Blessings of the Renter from Hell

“Please come right away, I cannot live here.” May*, the new tenant in our rental apartment, called Tuesday, pleading desperately. The previous tenant, let’s call him Lucifer*, had left the place in complete shambles, and she was overwhelmed. They had made arrangements directly that he would leave a few things in the apartment while transitioning to his new place. He told her it would be out of the way and ‘not affect your living space,’ and she could get the keys from the sub-letter. As they were both from China, May thought this was reasonable—help out your fellow countryman, out of courtesy. Since they had made their own transfer arrangements, my husband and I assumed he would prepare the apartment for the new tenant—clean up, basically. None of us could have imagined the wretched mess he would leave her when she arrived.

His stuff was everywhere—bookshelf crammed tight, closet fully hung with clothes. Dirty dishes and half-used remnants of ginger and garlic lay on the kitchen counter. A five foot-high pile of boxes and bags cluttered the far corner of the living room. The opposite corner housed a broken vacuum cleaner and another tangle of cables, trash, and more empty boxes. A vast array of shoes and slippers occupied seven square feet of living room floor. The hallway carpet had acquired a three inch border of decorative dirt on either side, and the kitchen floor looked as if someone had writhed on it after bathing in 5000 mile-old motor oil.

Lucifer’s kitchen

The more I looked the more offended and angry I felt. This had been our home for eight years. My best friend from college helped to install the hardwood floor with my husband when we first moved in, after hubs took out the old, gross, green carpet himself. We shared our hardest years of training here. I watched TV coverage of 9/11 while my husband was on call, hoping Chicago would not become another target. Hubs had laid the kitchen tile himself, freeing cherry hostages from the refrigerator for me every day because I was too pregnant to fit between the repositioned appliances. We lived out of the living room for three weeks and had new, plush carpet installed after the main water pipe burst behind the master closet—also while I was pregnant. It was our son’s first home, where not just his formative memories were made, but ours, as well. How could someone treat it like this? How did we let this happen?

On Wednesday I called my friends’ cleaning lady, Saint Anne*, who agreed to come Thursday. After 5 hours she could only make a small dent in the grime. She spent all day again on Friday, much of it on her hands and knees, sweating through her shirt and inhaling noxious fumes of the cleaning products she donated to the project. I brought lunch between errands and made arrangements for Stanley Steemer to come the next day. May stood by, still shocked and appalled at the conditions of her first home in the US. Saint Anne and I could both see the abject horror in her demeanor, wondering if she should stay another night or board the next flight back to China.

Saint Anne was a woman on a mission. She did not see this as just another cleaning job. She was contributing to the reclamation and restoration of my home. She was helping a poor, young student, new to this country, find her bearings in untenable conditions. She established a bond with both of us, instantly, through her dedication and unwavering commitment. I stand forever grateful to her for this, and will call upon her for any and all cleaning needs as long as I live.

I tried to reassure May that I would do whatever was necessary to make the place livable again. The stove was broken. The air conditioning unit had died. I found myself saying to her, “Please know, whatever I do, I do as if I were living here myself.” On Saturday I waited with her for Stanley Steemer to come, that tedious four hour service window. Saint Anne had done all of the heavy cleaning, GOD BLESS her, and there were still some stains on the kitchen walls. May and I found one pair of rubber gloves, each took one and a rag, and started to wipe things down together. It was the least I could do, to help her feel more comfortable and cared for.

She told me how rudely Lucifer had treated her on the phone, saying he would sue if she threw out any of his stuff, and interrupting her as if she were the nuisance for calling him on his vacation. We agreed that he had taken advantage of both of us, and we would look forward to having him out of our lives forever. We shared stories of growing up, and discussed the differences in lifestyle between America and China. We talked about respect, courtesy, and helping out your fellow human.

That’s when it dawned on me. Of course, it’s about relationships. Everything is. I let Lucifer trash my place because I saw my relationship with him as merely transactional. I never knew him as a person in the two years he destroyed my apartment; he was just ‘the tenant.’ He never knew me beyond the stranger to whom he paid rent. He had no idea that this was my home, and he had no reason to care. Granted, I think he is likely an exceptionally slovenly and oblivious individual, but still, I played a role in this mess.

Relationships take work to establish and maintain. I realized this week that this apartment is not merely a unit that we let out for extra cash. Our tenants are not just strangers who happen to live there and pay rent. The place is our home and the renters its caretakers. Beyond the terms of the rental agreement, if I really expect tenants to take care of my apartment, I have to give them a reason. They must know that I care about them, too.

