaking the law and that the street key was a criminal tool. I told her I had just bought it at Home Depot. Another cruiser pulled up and the police blocked off the street to investigate the crime scene. After about 45 minutes of phone calls to the water department, they concluded that what I was doing was legal and told me to pay the water bill that was being run up by the broken pipe.
That incident convinced me East Cleveland had deteriorated so much that I had to leave, and I sold the building soon after. The female officer was later convicted of corruption and sent to prison.
East Cleveland has its own black-run municipal court. Sitting in that courtroom as the only white person was probably the most unpleasant part of my East Cleveland experience. It was even worse than hearing gun shots; that was over in an instant. But going to court, I always felt like the white outsider—and that everyone assumed I was there to screw over the brothers. You had to sit in a small room—a very small room—with a woman and her family whom you were trying to throw out on the street. I can’t entirely explain why, but I dreaded it beyond belief. The derelict city hall building and courtroom—typical of any black enterprise I have ever known—had a miserable, oppressive atmosphere that added to my misery.
The blacks in court had a strange informality among themselves that made it clear that they were in charge, and that whites were second-class citizens. Once, I was sitting in the courtroom awaiting my case when my tenant walked in as another case was being heard. He yelled out, “How ya doin’, judge?” The judge replied, “Larry, we’ll be with you shortly.” My lawyer looked at me and said, “Prepare to be screwed.”
Another time I heard a person in court for a traffic violation have a lively discussion with the judge about the movie Drum Line. They both thought the band at local Shaw High School compared favorably to the band in the movie.
Our black municipal judge seemed to do anything possible to favor the poor black residents of East Cleveland, and had no apparent respect for the property rights of white landlords. By Ohio law, when a tenant fails to pay rent, the landlord may give the tenant a notice whereby the tenant has three days to pay, after which the landlord may file in court for an eviction. If the tenant has not paid the rent by the appointed court hearing, a move-out date is set, usually ten days after the hearing. The whole process takes about five or six weeks. Once, after going through the trouble and expense of this process to evict a non-paying tenant, I went to the court clerk to arrange a move-out, whereby the landlord and bailiff go to the unit and remove the tenant and his possessions.
The black clerk told me the judge had put a hold on the move-out date because the tenant had filed a “motion to stay.” I asked how this could be; I had never heard of a motion to stay. I had not received any rent for two months and had gone to the trouble and expense of this legal proceeding only to have it ignored. The clerk responded, “Tenants have rights, too,” and explained that in a “motion to stay,” the black judge granted a poor tenant extra time to get her affairs in order; the landlord was never informed of this proceeding. He didn’t explicitly say that this was something the black judge did just for black tenants who owed money to white landlords, but it sure seemed that way.
I lost my temper and yelled, “Look at your city! It’s a dump because of actions like this.” East Cleveland is the only court in Ohio that honors the “motion to stay;” it is something the judge made up and is not based on Ohio law. Other landlords have told me they have had tenants skip rent for another six months because of this scam.
Most of the time, blacks put on a show of solidarity with their brethren, but in private their true feelings sometimes come out: “Please don’t send that black repairman again, he never fixes it right,” or, “If I ever move from here I’m not moving to another black area, I only want to move to a white area.” I also heard, “I’m not going there. It’s too black.”
Once a thriving city of 40,000, East Cleveland now has a population of 17,000 and is in ruins, with street after street of abandoned and decaying homes and buildings. Former mayors and city officials are in prison for corruption. Schools that were once excellent now pass only two or three of 24 state tests, even though they receive more funding per pupil than most suburban schools. The police and fire departments are reduced to skeleton staffs, and many city services have disappeared. The mayor and city council president have recently been recalled, and the city’s only hope of survival is either declaring bankruptcy or merging with Cleveland. At one time, blacks moved to East Cleveland for a better life; now it is a destination of last resort.
Government is partly to blame. Section 8 subsidies and risk-free, government-sponsored mortgages give people no vested interest in their community. They are free to walk away from property in which they have invested nothing.
People who lived in East Cleveland as late as the 1970s have told me what a great town it was, and how they loved Shaw High School. Now there are no stores or businesses. Instead of living in an affordable community close to Cleveland’s cultural center, whites choose one-hour commutes and mortgages they can’t afford in order to escape from blacks. East Cleveland today is the result of a black population with black leadership, and until America begins to understand race, there are more East Clevelands in our future.