Let's Not Be Frank
This week I heard a familiar voice on KQED Public Radio – one of my former tenants was being interviewed. I’ll call him Frank, but usually, he goes by “Bulldog.” Apparently he lives on the Joe Rodota Trail now, the massive homeless encampment in Santa Rosa, CA. Let me tell you about this guy. I remember the day a social worker approached me about taking him on as a renter. “We’ll pay the rent,” she said. “I’ll provide oversight.”
I’d heard this story a million times from other social workers trying desperately to house clients. My husband, Gary, and I have a handful of affordable units, and we try hard to find decent people who will pay their rent, be good neighbors, and take care of the property. On many occasions, we’ve taken chances with “voucher tenants,” and it nearly always ends in disaster. Voucher tenants are people whose rent gets paid by some sort of government program, and generally they’re risky. We’ve housed recovering addicts, foster kids, veterans, parolees, developmentally and physically disabled people, and families just down on their luck. It’s hard to say no to people with heartbreaking stories, especially when we have a vacant unit and we want to help.
We also need the money. Whether the rent rolls in or not, we have to pay the mortgage. We have to pay the water bill, taxes, insurance and maintenance fees. Vacancies are expensive, and they don’t do the neighborhood any favors either. The problem in California is that once a landlord takes a tenant in, it’s a soul-crushing, expensive process to get them out. One of our risky tenants, for example, kept throwing trash on his roof and just wouldn’t stop. His garbage rolled down the slope, clogging gutters, attracting rats, and creating a stench. To avoid the paperwork and costs of the legal system, we offered him $500 to move. He took us up on it, leaving behind a thousand dollars in unpaid rent and massive damages to the property. The injustice of these situations sometimes wakes me up at night, but mostly I’ve come to accept it as the cost of doing business in the state I call home.
When the social worker approached me about Bulldog, I was leery, but we’d rented a unit to one of her other clients and that situation was going well. “All he needs is someone to give him a chance,” she said. She told me a bit about Frank’s history, about how his girlfriend stepped on something sharp at a homeless encampment, developed an allergy to the medicine she took for it, and nearly died. “They’ve been camping for seven years,” the social worker said. “They really need help.” So my husband and I reduced the rate we normally charge and signed an agreement. HUD paid nearly their entire rent, and the social worker made sure that Frank and his girlfriend could pay the pittance that wasn’t covered. For a few hundred dollars a month, that couple got a nice apartment in Northern California.
Gary, and I had just upgraded the flooring in that space. The two of us laid a honey-blond laminate that shined in the sunlight. We installed new mini blinds on all seven windows. Gary put up new light fixtures and upgraded the countertops. While our daughter raked leaves, Gary and I painted walls so everything was sparkling for our new tenants’ arrival. I bought a welcome mat to create a sense of belonging. When Frank took the key, it was the first time he’d had a door that wasn’t made of canvas in a long time. Later, we got a teary voicemail thanking us for extending our trust and providing them with a real home. Gary and I are entrepreneurs. We’ve started, developed and sold all sorts of businesses. Many of them were spectacular failures, but some have done well. All of them have been difficult. When we made a profit, we invested it in rental property, most of them fixer uppers.
In one of our entrepreneurial pursuits, we took in laundry from a convalescent home, and at the end of each day, my skin, clothes, and hair reeked of urine. We owned a laundromat and needed the extra income to make ends meet.
I provide this detail not because I want to disgust, shock, or illicit sympathy. Instead, I want to communicate that my rise from waitress to landowner has been and continues to be a climb. I am a worker, and I sympathize with the working class. I also want to put a face on what landlords look like. Landlords often come across as greedy villains who stuff pockets with inflated rents. We are faceless corporations, scammers, players, scoundrels. Landlords are seldom depicted as families who earned the down payment for a fixer by doing the world’s nastiest laundry.
