finding my conscience
what happened when i discovered greed isn't all it's cracked up to be?
by robert a. melos
I’ve always been a dreamer and a bit of a schemer. I wanted to marry a millionaire, and be all about the money. I wanted to change my middle name to Greed, although Alexander is more traditional and much more sexy. Since I couldn’t marry a millionaire for several reasons, including the whole same-sex unions aren’t legal thing and the fact all the millionaires I know are just way too unattractive, I had to come up with a better money making scheme.
It was with the desire to make money without doing anything to actually earn it that I came up with a grand scheme. I was going to become a slumlord. Oh I know what you’re thinking. What about ethics? What about my conscience? What about my soul? What about the money I’d need to buy the slum?
Never fear. I had considered all the ramifications of attempting to earn a living without actually working for it. After all I do work in real estate, and I’ve learned all the ins and outs of making your property work for you. I’ve learned how to look the other way when a mortgage banker suggests something in the gray area of honesty, and I’ve learned to play the game even if I don’t like games.
What I do for a living is essentially act as a tour guide to the houses of the decidedly less than rich and famous. Unlike many Realtors®, I don’t consider myself a salesperson. I simply show the house, and let the house sell itself. Sure I point out the new roof, the updated kitchen, but how much is there really to say about a house? “Here’s the living room,” or “out here’s the deck,” seems like so little, but when faced with the prospect of all the legal ramifications if you open your mouth, most Realtors® simply learn to keep their mouths closed.
Bearing all of this in mind, please realize I already felt as though I’d traded my soul for a real estate license. So thinking about becoming a slumlord was the next logical step in my ascension into the realm of the truly greedy. Besides, most of my co-workers had already taken those steps, and are well on their way earning a living without working.
I plotted out my path to slum ownership, considering every angle of financing from taking equity out of the house I own to down payment size (in the mortgage world down payment size does matter), to interest rates, to No Docs versus Investor loans, and all the truly pertinent information any financial advisor would tell you to consider.
What I hadn’t factored into my considerable equation was the actual property and the faces of the tenants. The physical structure of the dilapidated buildings aside, the human factor reared its unwashed face with its crying child in tow, and became real upon my viewing my first slum.
Sure I’d thought about what it meant to be Lord of the Slum! I’d imagined it almost from the moment I set foot on the path to riches which would lead me through the Valley of Greed, but never did I once picture the faces of those who would be my tenants. Never did I give thought to the fact human beings would be living in my slums.
Yes I knew, in theory, people would be paying me rent to live in any slum I owned, but I never actually pictured them, or the actual living conditions. Somehow, in my mind, I’d managed to rose-tint my slum world into a cross between A Streetcar Named Desire, and Oliver. I pictured street urchins cheerfully singing daffy songs while picking pockets and their parents giving into hormonal urges and playing poker.
My deluded images dissolved away as I took myself out as a buyer, looking at a three-family property that had originally been built more than 100 years ago as a single family home. Somewhere down through time the first floor had been turned into a store, and the second and third floors became living quarters for the store’s owner. Time took its toll on the area, and the building, and soon the store became an apartment, and the second and third floors were divided into two more living units.
Prior to the current New Jersey real estate trend of a seller’s market, this slum might’ve sold for $127,000, but thanks to the fountain of greed, from which I yearned to drink, and thanks to Osama Bin Laden and panic buying caused by his terrorist attacks, this slum that would’ve generated $1200 total monthly income, now generates $2550 total monthly income and is being sold for $265,000.
I didn’t even flinch at the numbers, when it was all about the money, and the entire dream of slumlordship was in the realm of it being a good business move. Getting seduced by greed is easy, realizing you aren’t enjoying the seduction is mind blowing. The thought of money being the end instead of the means to the end was simply the right way to make my home work for me, and would set me up to join my co-workers on their way to the realms of the rich and famous.
By all accounts I should’ve been thrilled at the prospect of owning a building in which roaches wouldn’t feel safe, but somehow I wasn’t enjoying the prospect. I had wanted to be rich since as far back as I can remember, and I didn’t care how I got there, as long as “there” included caviar, champagne, and luxuries untold.
With thoughts of Robin Leech introducing me, I knocked on the door of the first floor apartment. A plump young woman of Central American origin answered. My real estate training came into play, and I introduced myself, explaining why I was there, adding “o’s” to the end of words like Realtor® because I don’t speak Spanish and I like the way the word Realtoro rolls off my tongue. In short, I’m the typical ugly American. I’m not exactly proud of it, but it’s the act I put on for my customers, which they seem to like because they are the ugly Americans looking to own slums. If I was going to own a slum I might as well play the part, I reasoned.
After several minutes of my mutilation of her language, the plump young woman nodded, pointed around her and said “casa?”
“Se, casa,” I replied. I handed her my business card, written in English, and walked in past her. Another woman, similar in looks, was in the kitchen/living room preparing dinner. She smiled and nodded to me. “You come to see the house?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied, guessing the two women must be sisters or cousins, from their similar looks. The first young woman began showing me around the three rooms and a bath, for which they paid $950 a month plus utilities. She rather happily started telling me something in her native language. Her sister/cousin stepped in to translate for me.
