Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Creating Homeless in Bellingham, Washington

If you're a homeowner trying to rent out your home and have a property management company acting as your potential tenant screener, you need to read this--especially if your property is still sitting empty after several months. But first a little history based on my experience of living in this town for 30 years.

When I first moved here to attend Graduate school at Western Washington University, I found a place to rent with no problem. I handed them first month's rent, had the utilities changed over to my name, and we had a comfortable relationship of tenant/landlord for the next year. It was the way you rented a place to live. And I happened to hit town in a year where there were a lot of empty rentals and a bunch of anxious landlords.

Things started to change shortly after that. Bellingham is one of those boom and bust towns. If you read up on its history you will see that the speculators come in, buy up the cheap housing, sell it at a profit, leave and wait for the next bust cycle before rinsing and repeating. The ones who get screwed are the ones who bought on the way up and are left holding a drastically devalued property when the housing market starts to bottom out again. Or the ones who need a reasonably priced place to rent.

During the boom years housing is at a premium. Because most of the properties are owned by out of town speculators, or even in town speculators, the property management companies provide the services required to collect the rent, maintain the property, deal with repairs, etc. For this they tack on fees that are either picked up by the renter or the homeowner. Until recently this was a good arrangement as it allowed those who bought homes as an investment to go on with their lives and not have to deal with being a landlord. But this has all changed with the collapse of the housing market and real estate agents and brokers needing to make up lost income.

Enter the new and improved property management companies. They look just like the old ones but they are staffed with desperate real estate "professionals" who are grabbing every dime they can just to survive. In order to even look at a house you have to pay upfront fees that range from 50-75 dollars per couple just for the background check. Then there's the credit check, the processing fees, the application fees, the fees upon fees. By the time you write a check, you're over a hundred dollars and pushing two hundred dollars.

Now here's the fun part. You pay those fees and there's no guarantee you'll get the place. And on top of that, the fees are non-refundable if you're turned down. In an economy where the bankruptcy rate has increased 58 percent (read more), the odds of most people looking for a place getting turned down because of bad credit is nearly 100 percent. I'm not talking about criminals here. I'm talking about good, decent people with boring ordinary lives who have never been arrested for anything and until the last year, had perfect credit ratings. Many are downsizing and trying to start over but as they're learning, it won't happen in Whatcom county unless they want to live on the street.

Now let's look at it from the property management company's perspective. They can collect fees from 10, 15, 20 people before they find someone who fits all the criteria of no arrests and perfect credit. In a town like Bellingham, that can take a long time, months even. In the meantime, the homeowner is told it's the economy, no one is renting, maybe next month, we're only looking out for you, etc etc etc as they charge them huge advertising costs for posting free ads on Craig's List and keep pocketing those big application fees.

So the houses eventually go into foreclosure because the owners can't find a renter to help with the mortgage payments. When I was looking I talked to a woman who was trying to rent her very nice place. It was beyond my price range but not at all unreasonable for how nice her house was. She was there changing the curtains in the window because the property management company told her the reason her house wasn't renting was because the curtains made it look cheap. Seriously. That's what they told her. She's been trying to rent it for over six months. She pays the property company every month. They collect fees from dozens of applicants. You do the math.

Then there's the growing problem that results from this kind of desperate greed. In the last few months since the economy really started to tank in Bellingham, there's more property companies in charge of renting out what used to be the lower cost housing, the cheap apartments in bad neighborhoods. Face it guys, no one who moves to one of these places has the kind of credit record demanded of them. They barely have the ink dry on their release from their latest arrest. And yet, even decent people who have had a run of bad luck can't qualify for these dumps! But the property management companies still collect fees from them, and then tell them no.

Check out the parking lots of places like K-mart, Wal-mart, the abandoned big box store parking lots that went broke. Mixed in with the alcholics and drug addicts in their beater cars and campers, you'll see a new breed of "tenant," older senior citizens who lost everything, middle-class working people who are forced to live in their cars, young people who haven't established enough credit to qualify for housing on their own.

Yes, both landlords and property management companies can cite numerous examples of being ripped off by bad tenants, but many decent people can also cite numerous examples of being ripped off by these property management companies. People who work hard, deserve more than being treated like the scum of the earth just because they had to declare bankruptcy or were late on their bills or don't make enough to pass the required "rent can't be more than 40 percent of your income" rule the companies demand. How many of you reading this can pass that one, no matter what your credit is? How many of you reading this can qualify to rent a place to live in Whatcom County? Probably very few of you and of those, you can bet the companies will collect on a whole lot of people before they say yes to you.