On Friday I had offered to take May shopping, and invited her to my house for dinner. I wanted to make up for the horrible state of things, which I had a hand in creating. She politely declined. I sensed that she felt uncomfortable with the offer, despite her desperate and forlorn situation. Of course. Shopping and dinner are not things that tenants and landlords do together! But we can choose to define ourselves as more than this. Through this experience, I had started to see her as a little cousin. I felt compassion and empathy for her, and imagined how I would feel in her shoes. Our mutual mistreatment by Lucifer connected us.

By the time the Stanley Steemer guys had finished on Saturday, the place was not quite shining, but infinitely more pleasant and livable than just 48 hours before. She had told me about an upcoming conference gala, and we agreed she needed a dress, in addition to bedsheets and a box fan. We picked up my kids from their friends’ house, got dinner in the oven (she had her first shortcut cooking lesson—seasoned-chicken-thighs-over-frozen-vegie-bake with rice), and headed to Ross for a very successful, if brief, shopping trip. Dinner tasted great after all that work, and we had watermelon for dessert. She borrowed our box fan and took some leftovers to tide her over until the new stove arrives next week.

I made some mistakes in dealing with Lucifer these past two years. I paid the price this past week—several hundred dollars and a lot of time and energy. I also made two new friends, and gained important insights. We may think of landlord/tenant relationships as strictly transactional, and that may work in many cases. It failed this time, and it felt bad. Why not make a new friend if I have a chance, and why allow anyone I would not be friends with to live in my home? When it comes time to find a new tenant, now I know better how to look. I will meet people in person, and tell them the story of the apartment and how much it means to me. I will assess their sincerity in agreeing to treat it as their own. I will convey to them that I see myself and my place as contributing to their pursuit of their dreams. The new people may still trash it—this is always a risk. But at least I will know that I did my best to connect, and the potential human payoff from that makes me positively giddy with joy.

*Not their real names

29 thoughts on “Blessings of the Renter from Hell

  1. This is a wonderful story Catherine~thank you for sharing it. I have been contemplating having a rental as an investment but hesitate because of all the horror stories. If approached this way, however, it can be a fully enriching experience.

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  2. We have had many tenants in past but no more.

    Why did you choose mythological names?

    Was Lucifer too a student like new tenant?

    I liked reading it Catherine. I hope you are having a nice weekend.

    Have a great week ahead.

    Anand 🙂

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  3. This is another excellent post. You always manage to take something specific in your life and find the general message for all of us. Thank you for that.

    I noticed you mentioned a sub-lettor, which makes me wonder how much of this damage was done by them & not by Lucifer himself. Most of the apartments I rented had clauses in the lease prohibiting sub-leasing in order to keep the tenant-landlord relationship clear and enforceable.

    I’m curious what you did with Lucifer’s stuff. Did you contact him to come get it or else?

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    • Hi Tim!
      Thank you for your comment and encouragement, as always. 🙂
      The sub-lettor was only there for a few weeks, and told May that the apartment was already in this condition when he moved in, which I believe. Hubs and I debated about allowing subleasing, and have now decided firmly against it–no personal relationship, no contract, as you wrote. May will honor her agreement to let him keep his stuff in the apartment. We talked about it–regardless of what he does, we agreed it would be best to remain our best selves, do things that align with our values and how we believe people should be treated.

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  4. Well that’s one security deposit that will not be returned! Wow, what a week you’ve been through. Kudos to May for having the courage to come forward and ask for help and for agreeing to those initial steps at a friendship with her landlord. And kudos to you for finding a way to turn this incident completely around and accept from it the lesson it had to offer. Saint Anne does indeed sound like a saint! I would’ve been completely overwhelmed by a job like that, but it goes to show what can be accomplished when you simply start, tackling one small bit after another. (It’s the starting that I dread!) Like the previous commenter, Tim, I’ll also be curious as to what happens next with Lucifer. Hope everyone enjoys this long holiday weekend — you, May, and Anne deserve it!!

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    • Thanks, Nancy!
      I recently reread a comment you wrote on another post of mine, discussing something about tackling a large task indirectly, I forgot the word, it was new to me. I’m a huge procrastinator–big projects require very high activation energy–I hear ya! Bird by bird, says Anne Lamott, right? I need to read her, too, and Martha Graham, or Richard Feynman–daaahh!! Too much to learn, only one lifetime!! ;P Bird by bird, bird by bird…Does this phrase refer to hurting animals? If so I will need to find another metaphor… can by can… 🙂

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  5. Oh, dear, what a dreadful experience, Catherine, but what a tremendous lesson—and, though only time will tell—it may well become a positive memory as part of the family and home legend. I imagine you have turned a terrible experience for May into a memorable lesson and an enlightening introduction to America. I hope Lucifer’s next potential landlord has the wisdom to seek references. Can’t help wanting to know more about him—where did all his anger and disrespect come from, I wonder…. This was a beautifully-told story that conveyed both the drama and pain of the situation from multiple perspectives and ultimately the positive outcome of lessons learned and friendships forged. Thank you for sharing what must have been an exhausting and harrowing experience.

