Bert Stratton joins City Journal associate editor Seth Barron to talk about Stratton’s experience as a member of one of the most despised but important professions: landlord.
Stratton is a musician and blogger, but he makes his living managing apartment units and retail space in a suburban neighborhood outside of his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. He prefers to call himself a “landlord-musician.”
Stratton’s first piece for City Journal, a quirky essay called “The Landlord’s Tale,” appeared in 2012. “Everybody hates landlords,” Stratton writes. “Nobody paid rent as a child, so people think they should live free as adults, too.”
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is your host, Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Coming up on the show today, we have City Journal’s Associate Editor, Seth Barron, talking with Bert Stratton. Bert is a musician—he plays in a klezmer band—and a blogger, but he makes his living as a landlord in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. He’s an original landlord musician, as Bert likes to say. His quirky and informative first essay for us in the Winter 2012 issue, “The Landlord’s Tale,” has become one of our favorite pieces that we’ve published over the years. Since then, Bert has continued to write for us about his experiences as a member of one of the world’s most important, but often maligned, professions. Seth’s interview with Bert begins after this. We hope you enjoy.
Seth Barron: Welcome back to 10 Blocks Podcast. This is your host, Seth Barron, associate editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Bert Stratton. Bert is a longtime contributor to City Journal, and a lifetime resident of Cleveland. Bert writes about a variety of topics among which is his experience as a landlord in a big rust belt city. His first piece for us from 2012 is called “The Landlord’s Tale,” and is a minor classic in its own way. Bert, thanks for joining us on 10 Blocks.
Bert Stratton: Thanks for having me.
Seth Barron: So in New York City we have a very tight and expensive rental market and people tend to view the tenant landlord relationship as adversarial or oppositional. Is it the same in Cleveland?
Bert Stratton: It’s the same, probably not the same degree. The landlord is always a bad guy, I don’t care where you go. Because the landlord wants money for a box and heat, and you know a refrigerator, and most people grow up getting that for free so they don’t really expect to have to pay for it in their adult life. So yeah, to answer your question, it’s an adversarial relationship everywhere, I think.
Seth Barron: I guess that’s the nature of it. Tell us a little about your property. Are you what we would think of as a major landlord or a minor landlord? Do you have a couple of units? What’s—
Bert Stratton: I’m in the middle. I’m “mom and pop,” but I have about 180 units. Generally when you ask a landlord how many units he has he exaggerates. So if I said 180, let’s call it in real terms 160. Most landlords will tell you about how many properties they have and the ones they had, because everybody—it’s just human nature to want to crank up the numbers. But bottom line is, I’m a “mom and pop” and I do pretty much all the book keeping myself, I do all the—make all the major decisions. And I do have about eight or nine guys who do all the hands-on maintenance and I have building managers. I guess you call them superintendents here. We call them building managers, and I like to have a person onsite in case something bad goes. And also it’s good service to the tenants to have someone they can go to right onsite if they have a problem.
Seth Barron: Well yeah in New York City it’s the law to have a superintendent either on the premises or within, basically on-call 24 hours a day. I think they can life across the street or something. In a recent piece you wrote for City Journal about your experience doing Airbnb, you discuss the process of vetting people and making sure you do it legally. What about that—how do you get a feel for tenants? I mean I assume you’ve probably had thousands of tenants, interviewed more—
Bert Stratton: Right. The short of it is you can’t really trust your gut reaction. People lie; you don’t think they’re going to lie. IT could be an 81 year old retired registered nurse from Houston Anderson Hospital. She comes in and you say, “Wow give me your money, I love you!” Turns out, once she moves in, she’s got a felony record a mile long, she’s a fraud and about an hour later her previous landlord drives up in a car and says, “You didn’t really rent to that woman, did you? I followed her moving van.” So you can’t just really go on gut. The one thing I like to see, and I usually—I like to see a college degree. It’s just sort of a gatekeeper. And I’m not talking about Harvard/Yale. I’m talking about University of Akron, Kent State, Bowling Green. If you’ve got a B.A., generally, you know you’ve sat in a chair for four years and you’ve done something and somebody’s paid some money for that degree. And those tenants stand out in the pile. Because I rent mostly to people who are 22-40 years old, because they’re one-bedroom apartments mostly, in an inner ring suburb in Cleveland—a nice, kind of cool part of Cleveland—wasn’t always but it is now. So I get a younger crowd and I also rent to welders, landscapers. I try not to rent to bartenders and servers because they come home late at night and make a lot of noise and they just tend to party a lot. But you can’t discriminate. You don’t discriminate on occupation; I don’t think there’s any law against it. In fact I think you can say, “I won’t rent to lawyers,” but I never pulled that card.