In the meantime, homeowners who have had their houses on the rental market now need to sit down and have a serious talk with their property management companies. Make them give you the applications of everyone who applied. Send friends in to apply so you know they are being honest with you. One of my friends who spent  8 months trying to find a tenant finally fired the property management company and put a for rent sign on her lawn. She got swarms of people trying to rent her place and settled on a grateful young family who have faithfully paid the rent on time for the last five months and keep her house immaculate. She's delighted with them and they with her. And they were turned down by every property management company in town because their business went bankrupt and so they were considered not worthy of a home.

And another note for those trying to rent their home or apartment. Check out the ads on Craig's List. When you see your home listed there, keep in mind that it's free to list it. If you're being charged advertising costs, there's a good chance the places it's being advertised don't cost the company anything. But I'll bet you're paying a premium for the listing.

For those of you who have been jacked around by these companies, it's time to sit down, write your story and send it off to your congressional rep and ask them to support legislation that would create some rules to prevent these property management companies from their money grabs. Yes, the real estate market is down for everyone guys, but when you see a property management company pop up overnight that is made up of nothing but unemployed and desperate real estate agents, the odds of finding a place to live go way down while their collection of money for nothing goes way up.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Unbearable Existence of Optimism

I woke up this year with the overwhelming urge to do something different with my life, to move forward from what had become a comfortable and secure rut. I didn't know what manifestation this desire would take, but my experience is that important changes happen without too much thinking because our brain is a brake on the kind of things we need to do but don't. So I haven't thought about the important things in my life too much. I've just done them and saved the nitpicking and endless analysis for the intellectual mindfucks of my existence.

But I've been noticing this leaves many of my friends feeling unsettled as if my foundation was holding up their houses. It never was; I'm just really good at letting people use some of the blocks until they can get by on their own. It's only natural they would assume, after a long period of time living on my blocks, that they were somehow THEIR blocks.

So it's understandable that they come over to my house and see boxes piled to the ceiling, but not that many boxes considering how much stuff we had and how much we gave way, recycled, donated. It's about half of what we least. Part of the change is getting rid of a whole lot of stuff. I was horrified to find we'd been hauling stuff around for twenty years that wasn't even ours. I shredded a whole folder of someone's term papers for a Psychology class. I don't remember them. I'm not even sure I knew them or how I came to have a box of their decades old discarded and forgotten crap.

But I digress over the horrors of packing and pruning. Back to my friends. The conversation goes this way: "Are you guys moving?"   Yes.  "Where?"  Don't know yet.

It disturbs them because neither of us seem overly concerned about this uncertainty. Of course we have days when we wonder what we're doing and yeah I feel stressed out and wanting a place to land, but it's more of method rather than reason. What others don't see is the process of dealing with yourself that goes on in both mine and Jeff's lives. We get comfortable too easily so we have to sneak up on ourselves and say boo! Time to do something different. How about moving?

So, we move. It's how we ended up in Bellingham. I wanted out of Las Vegas. I hate hot weather and I was living in a place where summer meant 115 degree days of lung-searing heat for the summer months. I wanted seaons. I wanted to not sneeze and miss Spring. I wanted wildflowers that didn't die within hours of birth from the arid and harsh environment. I wanted gentleness of wind and sky and the smell of saltwater.

The easiest way was to graduate from college, send out some apps to grad school and see who bit. I was okay with any bite and didn't care which one got dragged up on the shore and into my cookpot of change.

It turned out they all bit so I got a map and picked the one farthest away from Las Vegas. I'd fallen in love with the Pacific Northwest on a month-long camping trip to Canada and Jeff was born in Seattle. I remember him coming home from class and showing him the letter of acceptance and the teaching assistantship. It was a guaranteed job for a year and it was motivation enough to move. His response was he didn't have anything else going on in his life so sure, he'd go check out his birthplace for a while.

So we moved. And moved again. And then again. And then yet again. And finally again to the present. We never left town, but we did live in every part of it. Total immersion is the only way to truly know where and what you are sometimes.

One day we found ourselves owning a house together and the restlessness started to build. I'd spent a lifetime being anti-thing, anti-ownership, anti-materialism. I wanted simplicity in living and in those I lived with and around. I'm too complex to want that complexity all around me. I prefer to keep it chained for my own amusement.

