Being a good person and a good landlord - help me achieve the impossible.
March 19, 2010 8:15 AM   Subscribe

Newbie landlord in training - how can I help a person in desperate need AND be business savvy? (Long winded, please forgive me).

I am learning the landlord ropes from my 78 year old mom and am trying to fill an empty flat in San Francisco. Along comes a potential tenant I will call "Leah". Leah is in a really tough bind - she has to relocate to San Francisco because she has a critically ill child on the organ transplant list. Her family has been living in temporary housing while her child recovers from surgery and her time at this housing is almost up. She has been told that her child's chance at an organ transplant will be adversely affected if she cannot stay in San Francisco. We have checked out her story and it is 100% verifiable, no scam. She has a good employment history and will be able to return back to her job once she has a permanent residence. However, the problem is her credit history. She is, understandably, in collections for outstanding medical bills.

I don't have the power to make the ultimate judgement call here. My mom is the property owner and the decision is solely hers. She is legitimately concerned that the situation with the collection agencies could make it impossible for Leah to make rent on a monthly basis. We are strictly small potatoes and don't have a wide enough financial margin that would allow us to take a hit if a tenant can't make rent.

On a personal note, my mom is a bit fragile physically and emotionally and I don't want to push her into a business situation where she is going to be stressed out and anxious all of the time. I am also a bit on the fragile side (emotionally) and having a rental situation blow up in my face would be really bad for my mental health too.

Nonetheless, I want to help this woman - she's been though hell and she needs a break, damnit! I look at her and all I can think is, "What if that were me and my kid? What if nobody would help me?" Again, I don't have any real power here to give her the apartment. All I can do is advocate for giving her a break under the "WWJD" rule.

Any resources you can provide that could help "Leah" and at the same time help us mitigate any problems due to her financial situation would be greatly appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It would be strange if the transplant center didn't have some kind of reduced cost housing to help them. Ronald McDonald house? Please make sure that this is not available to them before making a commitment you can't afford.

Blessings for trying to help. I hope it works out for both of you.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:49 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


* Provide the apartment "at-cost", with no profit margin. Don't forget to cover taxes, upkeep, etc though. Then let her know you are cutting her a deal and otherwise it's no different than anywhere else. She's expected to pay rent. Then hold her to it

* Do it as charity. Like the first option, but cheaper. Take a hit personally to help somebody. This isn't business savvy, it's charity.

* Give her pointers on getting collections off her back (social graces needed, etc). Rent is more important than unsecured debt. Given the horrible medical situation, she's going to end up bankrupt anyway (yay health care!), so no point paying off stuff that can be discharged (morals may apply) when you have immediate needs (roof) to pay. Either way, collections companies get less annoying if you hold them to the law. Maybe help her get a lawyer who can walk her through it. Pay for 2 hours of the lawyer's time, and let her use it to get nastygrams written to appropriate people.

* Fundraise on her behalf? Again, social graces...etc. Don't be a dick about it, or exploit them.

Just a bunch of ideas to consider....
posted by cschneid at 8:49 AM on March 19, 2010

What good would you do by providing an apartment to someone who needs it, and then when they don't pay rent due to other financial problems, the house is foreclosed on and they have to move out? I don't see how setting up for a potential failure like this is at all helpful to anyone involved.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 8:50 AM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

"We are strictly small potatoes and don't have a wide enough financial margin that would allow us to take a hit if a tenant can't make rent."

Clearly, don't rent to this woman. Instead of her tragedy being hers, it could potentially suck you and your fragile mom in, and become your tragedy as well.

Help her find some other arrangement in your free time.
posted by lorrer at 8:59 AM on March 19, 2010

Newbie landlord here. My advice would be to be realistic about this: is she going to be able to pay the rent? I can certainly understand wanting to help her out, but you need to help yourself to be able to help her. It's not going to help if she doesn't pay the rent and you get into financial difficulties because of that. Plus, I'll bet that getting a tenant with a seriously ill child out if she doesn't pay the rent is going to be very, very difficult. That sounds harsh, but you have to consider the possibility.