Seth Barron: A-ha.
Bert Stratton: But I do check their credit; check their criminal record, and previous landlord. And still sometimes you don’t get it right. But you’ve got to check going in. It saves you a lot of grief.
Seth Barron: Now are you allowed to discriminate against someone if they have a criminal record?
Bert Stratton: Yeah. I don’t know about it nationally but in Ohio you can. You know I had a tenant who had a felony and it was 10 years old. And I said, “Well the guy’s probably rehabilitated himself.” But he didn’t pay the rent and he distracted and disturbed the tenant above him. And so now I—it’s a case by case basis but it’s a pretty big red flag if somebody’s got a felony. If they admit it, that’s pretty good; most of the time they will because they know I’m going to find it because of the internet age.
Seth Barron: Okay. So you said something about kids. It’s illegal to discriminate against someone with children, is that correct?
Bert Stratton: True.
Seth Barron: What are the other categories that you’re not allowed to discriminate against?
Bert Stratton: Well you know them all, it’s this federal thing: race, handicap, sex, age—on the old side—you can’t say, “Oh you’re 75, I won’t rent to you.” But we don’t rent to people under 22. You can discriminate on the young end of the spectrum. So it turns out that I don’t rent to anyone between the age—there’s a little gap here—between 18 and 22 you can’t rent from me. Below 18 you’re a kid, so you can go in with a parent. But, so yeah, we don’t discriminate on the basis of those federal prohibitions. The latest one, and I had a lot of amusing stories with this, is ESA. You know what that is?
Seth Barron: No.
Bert Stratton: Emotional support animals. I’d love to like, not let a person in with a dog. But if they have a letter from a psychologist or a social worker, we have to let them in with a dog. There was a big hubbub about that last year. Somebody took a peacock on an airplane, remember that?
Seth Barron: Yeah peacocks, turkeys, ferrets, pigs, all kinds of things. So anything like that is, uh—
Bert Stratton: Yeah I don’t like it. I mean you know, skunk—a woman calls me and says, “I’ve got a skunk.” And I say I don’t rent to skunks, she says, “Well it’s denatured.” I said, “What if it gets in the hall? It’s going to scare the heck out of the other tenants.”
Seth Barron: Yeah I guess I could see that. So, what’s it like evicting people?
Bert Stratton: Well it’s kind of boring because 99—or 90 percent of the time it’s just because they don’t have the money. And they say—you know it’s true—they don’t have the money. You guys would know better than me what percentage of people are living paycheck to paycheck, but in my part of the world, I’d say more than half the people I rent to are living paycheck to paycheck. They lose their job, they can’t pay their rent. They have to pay for a funeral—a lot of people pay for their aunt’s funeral, or their cousin’s funeral, or at least part of it, they don’t have the money. That’s an unexpected expense. Their car breaks down, any of that sort of thing. The last one was a couple of days ago a guy calls me. This was, I hadn’t heard this one before. He said, “My 17-year-old son was in Bali and his backpack was stolen and his money and his passport was stolen. Can I take 100 bucks off my rent for the next three months?” And I remembered the words of my—first of all, this guy hasn’t been a tenant for very long. I remember the words of my father, “We’re not a bank.” I said, “No.” He said, “Okay.” He was a very pleasant guy. I felt a little creepy saying no, but I figured I shouldn’t be the bank. He should be going to some relatives or somebody. I don’t know this guy from Adam. I have bills to pay, and once I said no, he paid the rent.
Seth Barron: Oh so you didn’t evict him he just came up with it.
Bert Stratton: No but it was an interesting story.
Seth Barron: Now in your, in the essay you wrote for us a few years ago, “The Landlord’s Tale,” you do talk about giving people breaks. It seems like there is some flexibility involved. I mean it’s a real people business.
Bert Stratton: Yeah I’m in the social work business, I think. I tend to hire and like musicians. I give them breaks. I have a tenant, and she also works for me, who is a great Brazilian singer. I have another guy who’s a Ukrainian choir director. I have another guy who’s a classical pianist, and a violin teacher at a private school, and I understand—I play in a band by the way. The point is, these people sometimes run into cash flow problems and also they’re really sensitive to noise. They really shouldn’t be in apartments but they also can’t afford a house. Like the violinist was having problems with an air conditioner which was in the store below her—it vibrated and made the floor waver. I talked to the previous tenant and he said, “I lived there for three years and I didn’t notice.” But she was sensitive to it. And I spent 800 bucks to float this air conditioner in the store below. Float it, meaning it wasn’t abutting her floor. And so, I sometimes help, but I’m not a saint. It’s a business. If I ran it like a nonprofit, I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now.
