By Bert Stratton

Photo by Maddie McGarvey

I usually tell people “I’m in real estate.” That’s not as charged as “I’m a landlord.” Everybody hates landlords. Everybody got free rent as kids and thinks rent should be free. But I provide a service — safe and sanitary housing — and I help improve, or at least maintain, the neighborhood — in this case Lakewood, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland. I do this better than the government, I think. If I do my job badly, I lose my shirt. If the government does its job badly, it loses nothing. The landlord can be, and often is, the good guy.

An efficiency apartment in Lakewood goes for $550/month. The renter gets a kitchen and bathroom, and a living room that doubles as a bedroom. I once accompanied an efficiency tenant to the police station because his rent check had been stolen. The tenant had never been late before, so I believed him. The police officer said, “First name?”



“Bill. Just Bill.”

Bill had moved to Cleveland from Kentucky decades ago. He and I weren’t friends; we had a relationship involving rent. Bill watched a lot of TV (I could always hear it from the hallway) and smoked a lot. We had to repaint his walls nearly every year because HUD insisted on white walls — not Bill’s tobacco yellow. Bill didn’t like people in his apartment, including painters. Bill’s rent was partially covered by a HUD subsidy for the homeless and disabled.

I’m a landlord/social worker. I have a degree in neither. Another tenant, call him Rob, flicked cigarette butts out his bedroom window onto parked cars; he and his guests flicked 30 butts one night. I wrote him a letter to straighten up and he did. A landlord sometimes has to send get-your-act-together messages to tenants, often in the key of “If you don’t live right, I’m going to kick you out.” Tenants and landlords — and the neighborhood — are all better off for it.

Bill, at the police station, said somebody had robbed him on his way home from buying a money order at the check-cash store. I called the headquarters in Minnesota. The money-order rep said Bill didn’t fill out the money order properly. He left too many lines blank, including “pay to the order of” and “purchaser.”

When the money order cleared the bank, it had “Johnnie Jones” on the signature line. That helped the cops, who knew Johnnie Jones and eventually caught him. The check was for $154. The government paid the balance of Bill’s monthly rent. Bill’s apartment was above a butcher shop, which sometimes smelled of meat trimmings. If the apartment hadn’t smelled like that, I would have charged more and listed it as a “studio” on Craigslist.

I’m a landlord/social worker. I have a degree in neither.

Bill filled out his rent checks correctly from then on, but suddenly missed two payments and didn’t answer his phone. I heard from the building manager that Bill was in a nursing home. I thought to myself, “How creepy is it to collect rent at a nursing home?” Very creepy. On the other hand, Bill’s relatives weren’t answering my calls, and the government wasn’t paying Bill’s portion of the rent.

Bill had oxygen tubes in his nose and said to me, “You’ll get paid, buddy.” He called a lot of people “buddy,” which was better than “little bitty buddy” — what a Tennessee resident used to call me. I didn’t mind the “buddy.” In my youth, I had hung around the R & A Lounge on the near West Side to hear Hank Williams cover bands. I had grown up across town in a mostly Italian and Jewish neighborhood in South Euclid, where the residents were generally a lot more long-winded than the country singers.

While Bill was in the nursing home, I entered his apartment. I don’t routinely bust into tenants’ suites, but Bill hadn’t been in the apartment in weeks, and there could be rotten food and dripping faucets. I saw a flat-screen TV, sofa bed, prescription-drug bottles and a wallet, which had $800 in it. Whoa.

I returned to the nursing home and handed the wallet to Bill. He was on his back. He balanced the wallet on his chest and counted out what he owed. He wasn’t mad at me. “Here you go, buddy.”

I said, “That’s not such a good idea, Bill, keeping your wallet here. Do you want me to take it back to the apartment?” He said no. I never got another rent check, and the wallet disappeared. Bill did too. I called around; he wasn’t at the nursing home, the hospital, or on the state’s death registry.

HUD gave us an OK to clear out his apartment. We threw his tattered belongings in the trash, painted the walls again, and sanded the floor — the first time we’d sanded in 21 years. The sander had charged $327 back then, which is $510 in today’s dollars. This time the sander — the same sander — charged more, $546. I follow the cost of living. Don’t we all?


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