Landlords from the Lewiston Auburn Landlord Association gather to discuss their issues. (Maine Public photo by Susan Sharon)
This is the third part in a series called "Eviction: Life Unpacked."
By Susan Sharon, Maine Public August 9, 2018
Every year, thousands of tenants are evicted and thousands of others across the state struggle to keep up with rising rents in a tight housing market. But landlords say they experience their share of challenges as well.
Myth No. 1: Most landlords are heartless and mean
"We're actually really nice people and we care about our tenants," says Amy Arata, who owns 40 rental units in Lewiston, Auburn and Poland. "We want them to live in a safe and clean environment."
A board member of the Lewiston Auburn Landlord Association, Arata is one of several landlords who agreed to be interviewed about their experiences with evictions and the local rental market. She says she has rarely had to evict tenants from her properties — just a couple over the past ten years — but she says there's a reason for that. She screens tenants and admits that she's strict.
She doesn't allow smoking. And an applicant has to have a good references, a credit score of 600 or more and an adequate income.
"People contact me wanting to rent a $600 apartment and their income is $700 a month and they think they can afford it. So they just lack basic math skills or life skills. And some landlords will just say, 'Oh, you have first month's rent and you have a deposit, you're in.' But they don't do the math either. Some landlords can't do math."
In fact, Arata requires an income equal to three times the rent.
"I don't want to have to evict them later. I want them to be successful. I want them to enjoy living in the apartment I provide. I take good care of it and I hope they do, too," she says.
And while Arata says her strategy works well, her criteria are out of reach for many renters.
A recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that in Maine there's a $7.29-an-hour gap between the average renter's wage and the amount needed to cover the cost of a two-bedroom apartment. Put another way, to afford the average two-bedroom apartment in Maine, a renter needs to earn more than $18.00 an hour, or about $39,000 a year, but the average renter's wage falls short at less than $12 an hour.
These landlords say rents are merely keeping pace with inflation.
"Minimum wage went up to $10 an hour, everything else is going to up too," says Stan Pelletier, who owns and manages 15 units in Lewiston and Auburn.
Pelletier points out that his rents are not nearly as high as they are in Portland. Nor, he says, are they out of line.
"I used to buy a loaf of bread for a quarter. Those days are gone. You’re paying $4 today. If they made $12 an hour, the loaf of bread would be $8. So the rents have to go up because the cost of operating goes up," he says.
Myth No. 2: All landlords are wealthy
"They think we make so much money we can afford to house them for nothing and pay for damages," says Mark Butler, a landlord from Auburn with seven units.
Butler says in addition, if he's not able to get problem tenants to leave, he has to spend money for legal representation in eviction court. And he says damage left behind by tenants can be significant — from the guy who left a puppy in his carpeted apartment for a week to the tenant he evicted who left the house a total wreck.
"And after he left we had to gut the complete house because they had destroyed it from having a party in there. Peed in every corner of the house and destroyed all the rugs and the walls. I don't even have a clue what we spent back then but it was a lot of money," he says.
The last time Arata evicted a tenant who damaged an apartment, she says it cost her $5,000 to repair, replace and clean up, and that was after losing several months rent.
"I had to replace all the flooring. I had to scrub down all the walls, all the fixtures, buy a new vanity, remove the junk — yep, $5,000," she says.
Arata estimates it costs more than $800 to hire an attorney and take a tenant to eviction court.
Myth No. 3: Landlords are only interested in raising rents
Mark Butler says the moment he raises rent on a $700 apartment, he loses tenants. And for every month a unit goes empty, it takes him months to make up the difference.
"Say you got $50 more a month for rent and the tenant moved because you got $50 more, so now to make up my $750 it's gonna take me 15 months," he says.
"The best asset that good landlords have is good tenants," says Sam Sherry, a Portland attorney who represents property owners and serves as a board member of the Southern Maine Landlord Association.
Sherry says in Portland, where it's not uncommon to pay more than $1,200 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, rents have begun to stabilize after several years of steadily rising. But that doesn't mean tenants are out of the woods.
"The job market doesn't support people in lockstep with the housing market, and that gap could easily be described as a problem," he says.
A problem that can make a big difference when it comes to reliably paying the rent.