A neighbor called us, one of the few ''good'' neighbors left on this crumbling block in this crumbling southwest Baltimore neighborhood of abandoned houses and crack dealers scattered about like so many cockroaches. Squatters had moved into one of our vacant houses and were using it as a base for their drug operation.
The house is among several we own and manage in Baltimore's Pratt-Monroe area. Once a respectable lower-middle-class, blue-collar community sustained economically by low-skilled but decent-paying factory jobs, Pratt-Monroe has become another inner-city relic of the post-industrial age, another blemish on an urban landscape plagued with teen pregnancy, drug use, drug dealing and deteriorating housing.
It's a tough place to live and a tough place to run a real-estate business.
Consider the house in question. It became vacant when our former tenant, a deadbeat who hadn't paid his mortgage (he was buying it through a land-installment contract) in over six months, got arrested on a drug charge. We retook possession, closed it up and prepared to sell it to someone else. But as is all too common in places like Pratt-Monroe, the house became the unauthorized property of people who ignore the customary process of filling out an application, providing references and making a down payment. The house, so they thought, was theirs, no fee and simple.
I met our repairman at the front door, who promptly phoned police on his cellular while our new ''tenant,'' a short, stout lady in a torn print dress who had known our aforementioned deadbeat, was trying to convince us that she was there only to collect what was rightfully hers. ''I'll be out by the weekend,'' she said.
Believable enough, except for those other characters on this tragic stage in this theater of the absurd: a kid of about 15 who lingered in the doorway gulping liquid from a brown paper bag and two disgruntled-looking fellows in their early thirties pacing up and down the street, giving non-verbal commands to the lady and glaring at me like I was their worst enemy.
Convinced that I wasn't going away soon, the men sped off in their car, minutes before police arrived and told the lady in no uncertain terms to vacate the premises within 24 hours. She did, and we have not heard from her since.
We are not the heartless, evil landlords so often reported by the news media, the absentee, price-gouging, exploitative, housing-code-violating landlords focused solely on the bottom line, oblivious to the squalid, crumbling condition of their properties and the suffering of their tenants.
No doubt such landlords exist. But there is another breed of landlord -- and we count ourselves among it -- that deserves media attention: the breed that does make repairs, that does care about the condition of its properties, that is concerned about the safety and comfort of tenants, some of whom abuse the property or refuse to pay rent until legal action is initiated -- and sometimes not even then.
The greedy, exploitative inner-city landlord has become as much of a pejorative cliche as the used-car salesman, a whipping boy pTC of the media and tenants alike, and deservedly so. The responsible, reasonable inner-city landlord, on the other hand, is all but invisible, as much of an oxymoron as . . . well, the honest used-car salesman.
We try to turn a profit from our real estate, yes, but we also maintain it as best we can, listening to our tenants' concerns, trying, generally, to keep the inner city livable. We're renting and selling houses to people who can't afford to rent or buy any place else, people on the economic and social fringes, the people most likely, if they're renters, to sue for damages from lead paint. Lead paint litigation has become an industry in itself, so much so that landlords can no longer get liability insurance for it.
What we do get is plenty of aggravation: deadbeat tenants, price-gouging workmen, squatters, material thefts and exorbitant legal fees for repossessing houses from deadbeat tenants. Two such tenants not only refused to pay us mortgage after making their down payment, but continued to live in the house for an entire year, exhausting all the cheap (for them) legal options to keep themselves there. After they finally did move, we discovered that much of the plumbing system had left with them.
The house has been vacant ever since, a boarded house on a drug-infested block of boarded houses in an ailing inner-city neighborhood that landlords like ourselves keep trying to infuse with new life.
Mark Miller writes from Baltimore.