You have to distance yourself a bit here: sure, her story is hard and she's dealing with a difficult situation. But it is one of those situations where she could drag you down with her. Fundamentally, it boils down to if you think she can really pay the rent. If you really believe that she can, go for it. If you aren't convinced of that, say no. But I would base that decision on a cold, hard look at the facts, not the emotion of the decision.
posted by baggers at 9:19 AM on March 19, 2010

She has been told that her child's chance at an organ transplant will be adversely affected if she cannot stay in San Francisco.

How did she get into the temporary housing in the first place? Is there an appeals process that could allow her to extend her stay? Is she on wait lists for other housing options for families of sick kids? Is she working with the social worker at her child's hospital to make sure she knows all of her options? Do you have any contacts in the SF medical community who might be able to help her find housing?

I don't doubt that she is in a serious, tragic situation, but it doesn't sound like you're in a position to help her in the way that you propose. Being a "good" person in business (like, say, as a landlord) means behaving honorably and honestly, upholding the contracts you enter into. You are not a "bad" person if, in the context of doing business, you... do business. In other words, it doesn't make you a bad person if, as a landlord, you decline to take on a risky tenant whom you cannot afford to support should she fail to pay her rent.

It would be kind and generous of you to use your other resources (social network, research on your own time, etc.) to help this person in need, but doing so as part of your for-profit business is foolish given your circumstances.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:22 AM on March 19, 2010

Don't rent to her. Make a charitable donation to her child's care if you wish.
posted by zeikka at 9:23 AM on March 19, 2010

I feel your pain, if it were me I'd probably have this woman sleeping on my couch. (Lucky for me I have a level headed husband who stops me from doing impulsive things like that.)

I understand that you want to help this lady out. She is a good person who is just trying to take care of her sick kid. I think this is one of those 'put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on somebody else' situations. You are not in the position to help this lady at this time. You can't afford to take a risk on a renter and unfortunately this lady is a huge risk. There are too many variables that dictate whether or not she will be able to pay you, and the consequences of her missing rent are too drastic for you and your mom.

I really can't think of a way that this situation could work out for you. Try not to feel guilty, the welfare of yourself and your family has got to come before the welfare of a stranger.
posted by TooFewShoes at 9:35 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Where is the money for rent coming from?

You say she has a good employment history and will be going back to work soon, does that mean she is not getting a paycheck now?
Is she going to be paying out of savings until she gets a job? Do you have proof of these savings? (not that you could really trust what she gives you anyhow) If she does have money earmarked for rent, I'd be worried about her using it for child related expenses that may come up.

From what I've heard, San Francisco has some of the most Tenant favored lease laws in the country. If you do end up having to evict her it could take many months and many thousands of dollars. Do you have the savings for this?

I don't see this working out well for you.
posted by Crashback at 10:13 AM on March 19, 2010

ALWAYS look beyond the credit report! It tends to tell a very incomplete story.

This woman might very well be a great tenant. But, you've got some detective work to do in order to judge the risk.

You say that she has a job that she can return to. Have you called to confirm that she's an employee on leave there? (They won't tell you much, but they will confirm employment.)

Check out what her credit was like *before* the medical catastrophe hit. Were all her bills paid then? Ask her how much she makes at her job. I don't believe that she *has* to tell you, as a matter of law. But, she can volunteer the information, if she's OK with it.

Invite the woman to lunch. Observe her mannerisms, look for obvious signs of addiction, check her reactions to things (the less defensive, the better).

In short, you really have to do your homework. More than you might for a more "ordinary" prospective tenant.

When it comes right down to it, this is a tough call. Good luck coming to a decision that you can feel comfortable with.
posted by Citrus at 10:16 AM on March 19, 2010

Hi, I'm the original poster, stepping out of the anonymous closet. You're replies are, sadly, confirming what I suspected - it's just too risky to rent to her at this point.

A few facts:

1. Leah and her family have been living at a Ronald McDonald-type house for the last 6 months. Unfortunately, they're reaching the time limit in the next few weeks.

2. I've talked to the hospital social worker. Their options for providing additional help are really limited. From what the social worker said, outside agencies that can help are few and far between.

3. I've put in a calls to a couple of agencies and am willing to keep doing that even if we decline her application. If I could find an organization that could help her manage the collection agencies and help out with rent if needed, we'd be a lot more inclined to rent to her.

