Wicked Landlords and the Ugly Truth of Renting

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“Are you sure that you’re going to be okay?”

“Mom!”

I’d already fended off this question about 100 times that same morning.

“Of course I will,” I replied with an exasperated smile. Why wouldn’t I be?After all, as an introvert, I’d spent much of my life on my own. Not because I was unhappy with the people in my life, but because I just enjoyed the silence, being alone with my own thoughts, without the pressure of conversation.

I was at the entrance to the security line at the Denver International Airport. I had just hugged and kissed my two teary-eyed parents goodbye, assuring them beyond any doubt, that I would be just fine and that I would text them every step of the way — like they were the ones undertaking this big adventure – California!

I turned to take my first step and felt like someone had poured concrete in my shoes, while at the same time, a stiff breeze could easily blow me over. It’s the same sensation that you get when your parent takes the training wheels off of your bike; a sudden excitement in what you’ve been able to achieve, but a nagging, questioning of yourself and your capabilities to continue riding. I realized that I knew nothing about California.

I’m not alone in this feeling. For many, one of the most difficult parts of starting college is the idea of having to live on your own for the first time.

While many do not stray so far from home, that first moment of acceptance, when you take a look around and you realize for the first time that all of this is really happening, is the first moment that everything becomes real.

Despite my anxiety, my parents had actually set me up quite well. My first month’s rent had already been paid, all of my belongings had been shipped, and I even had all of my books purchased for the first week of classes, which were rapidly approaching.

My landlord was a sweet, older woman and former high school teacher. She was quirky and alone after a previous divorce. The light of her life was an ugly Chihuahua with bad knees who barked at everything and pooped all over the house. Her everyday outfit was a pair of mint green jeans and a worn ‘Betty Boop’ sweatshirt, which only highlighted her wackiness. It was different, she was different, but once I had officially moved in, it felt almost like home. It wasn’t until I received a notice from her the following week that my anxiety returned.

The notice, simple and written in marker, casually requested that all of my future payments be in cash. This didn’t seem like a huge deal at first, but the more I thought about it the more I disliked the idea of having to walk around with that much cash in an area I didn’t know. I especially didn’t like the idea of having my payments be untraceable, and moreover, I assumed that it was illegal. I hadn’t missed a payment, heck I had just moved in. I decided then, to confront her about it.

Her response was, again, simple, casual, and practiced — she’d received bounced checks from tenants before, and decided that she’d only accept cash from now on. I swallowed this information easily, like hot chocolate on a cold winter day back home — smiling, eager to please this woman who’d so kindly allowed me to live in her home.

My anxiety died down and I returned to a feeling of confidence in the ability to “survive on my own.” I didn’t even let my parents know until the week before next month’s rent was due. They were less than pleased.

However, having just started school in a new state all by myself, I was not exactly eager to move, or get into a legal battle. So, I decided that it was in my best interest to put up with it. I told my parents again not to worry about me. I was fine, I was grown-up, and I had it under control.

Over time, the situation began to wear on me, and my landlord’s insecurities started to get the better of her. She decided that she didn’t want me to have friends over, which didn’t mind me too much at first because I had just moved there and didn’t really have many friends.

Eventually, however, it got worse. She’d bang on my door and demand to know if I had someone in my room with me while I was Skyping with my family. She’d bang on my door to yell at me for leaving the door open, when I’d been at home all day studying. She’d also taken to just allowing her dog to poop anywhere because she was afraid of letting her outside.

After I’d woken up and stepped in dog poop in my bathroom for the second time, I decided it was time to go.

After talking with other students and roommates, I found that my predicament was not uncommon by any standards.

Pablo Unzueta, a 22-year-old photography major, described how the required untraceable cash and lack of paperwork, coupled with him being out here away from family, had led to his safety deposit being stolen. In addition to this, he’d also had his identity stolen by another landlord after that and been charged a large amount of money in taxes because of it.

Other students described how they’d had to put up with breaches of the contract by their landlord. Some students had to deal with insect and rodent infestations, and despite being told that their landlord would take care of the premises, they ended up having to pay for any extra services by themselves. Others were being limited on their utility usage, despite their contract including utilities. It seemed like everyone I spoke with had his or her own renting horror story.

And there it was again, that sinking feeling that I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was to be on my own. Housing near school was hard enough to come by as it was, and most students don’t have the time, energy, or desire to get into a legal battle over ones they were been able to find. It seemed that tenants were entirely at the mercy of their landlords.

