Personal Finance

My nightmarish landlord is ruining my reputation across town

Pay Dirt is Slate’s money advice column. Have a question? Send it to Lillian, Athena, and Elizabeth here(It’s anonymous!)

Dear Pay Dirt, 

My partner and I moved into an apartment last year run by a property management company with a very negative reputation. We were coming from out of state and had no idea their reputation was that bad or we would have definitely looked elsewhere. When we moved in, there were many things in the apartment straight up broken, not up to code, and the apartment was filthy.

We spent the next few months submitting maintenance tickets and pleading for the property manager to take care of the biggest issues, and we quickly gave up on them taking care of the smaller stuff. They dragged their feet, canceled numerous tickets without taking care of the issue, and generally made our lives a living hell. We finally had to get the city code department involved to at least fix the code violations in the apartment. The whole time, we continued paying rent and tried to be as amicable as possible with the manager (who was the main offender in our poor treatment).

Fast forward to the present. We are finally moving out of the apartment at the end of the month, but have been flummoxed as to why we haven’t been approved for any of the new apartments have been applying for. We have a long and positive rental history, steady employment, and great credit scores. So we have never had an application rejected before. Come to find out the current property management company has been absolutely eviscerating us when the new landlords have been calling for a reference. They are basically saying we are problem tenants and complain about everything and citing us getting the code enforcement department involved as proof that we are terrible tenants. We could obviously explain this all away since we were 100 percent in the right to want our place to be a safe atmosphere for us, but no new landlord will give us the chance, and we haven’t found anyone who doesn’t want a reference from the current landlord.

Now we are on the verge of soon being homeless since we have no place to go once our lease is up at the end of the month, and we feel we have no legal recourse since the property management company isn’t exactly spouting all out lies (though they are manipulating the information to their benefit). We did, after all, get the city involved to make them comply with the city’s code laws. What do we do?

—Renters Are an Unprotected Class

Dear Renters,

I’m sorry you’re having such a frustrating and scary experience. Plenty of landlords rent to people without requiring current landlord references; they’re less likely to be behemoth, bureaucratic landlords.

Your best bet is to find a small landlord. If a tenant rights organization or Facebook group exists in your area, ask for recommendations for private landlords. Otherwise, ask around your networks for rent-by-owner situations—co-workers, folks you volunteer with, friends-of-friends. You might find someone looking to rent out their own home. With a private landlord, you have a chance to explain your situation. Many people find apartments without a current landlord reference: folks moving from abroad, renting after being a homeowner or living with family, and leaving institutional housing (like dorms, incarceration, or shelters). They just have to do more legwork to find landlords willing to take them on.

I’m not going to tell you to lie on your application, but I’d approach the entire apartment-search process like you’re preparing a resume. Only add information that will help you—you can leave off your current address or landlord or write n/a in that box. Consider providing contact information for your previous landlord instead of your current one. Attach additional details to explain the situation—like a letter explaining you are leaving your apartment due to a negligent landlord with documentation of your city complaints. Add in any positive documents you can:

—Other positive landlord references
—Positive employer references
—Your credit reports printed from
—Bank statements showing on-time rental payment history

When I moved back to the U.S. in 2012, I had a challenging apartment-hunting situation: My last super (“hausmeister”) spoke only German, and my income was a research fellowship for a professor based in Cyprus. Moreover, it had been over a decade since I had a “normal” rental American reference since I’d lived in housing co-ops and communes without a landlord. Despite a great credit score, I had to get creative to find an apartment. I searched Craigslist for a small building where I could converse with the person before I turned in my information. I wrote a letter explaining that I was staying with friends after I returned from living abroad to attach to my application. Instead of providing my boss’s phone number (who was in Cyprus) for employment verification, I asked my college’s department secretary if she would inform my prospective landlord about my fellowship income. The secretary provided me with a work verification and also told my prospective landlord that she would “come down and mow the lawn myself if Lillian gets behind on rent.” The manager seemed thoroughly amused and offered me the apartment.

Bad actors like your current slumlord do force you to get creative. Landing a non-sketchy place this time will make the search process easier next time since they won’t be scorched earthing your references. And please, leave a scathing Yelp review for the property management company after you’ve found your new place.


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