The landlord game

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The latest applicant for a lease – let’s call him Mr. X – insisted I would not regret renting to him and his wife.

I very much wanted to rent to someone. The four-bedroom, two-bathroom mid-century modern he had just toured is the most expensive of the three houses I own. It had been vacant for two months, putting a considerable dent in my income.

Job loss, bankruptcies, piles of debt and the Great Recession created millions of foreclosed houses to be snapped up and potential tenants to fill them. Sounds like a slam dunk, right?

By the time Mr. and Mrs. X came along, a handful of people had filled out the seven-page application for a lease and agreed to let me run background checks on them. They included:

-A couple with six children who had racked up three evictions in 10 years and whose current landlord, asked if he’d rent to them again, said “Hell no;”

-A man whose application listed one year in prison for a drug offense that actually was two-and-a-half years for aggravated assault and being a felon in possession of a weapon, along with the drug charge;

-A guy who arrived in a Porsche and made lots of money, but had refused to pay a doctor’s bill until ordered to by a court;

-A couple with $125,000 in school and car loans and a history of uncollected debts who gave me a disconnected phone number for their current landlord;

-A couple who casually mentioned that occasionally, on weekends when they would be out of town, they would allow bridal parties of six to eight women use the house.

Other applicants had jobs that paid so little they would spend half of their monthly incomes on rent and utilities.

It’s hard asking people to bare their histories and submit to scrutiny, especially when the resulting judgment is, “not good enough.” They might be especially galled if they knew that not even I, the house’s owner, would qualify to rent it.

My income, cobbled together from rents and earnings as a pet sitter, isn’t high enough and fluctuates. The job market ejected me years ago. The lump sum of cash (from selling a life insurance policy I owned) that enabled me to buy foreclosed houses and fix them up was gone. I have no pension, no spouse and very little savings.

So I have to be picky about who I trust with the literal keys to my current and future financial security.

That didn’t prevent me from taking on tenants who had been in prison for stealing cars or who had declared bankruptcy. But they told me about these events upfront. There were no unpleasant surprises in their background reports. The former car thief had matured and reformed. The job loss and cancer that caused the other tenant’s bankruptcy had not been avoidable. They had good jobs and enthusiastic references from their landlords. I approved their applications.

Mr. X and his wife claimed a yearly income of $300,000 from her pension  and his business in Africa, but provided not a single document to verify this. No bank statement, list of pension benefits or tax return.

As it happened, Mr. X. was Nigerian. I tried not to think about the emails in which Nigerian strangers had assured me they were rich enough to pay me back for the little bit of financial help they needed immediately due to the unfortunate predicament they found themselves in through no fault of their own. Then I reviewed Mr. X’s background report. It revealed prison time for having failed to declare $1 million in income.

Several weeks after I turned down their application for a lease, Mr. X emailed me. Not to worry, they’d found a place, and if he’d been in my shoes, he wouldn’t have approved his application, either.

 

The rise of the bully boys

trump Vladimir Putin Rodrigo Duterte

Trump, Putin, Duterte – Bully boys are ascendant.

They stoke hysteria in the already fearful with exaggerated pronouncements of crisis, then offer security in the form of a Big Daddy-knows-best arrangement. Scapegoats are targeted to justify aggression or oppression.

Their supporters believe themselves exempt from harsh tactics. Average citizens tell themselves that they aren’t one of “those people” causing problems. The wealthy or powerful think they can keep the guy from going too far. All accept the bully’s implied reassurance, after ranting threats at supposed enemies, “I don’t mean you.”

In the art of breaking deals, that will be just one more broken promise.

If you need a reminder of how far and how badly this can go, read “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis or “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William Shirer.

 

 

Trump’s America: land of the tweet, home of the craven

toddler

The contest this November is between fear and hope.

Those who are fearful of the world, the future, the unfamiliar, of change and of Others have given up on our democracy. They feel (often rightfully so) that they’ve been lied to, cheated and used. They see no security in their futures and don’t believe they can exert any influence over the forces that control their fates.

The hopeful also feel they’ve been lied to, cheated and used, but haven’t given up. They see change as an opportunity instead of a threat, a chance to reinvent themselves and maybe the country for the better. They aren’t looking for scapegoats. They’re willing to take the risks of tolerance and to give up some security to forge a path into the unknown.

One group sees democracy as a zero-sum game whose rules are rigged against them. They think they’re falling behind because Others are getting ahead.

The other group thinks that if everyone follows the rules, nobody will fall too far behind and everybody has a shot at winning.

People in these two groups have one thing in common: they’re all angry with each other. The fearful view the hopeful as dupes who will only bring on more of the same. They want reassurance that somebody powerful will seize control to protect them, and they’re willing to let that person blow the whole country to hell because they believe the system can’t be fixed. They confuse bluster with bravery, bullying with strength and compromise with betrayal.

The hopeful will have to drag the fearful, kicking and screaming, into the future of an imperfect democracy. In this country, we dare to venture forth instead of hunker down, we value liberty over security and we strive to overcome fear with courage.

