Renter’s Debt

One way to force your renters into debt and eventual eviction

Advice on housing best practices tells us that we should not be spending more than 1/3 of our income on keeping a roof over our heads. Setting aside that this really just isn’t a possibility for most people on the lower end of the income scale (if your household pulls $75,000 a year, yet you’re spending too much on housing, simply lower your standards; you’ll be fine), there are plenty of things people — specifically landlords — can do to make this even harder. As anyone who’s ever lived paycheck-to-paycheck knows, the challenge of keeping a balanced account is already difficult, and without credit, living on less money than is needed to simply live your life is obviously impossible. Unfortunately, this simple fact can be easily used as a tool to force out unwanted renters.

Unwanted Renters

Unwanted renters aren’t always being victimized. Sometimes they’re unwanted because of large parties, unkempt premises, or other annoying and/or dirty habits. Wanting to push someone out of your rental who is constantly disturbing the peace or making the lives of other renters miserable isn’t victimization so much as it is common or market sense. It makes sense to say that, if you don’t run a slumlord property, you wouldn’t want that kind of disturbance being perpetuated by someone for whom you are somewhat responsible. If we’re speaking about responsibility, however, it might make sense to review the concept of facing your problems head-on: If you have a renter to whom you would no longer like to rent, you should tell that person, set a deadline for move-out, and stick to it. You know, like a fucking adult.

Now, there are a couple reasons a renter may not be wanted that might not have anything to do with the renter, personally. One example that may easily come to mind is in cases of so-called “gentrification”, where some of the more downtrodden properties are renovated and improved in ways which draw more affluent renters who can pay what will become higher prices. This practice of unwanted relocation is taking place across the country, as low-level city dwellers are forced out in favor of their higher-income counterparts, and while one can certainly sympathize with wanting to make more money whenever possible, this practice affects people disproportionately. The people living in those homes are there because those places are affordable for them, and often times closer to where they need to get to work. For low-income residents of any city, of course, getting to work can be as challenging as it is essential, which is why being forced to move out of a home that is close to work or transit can be a serious detriment to staying just above the line of abject poverty. But again, at least no one should have to take it personally.

Dollar, Dollar, Bills

The reason I’m talking about any of this is because it’s my most recent way of dealing with what’s been happening to me since I started using personal checks to pay my rent. I happen to live in a historical district, near downtown Sioux Falls. Except for what I’m pretty sure is a drug house somewhere nearby, and what might be something like a halfway-house next door, most of my neighbors make significantly more money than I do. In fact, this and the adjacent neighborhood support the most posh houses anywhere near downtown. Sioux Falls seems to have been trying to locate the richer people in town in the areas south of Sioux Falls, but for anyone who has money and wants to live close to the downtown environment, the area in and around the neighborhood in which I currently reside is the place to be. There’s not really a way of knowing if this is the reason I have been having issues with my particular landlord (or, far more likely, his assistant), but the reason for the problem really doesn’t matter. The problem is that it’s a problem, and I’m guessing not just for me. The problem begins with un-cashed rent checks.

Going to the bank and putting out a ‘Cease All Debits’ on both my checking and savings account is so incredibly not what I was planning to do for “fun” last Friday. It wasn’t fun. Not having access to my money for an entire week isn’t fun, as in I definitely do not want to have to do this again, ever. While I was looking for any pertinent legal information that could help me, I came across several forums full of people posing questions on similar issues. The answers to these questions were truthful and accurate, but reflected the possibility that maybe people don’t understand how doing something like not cashing rent checks can be a great burden to someone who already doesn’t make enough money to budget properly. This sets aside the fact completely that if your job doesn’t pay you enough to meet your monthly financial obligations, the word “budget” may as well not exist. You don’t have one. At that point, all you have is the opportunity to get creative as to exactly how you will dig yourself deeper into debt. Me? I decided to cut off access to my account, pay all bills due this week using my credit card and, of course, write about it.