But I gave notice anyway and found a place nearby to move to. It was a nice house close-by, and quiet. The landlord was a sweet, older Asian woman who spoke broken English. Her son had recently moved out and the master bedroom was open. It was big and on its own floor and I’d have my own bathroom, and there was no dog. I called my parents as soon as I’d seen it. I got the okay from them and asked the landlord to send me a contract. Things were finally going to start going right. I was in my last week of my first semester, and I had just over a month and a half to move, before the next semester was going to start. Then the unimaginable happened.

I had just finished taking my last final. I was home relaxing on my bed with my newfound freedom. I got a call from my sister and I answered, expecting a wave of congratulations to wash over me. Instead, I was hit by a different wave. Words blurred together, “dad,” “work,” “Colombia,” “stroke…”

Everything fell apart. The contract was never signed, the room was given to someone else, and I was going home. I stopped worrying about where I was going to live. Days passed by like a blur…my birthday, dad finally coming back home, Christmas. It wasn’t until January when I looked at my phone and saw that I only had two weeks until the new semester started that I realized that I still had nowhere to live.

In a panic, I checked the college’s website. All of the same listings as before I’d left for home were still up.

All except one. I called and made an appointment to see the room. I flew home two days later. I had to move my stuff out of my old place anyway. I met with the landlord, saw the house, and signed a contract.

All things considered, it ended working out perfectly. My dad made a full recovery, my new house was perfect, albeit slightly more expensive. I was comfortable. There was no crazy landlord onsite, no defecating dogs, and cash wasn’t required. I liked my new roommates and when spring semester ended and it was time to go home, I felt like I was leaving one family for my other. I was gone for a month during this past summer, seeing family, friends and traveling across the country to see my dad’s friends. One of my roommates was a foreign exchange student who had moved back home, so I knew things would be different, but what I came back to, was nothing like what I’d left.

I had received a text, the day before I was coming back to California. Three of my five roommates decided that they were going to move out. When I asked why, the only response I received was, “The new roommate…you’ll see.”

I wasn’t exactly sure what this meant, but I didn’t feel good knowing that I would be going back to something different. When I returned the next day, I was greeted by this hulking mass of muscle and sweat. He was 30, way older than my other college roommates. His breath reeked of alcohol and his eyes darted around my face as he spoke a greeting in slurred words.

“Hey. My name’s Andrew.”

I shook his hand and gave him my own name. I smiled, picked up my bags, and started walking toward my room. What I heard next, set the tone for the following weeks to come.

“You know, you don’t have to be afraid of me.”

I stopped, mid-turn of the key in my door.

“What? I’m not afraid of you, I just want to put my bags down.”

He shrugged and I walked into my room, closed the door and sat down. I knew right then why everyone else was moving out.

A few days later, I’d been able to readjust. I didn’t see the new roommate much since he was working, and the old ones still had three weeks before they were moving out. Things were finally back to normal. My roommates decided to celebrate my homecoming with a nice dinner and everything was great until the new roommate came home.

He was already drunk, staggering around, and threatening everyone in sight. Calling my Persian roommate a “fucking Arab.” Threatening to rape Anne and to beat me up. Telling us how after everyone moved out, that things were going to be different in “his” house. He didn’t want our friends coming over and threatened to beat them up if they did. His rage only quenched when he threw up all over the couch and passed out.

Shaken, I walked back to my room. For a while, I wanted to move out as well. I wanted to give my notice the next day, pack my bags and go stay with my aunt in San Clemente until fall semester started. And then I remembered the promise I’d made to stand up for myself, to stand my ground. I would not so easily be stepped on. Together, Anne and I called our landlord. We told him what happened and we gave him an ultimatum; either he goes, or we go.

The next afternoon I was eating my lunch and I heard a commotion in the kitchen. I walked out to see what was going on and came across a frightening scene. My drunk, knife-wielding roommate was cursing my landlord and his son out.

Hours later, I was eating dinner with my other roommates at a restaurant, still trying to wrap my head around the day’s previous events. Andrew had freaked out, threatened me again, and called the police on my landlord, only to be arrested on an active warrant. He was an alcoholic, and when the police opened up his room, we saw that it was full of beer bottles, around 100 of them.

I called my parents and told them what had happened. I asked for their advice, I had only been back for about a week or so, and although they immediately wanted me back home, they finally agreed to let me stay and applauded me for taking action and standing up for myself. And, although slightly anxious and a bit shaken from what had happened, I was proud of myself. I knew things were going to be different in the house once my other friends moved out, but I knew that I could handle it now.   

For many, living on their own for the first time is one of the most difficult parts of starting college. People will try to take advantage of the fact that you are young, but the key is to remember that you always have people there to support you. Whether it be your parents and family, a religious figure, a friend, or even from the school itself. There are many people that want to help you succeed. Know your rights as a tenant, and don’t be afraid to stick up for yourself.