Frank’s social worker told me that Frank – or Bulldog as he likes to be called – is also an entrepreneur. He bought strawberries at a discount grocery, for example, dipped them in chocolate, and sold them to friends and neighbors. He likes work that pays in cash. Cash is the operative word because, as the recipient of a voucher, there’s a limit to how much money Frank can earn on the books. If he exceeds that amount, he’ll be disqualified from programs that pay for rent, food and other expenses. It’s a system that ensures people stay poor and encourages them to break the rules. In my experience as a landlord, l’ve seen lots of voucher recipients earn cash on the sly. But Frank took it even further. Without telling me or his social worker, he moved out of the unit my husband and I provided and let someone else move in. The new occupant likely paid rent directly to Frank, and Frank pocketed the cash. With this scheme, Frank made money, the new occupant got a hell of a deal on rent, and the only dupes were the landlord and the taxpayers. “Where’s Bulldog today,” I’d ask when I came by. “Oh, he’ll be back later,” New Guy would say on the rare occasions when I’d see him. He was a master at keeping a low profile. I’m not sure how long this scenario played out before we caught on. The portion of rent Frank was supposed to pay lapsed, and despite our attempts, we could never get a hold of him. His social worker didn’t have any information either. When the new occupant, a man whose name I never learned, realized we were on to the fraud, he hightailed it out of there. And, not surprisingly, the unit was trashed. When we opened the front door, the smell blasted us like a rotting corpse at high noon. Debris was piled hip high on either side of a pathway through the living room and into the kitchen. Chicken bones floated on stagnant greasy water atop dishes overflowing in the sink, and a cabinet door hung from one hinge. All the drawers in the lower cabinets were broken. The shelves in the refrigerator were gone. In the bathroom, the toilet seat was missing and water was running in the shower. All the mini blinds were shot as were the light fixtures.
When the nameless tenant left, he took only what he could carry. All Frank’s furniture, clothes, bedding, food, dishes, toiletries and personal items were left behind in a mess that required trip after trip to the dump. To mitigate the cost, Gary and I did most of the work ourselves. Our daughter and one of her friends helped.
As a mother, I’ve tried to shelter Lauren from seeing this kind of lifestyle. Watching her and her friend scoop animal feces off the floor infuriated and saddened me. After the debris was cleared, Gary and I set about repairing the damages. That’s when we learned the pipes were so full of grease that they were beyond fixing. A plumber had to replace them entirely, drilling though cement block to install new materials. Gary and I paid the bill. Frank is a con artist. He’s the poster child for “Homeless by Choice,” a label some people use wrongly to disparage an entire population. He’s also the reason so many people respond to this crisis with less compassion than would seem normal under the circumstances. People like Frank are what far right conservatives fear about welfare programs, and in my experience as a landlord –– a period that spans 25 years –– I can say unequivocally that some of these fears are justified. When I heard Bulldog on the radio this morning, I also heard sympathy in the reporter’s voice. It was in my voice too the day I talked with the social worker right before Frank moved into my building. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if that reporter returned later with clean blankets, fresh socks, nonperishable food, and other treats for Bulldog. And it wouldn’t surprise me if Bulldog turned those gifts into cash as soon as that reporter’s back was turned.
When I see tent cities spanning roadsides, like any normal human being, my heart aches. The difference is that I’ve personally housed some of these people, and I know that many of the solutions politicians are proposing simply won’t work. The City of Santa Rosa, for example, is contemplating the purchase of three homes at a cost of over three million dollars in an attempt to provide housing for approximately sixty people. Along with other problems with this plan, the price-per-bed is obviously too high. But here’s the other thing all of us know: you can’t “charity” a guy like Bulldog out of his tent. He had a place to call home, and by his own choice, he left it. He chose instead to live outside. And in that process, he left victims in his wake. Three of those victims include my husband, my daughter, and me. There’s no social program offering resources for the three of us, but I’d bet my last dollar that there’s a program available for Bulldog and that he's collecting his benefits regularly. In looking for solutions that work, the first step is to acknowledge that “Frank” is in the room. People who habitually game the system need to be identified and disqualified from receiving any more help whatsoever.
*So I won't get sued, Frank is a made-up name and so is the nickname, "Bulldog." Otherwise, it's a true story.
• I contacted KQED after they ran the story to see if they wanted to hear a different perspective, but they did not return my call.