“She loves the closet in the bedroom,” the girl translated. “We didn’t have closets in our last apartment. Not big ones like this.”
I looked at the closet guessing the trunk of my old Nissan was bigger. I smiled politely, but felt something nagging at the back of my brain. I continued looking around the apartment, squeezing past the second girl to look at the bathroom. I smiled at the girls again, and thanked them for their time. They both told me how happy they were to be living there, and paying only $950 a month. They wanted to know if I was planning on raising the rent when I bought the place. I just shook my head and said, “I don’t think so.”
The second and third floor apartments mirrored the first, only with slightly smaller rooms, and more people living in them. The tenants were all very nice to me, even offering me food, and I smiled at each of them and looked at the children playing in the common hallway and in the stairwells, and I thanked them all for their time, and left.
Once I was outside in the cold winter air, I knew what was nagging at the back of my mind. I knew I couldn’t be the sleazy slumlord I was aspiring to become. If I had let it just be business, and had never set foot into the house, or met the tenants, I probably would have a different ending for this piece. Hell, I probably wouldn’t have written it at all.
Standing on the snow-covered sidewalk shivering in the cold wind, I realized, much to my horror, I still had a conscience. Once I made that frightful discovery, I knew I couldn’t buy this property, or any other slum, because I would have to try to fix up the buildings just so I could have the peace of mind they were safe for the tenants to live in, and that would take more money than I was going to make on the deal. Hell, it would take more money than I was going to put down.
I knew I couldn’t, in good conscience, collect rents twice as high as the apartments were worth, nor could I just take their money and pretend they were happy but poor laborers. I knew I couldn’t be a landlord until I stopped the thoughts of interfering in the tenants lives, re-carpeting all three apartments, and buying toys for their children.
I would be turning from being the ugly American Realtoro into the do-gooder social worker type, or worse yet the upper middle-class jerk who tries to fix all I view that is wrong with the world, instead of focusing on my original goal of money. Being a slumlord was supposed to be about the money and not about the quality of life of the residents of the slum. At that moment I did the most selfish thing I could do, and decided to save myself by not becoming a slumlord.
There are plenty of other ways to earn money without taking advantage of people or exploiting their desires to better their own living conditions. I simply chose not to profit off of people working two and three jobs to afford their version of luxury. Basically, I looked away.
I’m not a better person for choosing not to invest in a slum, since someone else came along the following day and scooped it up for more than asking price, demanding the apartments be empty at closing, so they can be painted and rents increased for the next tenants. I took a different detour on the path to the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Finding my conscience has caused me to re-evaluate my get rich at all costs schemes.
Some people will say I’m shallow for not buying the property and allowing my feelings to get in the way of a good business decision, while other will brand me shallow for not attempting to do something positive for those less fortunate than myself. Either way I can’t win, with some people. Perhaps that’s why I choose the selfish paths toward riches?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to find another get rich quick scheme that doesn’t cause my conscience to rear up and frighten me. Anyone got any good stock tips?
Robert is the author of the novels Cool Mint Blue, Melba Ridge, and the recently released The Adventures of Homosexual Man and Lesbian Lad; and the creator of the on-line comix Impure Thoughts found at his web site Inside R.A. Melos, as well as having been an on-line staff writer for QBliss where he had a monthly humor column, Maybe A Yip, Maybe A Yap. In his non-writing time, when he's not studying the metaphysical or creating a tarot deck, he sells real estate in Middlesex County New Jersey, hangs out with his dog Zeus, and spends time at the Pride Center of New Jersey in Highland Park, NJ, where he is on the Board of Trustees.
ABOUT ROBERT A. MELOS
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
2.18.03 @ 9:36p
This strikes home in a couple of ways - we own an old mansion that has been converted into four apartments, one of which is small enough to fit in my living room. Actually, my father-in-law owns it, and plans to split it between my husband and my brother-in-law in his will. At any rate, since everyone else in the family is gainfully employed, and I am a writer, guess who gets to manage the place?
I'm torn - on the one hand we're renting the apartments out for MUCH less than others in the area...which is a nice thing. On the other hand, you couldn't pay me to live there. Those apartments are barely big enough to move around in, let alone try to raise a family in.
2.19.03 @ 9:42p
I think it all comes down to what you're used to. I know plenty of people in SF who live in 400 square foot studios, pay $1000 a month, and are plenty happy.
No one's twisting anyone's arm. If the place is renting for too much, or is in poor condition, you can always find another place.
2.20.03 @ 2:40a
It's true, you can always find another place, but competitive pricing usually makes the rents equal, or close enough to being too high for many. It was only partially about the rent, but more about feeling guilty for taking advantage of others. I try so hard not to be a nice person, to be a ruthless-backstabbing-lowlife-slimball Realtor, like most of my competition, but I fail miserably at it.
This doesn't mean I'm a nice guy, just someone who works on his own set of ethics. Besides, if I went through with the purchase I'd only have been making an extra $105 a week after all the mortgages were paid. I'll just work that much harder, and get one or two more sales a year and make that much per week.
And thanks to those who pointed out my glaring misspelling. In my defense, not having had a conscience for so long, or not being conscious of my conscience, it isn't surprising I'd misspelled it. Corrected now.