Seth Barron: Oh, where would you be?
Bert Stratton: I’d probably be an unemployed journalist because that’s what I went into right out of college.
Seth Barron: Got it. So I mean, you were describing the neighborhood of Cleveland that your properties are in as kind of transitional, kind of a hip neighborhood now, but it used to not be. Cleveland’s gone through a lot of changes. What’s the state of Cleveland today?
Bert Stratton: Cleveland, I think, is in better shape than it was 10 years ago. But I was there in the ‘50s and the ‘60s as a child when it was still an industrial stronghold. And it’s not ever going to be that again. There is in my part of town where I rent suites, a lot of my tenants work for the Cleveland Clinic, which is the biggest employer in the state of Ohio. But I don’t think the city is robust in any way. I think it’s just maintaining and it does have an incredibly nice quality of life if you have a job. That’s the catch-22. You can live really well in Cleveland, but the catch is, do you have a job? Because the job market isn’t growing there.
Seth Barron: So what is the rent, say what rent do you charge—average rent for a one-bedroom?
Bert Stratton: Why don’t you guess?
Seth Barron: I couldn’t tell you. I mean in New York City, in Manhattan I guess you could pay, I don’t know $1,600, 2,000 for a studio or even, I don’t know.
Bert Stratton: A studio’s about $575. One-bedroom’s about $650. And a tricked out one-bedroom is around eight- or nine-hundred, tricked out with the granite, the dishwasher, the in-suite washer and dryer. I actually don’t do that but I have people I know who do that.
Seth Barron: And would this be like, this is just kind of in a regular part of town?
Bert Stratton: that’s in what you’d call one of the cool parts of town, the place where the 20-somethings and the 30-somethings would actually want to live. It’s walkable. It’s right on the lake; it’s called Lakewood by the way. It’s a west side Cleveland suburb. It’s a 100-year old suburb; you know the original streetcar suburb kind of thing. And the houses are up and down doubles and there’s a lot of apartments. Probably more apartments—I’m told it’s the most densely populated part of the country between New York and Chicago. So it’s a couple square miles, but there’s 60,000 people. It’s very vertical. There’s apartments. It’s not Manhattan, but we’ll take it.
Seth Barron: It sounds great. Maybe I’ll come out there. What is the political cultural scene? Have things changed?
Bert Stratton: In Cleveland in general or this building?
Seth Barron: Yeah Cleveland in general.
Bert Stratton: Oh Cleveland is, to quote someone I just was talking to, one of our coworkers, Wren, it’s sort of where east meets west. East meaning northeast, the Cleveland, the side of town I live in is very, has a northeast feel to it. Which means it’s an Eastern European ethnic, black, Jewish, Italian. It’s a big city hubbub. Then there’s this appellation escarpment, right, in the part of town called Little Italy. Big hill and that part of town becomes a plain. And that plain goes all the way into Iowa. And that part of town is more what we call white-bred. But it’s being infused now with, there’s a lot of immigration from Albania and Ukraine. There’s a Ukrainian village and they teach a—you can go into any shop of this part of town where I rent and you’ll find Albanians and Bosnians and, so it’s actually pretty ethnically diverse, compared to what it was when I’d just started. And that’s interesting to me. I rent to, you know I have an Arab guy who rents a driving store—a driving store, what’s that? So he teaches driving from a store. And Korean dry cleaning business and a Serbian resale shop. I have about 25 store fronts I rent and that’s a great entry point for immigrants into the American dream. I really respect those people. I love them. By the way, that Arab barber just bounced his check. But I’m cool with it. What is today, the 21st? I’m cool with it, I said no late fee just give me the money. But he’s a refugee from Iraq. I mean, he’s had a hard life.
Seth Barron: Okay, a real mensch we have here. Don’t forget to check out Bert Stratton’s work on our website, www.city-journal.org. You can read Bert’s blog at www.yiddishecup.com/blog. We would also love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter @CityJournal. Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thanks, Bert, for joining us.
Bert Stratton: Thanks, Seth.
Brian Anderson: Thanks for joining us for the weekly 10 Blocks Podcast featuring urban policy and cultural commentary featuring City Journal editors, contributors, and special guests.
Photo: Erik Drost / Flickr