4. I am more than happy to use my networking skills to try to hook her up with services.
posted by echolalia67 at 10:19 AM on March 19, 2010

Citrus: We've done pretty much everything you suggested to the point of having our attorney look into her background. She checks out. The only problem are the massive medical bills/collection agencies. It is a tremendously shitty situation.
posted by echolalia67 at 10:25 AM on March 19, 2010

The potential bad event I'd worry about is: what if she can't pay you later. You can charge a little more, or get a deposit, to cover one month's rent if she can't make that, but what about after that?

Random off-the-wall ideas:

You might consider charging a little extra for rent and putting it into a kind of cumulative emergency deposit account for emergency use later.

Maybe you could talk to a local Ronald McDonald house and see what they suggest. Maybe they can take her in if, later on, she couldn't pay you. If for some reason they will work with you on this (it seems a remote possibility), get whatever they promise you in writing, and have some kind of personal relationship with the director there, so that there's very little chance you'll be stuck later.
posted by amtho at 10:31 AM on March 19, 2010

We are strictly small potatoes and don't have a wide enough financial margin that would allow us to take a hit if a tenant can't make rent.

This is the crux of it; you want to help, and your heart is in the right place, but you cannot financially do so. Therefore, you should listen to your heart and assist her as much as you can, but not in a way that puts you in jeopardy of losing the entire building (as presumably will happen if you're one vacant apartment away from financial problems.)

Contact your friends and family and ask if they're interested in helping; twenty people pooling small amounts of cash together each month can make a big pile. Be prepared to show them how you're sure it isn't a scam. If enough money can be committed, you can use your mother's landlord connections to find a landlord who isn't as close to financial ruin as you, who might be willing to rent to her month-to-month knowing a lot of that money is coming from so many members of the community.

Ultimately, though, you can only help if you can help, and trying (even if you fail) is more than most people are doing to help. So don't kick yourself if you can't manage to help.

incidentally if you are one vacant apartment away from problems, you really need to go into damage control mode on getting yourself a bigger cushion
posted by davejay at 11:04 AM on March 19, 2010

davejay: It's not that we're "one vacant apartment away from problems". It's more that we're fine UNLESS some unforeseen problem pops up. Those unexpected crisises (such as property damage that requires major repairs, eviction proceedings, fires, earthquakes, etc.,) can really fuck things up.
posted by echolalia67 at 11:25 AM on March 19, 2010

Rent to someone else and give what you can to help her with housing.

You're simply not in a position to be as generous as you'd like.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:43 PM on March 19, 2010

I read this earlier today and wanted to answer but didn't have anything constructive outside of "this sounds like a difficult situation for you both".

Since that time, I've talked with someone in our organization who gave me some ideas as far as potential housing - the YMCA. Our Y has a program called Families in Transition, and it sounds like something that 'Leah' could fit into, for multiple reasons. You might try contacting your local Y and asking if they have such a program, or if they know of something similar.

Best of luck to you.
posted by noxetlux at 12:52 PM on March 19, 2010

Follow-up: after we called Leah to tell her that we had to reject her application, my mother had a brainstorm and realized that we could probably rent to her through the Section 8 program. The social worker had told me that Leah was informed of her eligibility for low income housing, but she had rejected the suggestion, fearing that would mean moving her kids into a housing project in a high crime neighborhood. If we can work it out, it would mean her rent is covered by HUD (and our ass is covered) and she and her family doesn't have to live in a housing project.

So I called Leah and told her that we might still be able to get her in the apartment if we can get her enrolled in the Section 8 program. We'll follow up with the social worker and see if she could help with paperwork. In the meantime I gave Leah the phone number of a local non-profit who helps people with housing problems and outstanding medical bills. Here's hoping for a happy ending, one way or another.

Thanks all of you for your answers. You helped lift an overwhelming sense of guilt and anxiety from my shoulder by helping me realize that I am not God and it doesn't make me a horrible person if I can't make reconcile my business priorities to my desire to do good.
posted by echolalia67 at 2:43 PM on March 20, 2010

I'm glad you found an answer! I hope it all works out.
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:27 PM on March 20, 2010

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