Although Dave and Paula Thomas own 10 rental properties in Akron and Cuyahoga Falls, this one is special.
This one was built by Paula’s parents, who lived there for 53 years. She grew up in the modest home and remembers her parents working double shifts in the rubber factories to pay for it.
After Paula’s parents died, the Thomases inherited the house, renovated it and began to rent it.
So imagine Dave Thomas’ surprise when he swung by one day and found a bunch of complete strangers living there.
The previous tenant moved out without telling him and handed the keys to another group, which moved in without saying a word. He didn’t find out until the rent was way past due.
The newcomers didn’t fill out a rental form, so he couldn’t run a credit or background check. They didn’t put down a security deposit. They didn’t pay the first month’s rent. They didn’t sign up for utilities.
Thomas, 66, had never laid eyes on the people living in his house until he knocked on the front door. And even after that first visit, he still didn’t know their names.
So all he had to do was call police and have them thrown out, right?
Not even close.
Thanks to the state legislature, squatters have rights.
To get them out — which Thomas finally managed to do last week after two months of trying — he had to wade through the same legal process required to evict a legitimate tenant who has stopped paying the rent.
“It’s astounding, isn’t it?” says Stephanie York, city spokeswoman and assistant city law director. “Squatters have rights! It just blows my mind.
“It’s state law. I don’t understand it. I don’t know what they were thinking when they made this law.”
No previous problems
They certainly weren’t thinking about guys like Dave Thomas.
In 25 years as a landlord, he never had to evict anyone. He has been to court only once, when a tenant who ruined a carpet challenged his right to keep her security deposit. (He won.)
“I’ve never had problems with people,” he says. “I’m probably too easy. I just think, ‘Live and let live.’ If you rent a piece of property off me, there’s no reason for me to ever go in there unless you call and want something fixed.”
As he retraces the story of his squatters, though, he doesn’t sound the least bit mellow. The decibel level reaches about 120 and plateaus there.
“How can they live in my house — MY HOUSE! — and I don’t know them, and I got to pay their utilities?” he says, eyes shooting laser beams. “What the hell is wrong with this picture?”
The house, a one-story bungalow near Chapel Hill Mall, is a notch above many rental properties in its price range ($725 plus utilities), with a new furnace, roof and water heater, central air and a large two-car garage.
Initially, Thomas tried to work out an arrangement with the squatters, who sneaked into the house in January. But things quickly turned sour, and he told them to leave. They kept promising to depart but never budged. Finally, at the beginning of March, he called police.
Three Akron officers showed up. After entering the house and talking with the occupants, they came out and told Thomas the only thing he could do was go downtown and file eviction papers.
Had the squatters gained access by kicking down a door or breaking out a window, that would have been different. But because there was no forced entry and they had been living there for a while, and had talked to Thomas about possibly staying, the police department’s hands were tied.
How screwed up is that?
If you ask me, “squatters” is a euphemism for “thieves.” This is even worse than stealing a car.
Despite his array of rental properties, Dave Thomas is hardly in the same income category as the late Wendy’s founder with the same name. This Dave Thomas lives in a small but immaculately maintained house on Chestnut Boulevard in Cuyahoga Falls. He is a retired heating and air-conditioning worker at Bridgestone-Firestone (where his wife still works as a secretary) and has labored hard to get where he is.
Fortunately, this situation isn’t common. Akron Municipal Court Clerk Jim Laria says his office rarely deals with it. But that doesn’t mean all is rosy with Akron’s landlord-tenant relationships: Last year, the city processed 3,834 evictions. That’s nearly 11 evictions per day.
Laria says that if a tenant stops paying, the process normally takes about a month because of the legal notifications required for hearings and the issuing of writs. If a tenant is getting booted for a reason other than nonpayment, the process takes closer to two months because the current month’s rent already has been paid.
A landlord has to fork out $116 to file for a hearing. If the defendant bothers to show up — which isn’t common — and the landlord wins, a writ is issued.
Because Thomas either wasn’t told (his version) or didn’t hear (the court’s version) that he had to go to another office and pay $20 more to get the bailiff to post a 10-day notice on the house, an extra week and a half passed before he could get back into his own place.
On Tuesday afternoon, the house looked like an EPA Superfund cleanup site. Every room was trashed.
Backed-up drains. Mangled furniture. Cigarette butts all over the floors and right outside an exterior door with a now-broken handle. Toothbrushes lying on the living room floor. Crumpled newspapers. Boxes. Bags. Pillows. Deodorant containers. Kids’ toys. Discarded clothes. Drinking glasses. Old shoes. Cleaning supplies. Empty shampoo bottles.
When Paula Thomas saw the condition of her childhood home, she wept.
The Thomases haven’t received one dime from the people who occupied their house for three months.
“I’m going to have to get a Dumpster out here, and it’s going to cost me a minimum of $220,” says Dave, standing amid the rubble. “I’ve got a $345 water bill, a $400 gas bill. I don’t know what the electric bill is yet. They beat me out of $2,300 in rent.”
After the junk is removed, the house will have to be repaired and repainted. “I’ve got about $5,000 in this place before I can even rent it again,” he says.
It’s one thing for a renter to fall on hard times — lose a job, suffer an illness, miss a payment or two. It’s quite another thing to simply steal a house.
The state legislature should acknowledge the difference.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com.