What Do I Do Now, Mr. President?

Tom Sightings

A little over 10 years ago I bought a one-bedroom condo about 30 miles from where I live. I got it as an investment to supplement my income after I retired.

I picked out a place, made a down payment, and secured a mortgage. I rented it to a nice older woman who paid her rent on time and never caused a problem. The rent almost covered my out-of-pocket expenses, not quite. That was fine. It was part of the plan. I was working at the time and didn't need the extra income. Over the years I raised the rent, enough to cover my increased expenses.

Eventually the woman got too old to live by herself and moved in with her family. I rented the condo to a middle-age guy who'd recently been divorced. I raised the rent, and now I was making a little extra income. That was good, since I was now retired--a little earlier than I'd planned, but my company hadn't given me a choice.

He was there for three years, and was followed by a young single woman. After she left in 2010, I rented to a couple in their early 30s. Their references were a little shaky, but the woman had a job, and the man claimed he had his own computer business. Their previous landlord told me they had always paid their rent. Besides, it was 2010, in the wake of the Great Recession. Not a lot of people were clamoring to rent the place.

So I rented to the young couple, and for the first year there was no problem. Like everyone else, they paid the rent in full and on time. We renewed the lease. But then, before much longer, they started coming in late with the rent. Then they paid some of the rent at the beginning of the month, and the rest later in the month. One month they got the local Social Services organization to pay the rent for them.

It turned out that the guy's computer business was not really getting off the ground, and the wife lost her job. Now she was trying to sell insurance. They missed one month's rent entirely. The next month they managed to pay half the rent. The month after that they got Social Services to step in again. Last month, again, I got only half the rent.

I called the woman at Social Services. She told me her agency will not pay any more of my tenants' rent. She'd advised the man to get a job at the supermarket or at Walmart. He wouldn't make much, but at least it would be something. But he doesn't want to work at the supermarket; he wants to pursue his computer business.

In the meantime, I've been paying my mortgage and the real-estate tax. I've been paying the monthly condo fee, and last month there was an additional sewer tax. If I'm late, I get charged an interest rate of 18 percent. It doesn't matter what interest rates are supposed to be or that my tenants are having a hard time. That's what the bank and the government charge.

So, Mr. President, what would you have me do? The Republicans would no doubt tell me to throw them out--and never mind if they turn up homeless, it's not my problem.

I'm a middle-class person. The expenses on the condo are not that high. I can carry it for a while. But now, instead of supplementing my retirement income by $400 to $500 a month, it's taking $400 to $500 out of my pocket.

I've known my tenants for over two years. I don't think they're playing me. I'm convinced that they're honest, that they're trying to make a go of it, and that they're struggling. I don't want to throw them out on the street. I sure don't want to incur the legal costs and torturous process of evicting them. But I can't afford to carry them forever.

If only local business was better, maybe this fellow could make a go of his computer business. If only the economy improved, more people could afford to buy insurance. And then my tenants could afford to pay their rent.

What do you say, Mr. President? This situation is bad for me. It's worse for my tenants. Can you help us out?

Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.