Holding Pattern

My landlord has been holding my checks for several months now. The first time it happened was the first time I wrote a check for rent. Although I’ve been living there for a year, I only recently started writing checks, and I primarily do this only for rent, with the exception of very random expenses and, previously, my cell phone bill. The reason I decided to do this was that my other options for paying rent were to either do it as a “Bill Pay” through my bank, or to go out every month at exactly the time that I have enough money available for rent, and pay extra money to pick up a money order. The Bill Pay is an ACH transaction that takes several days to process and post to my account, and the money order costs extra time and (haha!) money on a monthly basis, making either of these choices not the most economically savvy for someone at my income level. It doesn’t take someone with my (admittedly average) education to figure that out, either. Lots of “bad decisions” are said to be made by people in poverty, but one look at the full scope of circumstances by anyone would reveal how actually rational decisions like this are.

So, my solution was to order checks, and then write out a check for the next month’s rent and deposit it, fifteen days prior to the first of next month. This allowed me at least one additional paycheck before the next month’s rent is due, providing plenty of cash flow to balance the payments of other bills over the following few weeks. The first time I did this, my check was not immediately cashed. The first of the month came around, then the three-day grace period passed, and finally the fifteenth of the following month arrived, and still my check had not been cashed. I bit no bait, but rather wrote out and relinquished the next month’s check to the collection box, with a note on the memo line indicating the date I signed the check. Both checks were cashed within the week.

Since then, it’s been a variable give-and-take as to when my rent checks would be cashed. Generally, I have no real issue with this, as I’ve never had to hold more than a month’s rent at a time. By paying my rent ahead of time and budgeting for the withdrawal, I was attempting to make the best out of the literally poor economic situation I’m in by working within my “non-budget”. Sticking to my plan became no longer feasible, however, once the 15th of August came around and it was time for me to hand over September’s check. It’s also worth noting that August’s check was written from my savings account, for which I had not previously held checks. It would have meant outstanding debits totaling $1575, four business days before my payday. Would he cash the checks on Monday? On Friday? In the middle of the week? If it’s 1pm on Thursday afternoon, should I buy gas with credit, or do you think maybe he won’t cash the checks until after 5pm? There is no way to answer these questions or plan a budget when your income is so far less than necessary.

This is undeniably harder than actual budgeting, where one simply spends less money than one makes, and is sure to track spending in order to appropriate the correct balances to their corresponding accounts. It’s very simple: Do you have money? Then you’re going to be alright! Balancing a budget that doesn’t exist requires a constant monitoring of spending, a strong familiarity with the due-dates of each bill or auto-withdrawal; it is essentially a constant juggling of money you don’t ever actually have, and you can forget about savings. Compounding the issue for me this month was health insurance. It’s nice to finally have, but it lowers my net monthly pay by about $100, which is what has brought me to this place where half of my income goes to rent. So, when my checks are being predictably cashed — within three to four weeks of being issued — the balancing act is trying, but not difficult in a financially and emotionally crippling way. Once the cashing of my rent checks becomes a matter of holding an entire month and a half’s worth of wages in my bank account, there’s a problem, and the problem is that I’m pissed.

Last Word

I get that people have 180 days to cash a check. I get that my landlord has every right to do this to me. I’m just done letting it happen. Maybe it works better for him to collect three months of my rent at one time, but it puts me in the position of guessing when is the smartest time to use my credit, furthering the difficulty of just being poor. Combined with three years of on-and-off employment which has sometimes amounted to nothing short of skeevy, I just don’t have the patience for bullshit like this anymore. It’s one thing to be overqualified for every job people are willing to offer, it’s one thing to be rejected for years for reasons upon which you cannot improve because the vague statement that I’m not “quite what we’re seeking” literally means nothing, and it’s one thing to be constantly stressed by a landlord who doesn’t seem to want your rent money unless it means it’ll break you before burying you in inescapable debt. All of those things together, though, start to make you feel like you’re under attack from all angles. It starts to feel like you’re purposefully being undermined in an effort to drag you down and drive you out. It starts to feel like something that has nothing to do with your knowledge, skill, or ability. Once again, Sioux Falls, this is not a “single income” issue. I know it’s fun to think that the solution to my problem is to couple up and get married, but — and I’m not sure if you know this — I really shouldn’t have to rely on a man’s income in order to keep a roof over my head. And I won’t.

The bank will re-open on Friday, August 21st, and you will kindly excuse any inconvenience this may have caused.