 

 

Frankentrump’s monster: It’s alive!

 

The Republican Party has created the most oafish presidential nominee ever as surely as Dr. Frankenstein created his monster.

Start with dead ideas and keep digging them up, no matter how rotten: tax breaks for the rich, benefit cuts for the poor;  unlimited campaign funding for corporations, voting restrictions for people. Cobble together with beliefs, not facts.

Stoke the anger of voters by blaming the powerless. Deny reality. Refuse to leave the isolated echo-chamber of angry old white men. Expel those who sound warnings.

Zap the campaign with high-voltage fearmongering and watch this give life to an unnatural creation who appalls and frightens. It’s alive!

Voters naïve enough to go along with this are, like Little Maria, putting themselves in peril. The rest of us hope to kill the monster at the ballot box.

Failing that, we’ll see angry villagers storming the White House, and every other Trump property, with clubs and torches.

Customer disservice from the Chicago Tribune

photo from Wikipedia

photo from Wikipedia

The Chicago Tribune wants to dump its print-delivery customers, but doesn’t want to say so.

It’s the only explanation that makes sense.

Or maybe they only want to dump Northwest Indiana, typically treated as the unwanted bastard child of the region.

For months, papers for Tribune subscribers here have arrived very late, then not at all.  Local retail outlets such as Walgreens would be allocated only one or two copies.

Sometimes I’d find a Wall Street Journal or a Post-Tribune in the driveway, neither of which I subscribe to, with these words scrawled on the plastic bag: “Sorry ran out of Tribunes.”

I finally cornered a carrier on one of the occasions he showed up with a Tribune, about 11 a.m. He said the Tribune had transferred its delivery duties in this area to the Northwest Indiana Times, headquartered in Munster. He said some carriers had quit. Those remaining, accustomed to having 500 papers to deliver, found themselves trying to deliver 1,000 papers. Since that many won’t fit into a carrier’s personal vehicle, they’d run out and have to drive back to the distribution point in Portage for more, then drive back to their customers in Lake County.

The Tribune’s customer-service phone number rang unanswered this morning before disconnecting itself. The message at the NWI Times customer-service number was, “Due to delivery challenges in recent days, your wait time may exceed 15 to 20 minutes.”

As in other crumbling relationships, the Tribune has been behaving badly for a while, probably hoping that its print-delivery customers would give up and go away because the paper lacks the courage to tell us it’s over.

Things probably aren’t much better in the newsroom, where many jobs have been axed and others outsourced. The remaining reporters continue to produce first-class journalism, but their heroic efforts are undermined by a system so shoddy it can’t deliver their work to customers. We’re being herded to the online version, kicking and screaming.

I’ll ask a few people at both papers if they’d like to comment on this. Maybe someone actually will.

 

Another new low at the NY Times: Imagine what news is true

The top news editor at the New York Times has revealed an alarming new standard for what now passes as news in that paper.

The Public Editor’s Journal of Oct. 27 quotes him explaining why a news story containing an error should not be thought mistaken: The Times, he said, was only reporting what was common knowledge and that “It’s hard to imagine some version of this is not true.”

Just not the version reported.

Previously, the basic standard for publishing news required reporters to confirm facts. Specific, concrete, verifiable facts. Only talking heads and bloggers spouting fringe opinions relied on assumptions about what is common knowledge or the comforting excuse that surely some version of the events in question must be true.

Every old-school journalist has heard the saying, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

From now on, readers of the Times will have to do their own fact-checking before relying on news that’s printed whether it’s fit or not.

Up in smoke: The New York Times lowers its standard for the front page

No less an institution than the New York Times has begun violating the traditional separation between news and advertising on what used to be considered sacrosanct space – the front page.

It isn’t the first to do that, but following the herd isn’t what made the Times into one of the world’s best newspapers.

“Stories from our advertisers” now appear on the Times’ digital front page. These are not news stories, which are researched, written and edited by professionally impartial journalists, in which facts are laid out as accurately as possible regardless of whose ox may be gored.  These front-page entries are advertisements, meant to manipulate consumers into buying products they may or may not need.

Thus, they skew information to be convincing. One of today’s “stories” is from a maker of digital home devices that purport to turn your lights on or off, adjust the thermostat and lock or unlock your front door with the touch of a button on your smart phone.

“In a Flash” weaves impressive graphics of raging flames and quotes from expert, supposedly neutral sources into a story about how internet-connected smoke detectors are critical to saving the lives of you and your loved ones if a fire breaks out in your home. Its use of scare tactics is like that often seen in political campaigns, an overwrought insistence that disaster will surely befall anyone unwise enough to vote for the other candidate or chose a different brand of smoke detector.

The Times, of course, is paid for shilling this product to its readers. What used to be the premier newspaper in the United States has chosen to compete for advertising dollars by mixing the slickest ads into space once reserved for the most important news. The front page was the last place where Times readers could be assured that their interest in being informed of the facts – “impartially, without fear or favor,” as its founder put it – came first. Now they’re just another commodity to be shilled to advertisers.