By Bert Stratton
Photo by Maddie McGarvey

The Cleveland Tenants Organization, after 43 years of advocating for Cleveland renters, shut down last week due to lack of funds. As a Cleveland landlord — or someone “in real estate,” as I say at dinner parties — I’ll miss the CTO. I’m in real estate for the money but, just like the CTO, I occasionally think I’m doing something beneficial for the community: providing decent and safe housing for tenants.

The tenants, of course, don’t always agree with my self-assessment. Agitated tenants occasionally tell me I’m violating the Ohio Landlord-Tenant Law. But I know that law better than they do — those wannabe lawyer twits. A tenant says, “You can’t enter my apartment without 24-hours written notice.” I say, “Yes; I can if water is overflowing your bathtub because you’re drunk.” If the tenant is still riled, I might say, “Call a lawyer, and if you don’t have a lawyer, then call the Cleveland Tenants Organization. It’s free.”

If the tenant is still riled, I might say, “Call a lawyer, and if you don’t have a lawyer, then call the Cleveland Tenants Organization. It’s free.”

I’ll miss the CTO because I knew they’d always back me up. Why? Because I don’t mess around. I also liked their pamphlets on housing law. The better my tenants and I understand each other, the fewer problems I have. I’m a landlord. I’m not evil. Just a landlord, or, just in real estate.

Phil Star was one of the first CTO directors. He was a do-good lawyer who knew a lot about housing law. There was a time when I could have seen myself as a lawyer, and maybe even a do-good one like Phil. But I could never do law school. So instead I went into real estate. It was the family business.  

I didn’t take to it right away. Like this one time when my father had the nerve to kick out a starving artist — the chutzpah — because she was late with the rent, and I was the one to serve the eviction notice. She was a painter, a visual artist. She was 27, and I was 27. She screamed at me, “Why are you doing that? I was going to pay, but not now!” I was mortified; I might run into her at a party.

Over the years, I became my father and kicked out many more artists. Recently an artist left his walls all Jackson Pollock. That occasioned a two-coat paint job when the tenant moved out. Did the security deposit cover it? Not even close. Don’t get me wrong. I like artists. I’m a musician myself. But if you don’t pay your rent or you muck up my property, we have a problem.

I was reading a story in the Plain Dealer about a woman named Juanita in the Union-Miles neighborhood living on disability with her seven-year-old daughter. She’s got a bedbug infestation, a busted furnace and a busted hot-water heater. Her landlord won’t return her calls. I have a manila folder, marked “goodwill” with complimentary letters from tenants, and I’ll whip out that file when the Plain Dealer calls me. My buildings are decent; my employees and I try to keep the buildings clean. The rents are reasonable. We screen tenants pretty well. I rented to a rapist only once. And that was before the internet, when it was hard to run background checks.

That Plain Dealer story is about how Juanita is going to miss the CTO, “which she considered her best hope of getting help.” I’m going to miss them, too … slightly. The only time I ever heard from them was when they were asking for donations. I donated … modestly.

The other day I got a letter from another do-good housing organization, the Housing Center. I’m not sure what they do. I thought they were asking for money, like the CTO used to. It turned out the Housing Center wasn’t asking me for money; they were on my case because of my company’s rental application, which asked “children’s ages?” I can’t discriminate against tenants with kids, I know that, but I didn’t know how picky the do-gooders could get. I got rid of “children’s ages?” quickly. I like housing organizations … slightly.


Bert Stratton has contributed to The New York Times, the Times of Israel, the Plain Dealer and City Journal. He has won two Hopwood Awards. He blogs at Klezmer Guy.