So the restlessness won. We sold the house. We decided it was time to explore the outer environs of where we live. We're still trying to decide. We've looked at a lot of places. Some days we think we want saltwater. Other days we think we want to wake up smelling the trees. We will decide this week. We have to as we know how we are and how easy it is to become comfortable, so we set a deadline of August first as the day we'd be ready to hand over the house. If we didn't, we'd still be packing and trying to decide where to live. Dates are our cattle prods.

We will leave Bellingham the same way we arrived, on impulse but with just the barest amount of money to live on and a whole lot of hope that the universe will provide more. But since we're both the oldest child with several siblings from poor working class families,  we know nothing is given to us and so we're prepared to work as hard as we do now to help the universe in its providing. Sure, we fantasize about waking up one day and finding out we have some rich uncle who leaves us something instead of crazed relations who go out leaving us nothing but a pile of debts, but the reality is the only wealth we have is this never-ending source of optimism that life will turn out just fine, even if you have to struggle to get there. Struggling has never been a problem for us, but complacency has been a killer and now we recognize it when it tries to sneak up on us. This time we're going to be a step ahead of it.

Click on shirt to purchase of visit the Crazy Old Lady of Peace's shop.  for many other designs like this.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

My Name Is James Tillich

The world is overflowing with serious people. Most of them have reason to be serious. I even have occasional reason to be serious. But nothing singular should ever be selected as a lifestyle choice as there are options available for a reason. We were meant to take them, to use them, to make them a personal and wonderful manifestation of ourselves. We were meant to grab a moment of fun here and there to complete us as whole, functioning human beings. Without fun we are missing something vital to our being. It's like living without blood in your veins or reading only poetry that stops just before the last stanza.

Then there's the internet, this web of serious commentary mixed with blogs written by people's pets, the absurd mixed with the poignant, the propaganda dressed up as truth and raising hell at the virtual neighborhood bar every chance it gets. Never before has the potential for so much mixed with the reality that there's a whole lot of people in the world with too much time on their hands.

I'm not one of those with too much time. Most of the time I fall asleep exhausted  and even dream of sleeping. The older I get the more I need some kind of help to get me through the next phase of running my business and trying to survive in a severely depressed economy. I frequently have an overwhelming desire to just blow it all off and live like I did in my 20's--in the company of my best traveling buddy and a furry companion helping me search for the most beautiful piece of nature to pitch my tent.

But that's for next year. For right now I get by with a little help from fun. I realized a long time ago that one aspect of the internet was its potential for fun. It is, when you think about it in a particular way, the world's largest ant farm. It provides a venue for just about anything one wants to do or say. It is entertainment that you let in voluntarily, content you collect for its ability to make you feel something other than the tedium of the ordinary. It is a huge collection of amusement waiting to happen.

That is why when I first heard about James Tillich, I was immediately intrigued by his potential for fun. This is from his MySpace page:

"James Tillich was born in a college philosophy class in December of 2006. A student suggested the name "James Tillich" as an incorrect option on part of a hypothetical test question. Upon hearing the name "James Tillich" the instructor burst out laughing and said, "There never has been a James Tillich." He immediately went over to the computer and Googled an exact word search for "James Tillich". Both instructor and class were amazed when "No results found" popped up. Later that night one student searched both English and German databases. Results? Zip. Nada. Nechevo. Nothing. There was no trace of such a person ever having existed. The instructor decided, "Well if he never existed, then I'll create him." read more

This to me represents the true spirit of what is one internet running alongside another one. It is the web that is woven with laughter, with fun, with the sense of play that never goes away, no matter how old we get. In fact, it is this very sense of play, this ability to turn something as mundane in its functionality as the internet into your own personal ant farm, an ant farm where all the ants wear funny party hats and dance in conga lines to Jimmy Buffet as they drink margarita after margarita, that keep you alive in a form worth living.

And in that spirit of fun I invite you, your friends, your acquaintances, even people you really don't care much for, to come play with James Tillich. I have made him a blog. Do drop by and leave him a message, a note encouraging him in his non-existence, his splendid sense of nothingness he has perfected to a precise, invisible art. James Tillich's blog

Follow him on Twitter.   @jamestillich  

Start your own Tillich Blog. Visit his store

Buy a t-shirt:


But most of all, use him for fun. No one will ever know as he doesn't exist. So that gives you lots and lots of room to play.

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