Examining The Predatory Habits Of Columbus Landlords (Or: Why You Probably Aren’t Getting That Deposit Back)

For many, the nature of rental and housing is something to be endured, a penalty for the invisible sin of poverty.

“Let me just tell you now, the place needs a little somethin’ but it’s got good bones.” He said before unlocking the door to the $600-a-month, brown brick apartment. He was a tall but frail man with chestnut brown skin and wispy white hair where it wasn’t balding. He ambled on slowly, his posture crooked and he limped casually to one side. We walked into the middle of the spacious, dusty flat. The living and dining area stretched out wide. There were three bedrooms to the upstairs and a full basement through the kitchen. Spacious, yes. But the thing I noticed immediately was the place’s condition.

The carpet was full of lint and loose garbage, a sad brown shaggy thing in desperate need of vacuuming. The sinks and fridge weren’t remotely clean and I was afraid to even look into the basement. “The previous tenants got out in a hurry.” He said as I glanced over the mess. “I bet.” I agreed dryly.

The owner hadn’t even thought to clean up the place before showing it to a possible new tenant. It wasn’t entirely uncommon. If you can get folks that are desperate enough it doesn’t matter. Not many people would turn down a place with a little mess and a couple of appliances that didn’t work when their other option was homelessness.

The area of town wasn’t too desirable either. Off of East Main Street but too far south to be included in the gentrified parts of Old Town East, it was prime ground for landlords who typically preferred to churn out occupants rather than putting work into any one unit. Even the term “unit” gave it a sort of unfamiliar sanitized quality.

It helps the proprietor look at it as the money farm that it is, rather than a slew of homes housing real people with real families.

I took a couple more doubtful glances at the place. “It’s got good bones,” The old man shrugged helplessly. Just then I noticed a small patch of graffiti scrawled onto the wall. It read: “I’ll make it out. Someday!” I wondered briefly if they did, or if they had been hurried off into equally humble squalor as so many people in areas like this often are. I shook my head at the small, desperate message. “Good bones indeed…”

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This wasn’t the first apartment I had ever looked through like this. It’s pretty common practice to try and hustle these near decrepit homes onto poor folk and college students, two things I had spent plenty of time as throughout my life. Predatory property management practices have become big business lately. The industry itself raked in a whopping 73 billion dollars in the U.S. last year, but its reputation as a cash cow hasn’t historically always been the case.

According to the 2015 article by Goss and Campbell “The Evolution of Residential Property Management: From Caretaker to Income Maximization Managers”, property management didn’t exist as we know it until around the 1930s Great Depression era. As history has often told us, there is always money to be made from periods of national economic loss. People were desperate, willing to take any job or odd work they could find to get by, and most of the time that meant relocating to get to find one. And with so many people willing to move and hard up for money, people took to renting out single rooms, building developers started producing smaller units that people could afford. This, people found, could actually be quite profitable if done well. Rental owners found that these desperate and starving souls would put up with all manner of negligence in order to keep a roof over their heads. It was out of this mix of equal parts desperation and greed that the “slumlord” was born.

Slumlords often display several qualities or behaviors, the least of all being a refusal to pay back a rental deposit as legally required. According to a study by Rent.com, over a quarter of tenants don’t receive security deposits back, with nearly 36 percent of those claiming that the landlord provided no explanation as to why. Usually, this goes uncontested. People often don’t have the financial resources or means to pursue legal action against slumlords, not to mention that anyone just getting by isn’t going to be able to afford to take the time off from a steady paying job to fight a long and uphill court battle.

Perhaps the most common complaint about negligent property managers is in getting them to repair and maintain anything on the premises. There’s a sort of man-child petulance in the nature of these slumlords. It could be as minor as checking a drain and as dangerous as a gas leak, the response is usually the same: a deflection to any owed rent, shifting blame to the tenant, and even outright denial of performing any actions to remedy it. It all comes down to an arm folded toddler’s tantrum: ‘but I don’t wanna’.

At its most benign this can result in minor inconveniences. A bedroom door loose off its hinges or a slow draining kitchen sink. But all too often some problems can lead to more serious consequences including city mandated house closure and even death.

In a chilling case of housing neglect in 2011, landlord and property owner Sam Vazirani, illegally rented a unit to a couple and their 4-year-old son in Columbus’ Franklinton area. Vazirani had removed the sign from the front of the house indicating that the building had been deemed unlivable by the city, and instead, rented the unsafe building to the unwitting family of three. Unaware of its unsafe living conditions the family moved in happily but, a short time later, their gas was turned off by the city after a leak was detected. Desperate for warmth on Christmas Eve, they plugged in an electrical heater to stave off the cold. All three burned to death after a blaze broke out later that night.

