Reluctant Landlord

at 12:35 AM

I never asked to be a landlord. I hate the word and its medieval connotations of aristocrat and serf, but my becoming a landlord was my grandfather's doing. He was a hardworking Italian immigrant who sold produce from a horse-drawn wagon. Because of his eye for bargains and his deficiency at spawning sons, I ended up years after his death managing three buildings for my brother and our families.

And I've hated every minute. It's not the phone calls about leaking toilets or stuck windows. What I despise is owning someone else's home. It feels wrong to make money from a place where others eat their meals, rest from their work, laugh with their friends, and share their most intimate moments. I don't want to own the lamps that brighten tenants' nights, the furnace that warms them, the walls that surround them, the roof that shelters them.

I've been a good landlord. I've repaired, repainted and re-roofed. I've sometimes failed to raise rents when the city said I could, and I've never kept a dime of a departing tenant's cleaning deposit.

Now I want out of this nasty business. But first I have to telephone Rose, a 30-year tenant, and tell her I'm selling her home to a stranger. I've planned it all out. I'll say that there is no other way. My brother owns half the property, and he wants to sell. "I can't afford to buy him out," I'll say.

But Rose won't really be listening, and she'll be afraid she's losing her home. I'll remind her about the laws protecting renters, but my words will do more to comfort myself than her.

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Friends say I'm lucky to own property. That's a fact. But I wonder: How private is private property? What is real about real estate? And what do I actually own? I'm convinced that owning someone's home is different from other possessions, not like a sports car or flat-screen TV. It is as personal as the bedding that warms us in darkness, and it requires a unique set of ethics, but I haven't figured out what they are yet.

I'll think about it some more, but first I have to call Rose.

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With a Perspective, I'm Paul Dalmas.

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