Opinion Columns & Blogs

‘Slumlord’ discovers that you’re often hurting everyone when you try to be to helpful

Once upon a time, many years ago, I was a slumlord. Not just a slumlord, but an absentee slumlord. I didn’t set out to become one; it just sort of happened. The experience left me with some lessons that I am still trying to decipher.

I had bought rural property in anticipation of eventually retiring from the Army and living in my natural habitat, open country. Suddenly, I was given the opportunity to buy adjoining property, which included a number of ramshackle tenant houses spread along a dirt road. They were the remnants of what had once been perhaps two dozen such homes. Eight of them, never painted and weather-beaten, were still being rented to tenants for small monthly amounts. My primary goal was to own the land, but I considered the houses a side benefit. I managed to acquire the property and made arrangements with a local realtor to oversee the houses and collect the monthly rent. He was to take his cut and also set aside 10 percent for upkeep. He told me that was a losing proposition, that the tenants took no care of the houses, and that I would lose money. I was sure he was wrong. He was not.

I soon learned that hiring the repair of a leaking roof on one of the houses would not only wipe out the entire repair fund and all the rental income for one month, it could easily dig into my own personal monthly income. Just a broken window could put a dent in the repair fund. Soon the fund was dry and I was paying for everything out of pocket, and the old houses were falling apart ever faster. I came to a decision and, the next time I was on leave, I visited the tenants. I told them I could no longer afford to keep the houses up, but that, rather than tell them to move, I would simply no longer collect rent. They could go or stay, rent free if the latter, but there would no longer be any repair to the old shacks. I couldn’t afford it.

One of the best things about this solution was that I was able to feel virtuous. I was doing these folks a favor. Not that I was providing mansions for them, but the houses were long-time homes to many of them, and they didn’t have to be uprooted until they chose the time. One lady had lived in her house for 32 years, and she had kept it as well as she could. I knew she, in particular, would be sad to leave. So she could stay on at no cost until she was ready to go. As could the aging husband and wife who lived in the largest of the houses; they had multiple health problems, and I was glad that I was having at least a small positive effect on their budget.

It was much later, when I was back in the area again and when the shacks were empty, that I learned the distressing news about the couple in the largest house. A weakened place in the kitchen floor had given way and the wife had fallen through it. Her injuries required hospitalization, during which her other health problems had descended upon her and she had passed away. Her husband went somewhere unknown to me to live with relatives. I was saddened to learn what had happened and shocked to realize that, in today’s court-oriented society, my self-satisfied virtuous act, allowing the tenants to continue to live in deteriorating shacks, might have gotten me sued.

I’m not sure I’ve unscrambled the lessons to be learned, even after all these years. I am less likely now, when rushing into unfamiliar territory, to ignore the advice of experts, like the one who told me I was embarking on a losing proposition. I am less certain about how to react when presented with the opportunity to help someone simply by following the course of least resistance, which I did. I think maybe the lesson is that I should help where I can, being careful to avoid the possibility of being sued. And always attempting to resist those feelings of self-satisfied virtue.

Robert B. Simpson is a retired Army officer and freelance writer who lives in Columbus. He can be reached by email at r.simpson@mindspring.com.