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Tenants betray a trust, trash family homestead

Landlords and tenants, where do they meet? Ask any tenant and surely he has a lousy-landlord tale. Likewise, any landlord will tell you his nightmare-tenant story.

My own experience as a landlord came about inadvertently; I never set out to be in the rental business. But when my mother passed away and her estate matters dragged on, my husband and I rented her home to defray costs. It was an enlightening period.

The home I was born and raised in was a 200-year-old brick farmhouse. My mother had lived there for more than 50 years, raising me and my four siblings after our father died.

Despite being a desperately poor young widow, my mother's door was always open. Our friends were welcome for lunch or dinner. If anyone needed a place to sleep, there was a warm bed waiting.

The place was filled with memories. Every empty canning jar, every brick was a part of me. Each spring my mother and I picked lilacs from the bushes on the side of the house. Long after I was grown and married, she'd call to say the lilacs had bloomed.

The furniture in the living room and dining room was often rearranged, sometimes to accommodate the overflowing guests, sometimes to accommodate the casket of a family member. My father, grandmother and nephew were laid out there. It was a house of love, laughter and tears. This was the house I rented, complete with my mother's blue curtains.

From the beginning, the rent was late, somewhere between seven and 12 days. The excuses were varied and chronic. I'd let it go -- a hangover from my childhood when people did business on a handshake and honor.

Within months, I was in trouble with the housing authority for violation of town ordinances. A neighbor reported the tenants for failing to trim the bushes and cover the garbage, and for leaving an unlicensed vehicle in the driveway. But the tenants weren't responsible, not even for their car. I was. I faced a $500 fine and 10 days in jail. It was humiliating.

Things quieted down for a while. In fact, they were too quiet. Every blind and shade in the house was closed to the world.

I groaned to my husband: "What's going on in there?" When the tenants stopped paying the rent completely, I found out.

The stench of urine hit me before I opened the back door. Trying to stifle my gag reflex, I entered the kitchen to find dozens of cats. Kittens in blankets spilled across the room. Adult cats lazed on windowsills and on stairways.

Several windows were propped open so that they could come and go as they pleased. Floors were gouged. Light fixtures gaped, and all the carpets were saturated with animal urine. My legs and clothes were soon covered with fleas.

The exterminator spent six weeks eliminating the bugs. The carpeting throughout the whole house had to be torn out. The hardwood floors had to be sanded and resealed. The kitchen floor required four treatments to remove the odor. The homeowner's policy did not cover pet-contamination. The one-month security deposit the tenants forfeited was insufficient.

But the worst part was the shame I felt for failing my mother. She had refinanced that house three times so that we children would have a family home, and I'd let strangers trash it.

Slum landlords should face jail time; their slovenly property devalues all of us. But slum tenants deserve jail time as well. Then we'd all be on equal footing.

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