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Labeled a murderer by the victim’s families, Sam Vazirani pleaded guilty to 20 misdemeanor code violations and spent only 30 days in jail. He was later released under the probationary condition that he would bring all his units up to snuff and that he would sell them off and relinquish all control. Less than a year later he violated this simple probationary clause by fraudulently placing the properties under the names of his associates while continuing to manage and profit from the rentals.

Even more recently, as a Hilltop area property owner was cited for multiple code violations on 15 different properties, the owner himself seemed almost incapable of taking any sort of responsibility. Instead he moaned over the fairness of upkeeping all 26 of the unlivable houses he had purchased. At no point does the self-control of purchasing more properties than one has the ability to maintain ever come into question. That really seems to be the defining trait in separating your average property manager from a legitimate slumlord. Slumlords tend to snatch up as many properties as they can, often in inordinate numbers, with no realistic expectation of doing anything for them besides collecting a steady income from rent and deposits.

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The bare truth of the matter is that many landlords aren’t worried about fixing up these properties. They just don’t have to, the cash rolls in regardless. In Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer prize-winning non-fiction work “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City”, Desmond says, “It was not that low-income renters didn’t know their rights. They just knew that those rights would cost them.” It’s much easier to simply replace any whiny occupant dumb enough to dare speak out about a housing issue or living necessity. There will always be someone behind them to rent the same space, to pick up what they’re willing to let go, more often than not out of financial desperation. It becomes a highly profitable puppy mill with very low actual cost and upkeep.

It’s the same basic thought that often goes into food service or minimum wage employment. Many employers don’t feel the need to respect their employees or their work conditions. No matter how unhappy a worker becomes, there will always be someone there to replace them out of desperation. Just like these employees, poor families are encouraged to accept lower standards.

I thought back to all the abandoned old houses that were in my neighborhood as a kid. Compared to now, there weren’t nearly as many of the hollowed-out brick husks dotting the east side’s neighborhoods. As awful as the landscape of property management and upkeep can be in Columbus, it’s comforting to see that it’s been steadily getting better.

With the creation of organizations like LEAN (or the Landlord Engagement Action Network), many landlords are taking an active role in fostering relations with their tenants and bettering the neighborhoods that they manage property in. Prior to a few years ago, the concept of such an organization was completely unheard of. Community stability and neighborhood betterment can be as much a positive investment for property managers as they are for its residents. In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Jane Jacobs states, “The key link in a perpetual slum is that too many people move out too fast and in the meantime dream of getting out.” By creating communities that people want to be a part of, they’re creating value for these homes and the properties around them.

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It reminded me of that message scrawled into the apartment I had looked into. “I’ll make it out. Someday!” it protested. Someone had written that there as a reminder. A constant reassurance that wherever they were in life, whatever conditions they tolerated living in, they were going to make it out. That, “this too shall pass”. Basic standards of living shouldn’t have to be something to be endured. We shouldn’t continue to punish people for the invisible sin of poverty. It is a thing, genuinely forgotten in America, that economic standing doesn’t imply moral repugnance. At one point in our nation’s history, men who didn’t own any property were prohibited from voting. It’s instilled in the fabric of our country to own land and reproduce. Anyone too poor or too unlucky to be able to do so is to be considered less than a person. Anyone who doesn’t desire to accomplish these goals is aberrant and sickly. People deserve our basic care and respect, simply because they’re people. No one should be subjected to inhumane living standards. No one deserves it. No matter their post or station in life.

The last place I ended up looking at was in Old Town East. The landlord came out to greet me and shook my hand, swirling a mixed drink of a dark red concoction in his left. “This way,” he gestured flamboyantly for me to follow. I liked the man almost immediately.

It had just the right amount of space, hardwood flooring, and it was in a decent part of the neighborhood. I took my time walking through the place though, examining every creaky door, turning the faucets to make sure they worked. He stood off to the kitchen, arms folded, casually sipping his cocktail. I nodded approvingly at nothing at all and patted the closest wall with an open palm. “It’s got good bones,” I said with an air of self-satisfaction.

The landlord raised an eyebrow, “What the hell does that mean?”

“I have absolutely no idea.” I admitted. “But I’ll take it.”

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