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    • Hi Donna!
      Thank you for your comment. I feel validated and supported by all of you, and I’m so grateful. 🙂 I feel a bit guilty now, labeling him as I have. I think that is not being my best self. It doesn’t feel good to pass judgment on him so publicly. I don’t know anything about him, other than what I have written. Until now I have not wanted to know more. But if for some reason he makes any personal overtures, I think I would be open to relationship, though cautiously and critically. It’s been a pretty intense week, and it was very late when I published this post. I think judgment can be impaired at that time of night–maybe I would have changed the title and his pseudonym if it had been daytime. I really just wanted to share the insight I had about challenging the transactional nature of tenant-landlord relationship–is it just me, or do many people see it in this impersonal way? Yes, I think I would feel better about this post if I had not resorted to name-calling. ;( So, now I know, wait ’til morning to hit ‘publish’–another lesson learned! *sigh* Now to relax by watching “The Princess Bride.” 🙂 “Move the thing! And, that other thing! MOVE IT!” Ahahahahaha, I feel better already. 🙂

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  6. Experience: The Great Teacher. In place of relationship, most landlords use rules and sanctions, and the apartments still get trashed. Both seem necessary. I can’t wait to see how your relationship with May changes that dynamic. And what courage it must have taken to call you. Since she made all the arrangements directly with L., other landlords might have said, “Sorry. Your problem.”

    And please tell me there’s a time limit on how long she has to store L’s stuff.

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  7. One thing you might consider is writing a clause into future leases that gives you the right to inspect the apartment from time to time. I rent, and quarterly inspections are part of the deal. We’re given written notice a day or two ahead of time, and it’s never an imposition. But both for safety and to guarantee your investment, it would be a good idea.

    One of my friends who has a couple of rental houses does this. Every three months or so, she comes by and brings clean air filters and double checks to be sure everything is working fine. Her renters appreciate that she seems to care about the place, and she has increased confidence that nothing is getting trashed.

    While I appreciate your point of view here, and certainly have had good personal relationships (if not friendships) with landlords, one of the biggest (and hardest) lessons of life is that mixing business and friendship (or business and romance, etc. etc.) is difficult. That’s why clear expectations are so important. As one of my managers once said, “I wouldn’t be friends with most of the people who live here. But we get along just fine, because they know what’s expected, and I know any truly bad apples can be dealt with.”

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    • Hi Linda,
      Believe me, we will be far more vigilant from now on! And I agree, boundaries can elude us sometimes. So far I feel very confident assessing these lines individually with patients, and it occurs to me that I can apply the same principles here. My baseline can be open to whatever level if connection the tenant allows, with clear expectations of respect and communication. I deliberately avoided writing directly in this post about the parallels between this and my work. But I of course the parallels exist, because if we live authentically, everything we do should relate to everything else! Hmmm… Thanks for the prompt, Linda! 😊

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  8. It seems that in the past these relationships have been nothing more than transactional.That’s not necessarily a bad thing What does seem to have gone awry in this case is the implied condition at the start of any tenancy that the property will be returned in the same condition as it was received.
    I don’t know whether you have a deposit in place to return to a tenant if this implied covenant is acted on, and most tenants will work to make sure they get their deposit back. But if you do, I sincerely hope you will be deducting the costs of any cleaning works before returning the rest.
    Lucifer has just done the male of the species no good at all since he’s proved that all men are slobs.I shall have to get my hoover out to prove him wrong.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

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    • Thank you, David, and nice to meet you. To clarify: you mean these relationships have been only transactional in my past, or in the past in general? I think you mean the former. We have rented the apartment for about 8 years now, and each tenant relationship has been unique. This one, in retrospect, was probably more superficial and transactional than the others. L has agreed to pay for the cleaning out his deposit. Clearly we will make an increased effort to communicate with May and future tenants what we expect from them in terms of the condition of the place at the end of her lease, and we will be checking periodically during the term.
      Much learned, for sure.
      I look forward to reading your blog!
      Cathy

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  9. Pingback: Day 8: Expand a comment | Maria Holm

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