When my boyfriend and I broke up, he moved out of our two-bedroom apartment. Oddly enough, it was a short breakup. We worked things out and got back together three weeks later. But he had already leased a one-bedroom apartment and couldn’t move back in with me.
I wasn’t able to afford the rent in my current place by myself, so I decided to look for somewhere I could afford instead of squeezing me and my son into my boyfriend’s new one-bedroom unit. Plus, I thought it would be healthier for our relationship if I still had a little space and independence.
And when I say a little space, I do mean a little. One Sunday afternoon when I was hanging out at his new place, I walked outside to see that the front door of the apartment next to his was open. It was a square four-unit building with a yellow brick exterior and a well-manicured lawn.
I walked into the small entryway to see that the floors of the bottom unit were being refinished. I found a gentleman in his late 30s standing in the doorway, talking to the two men who were working on the floor inside.
His name was Chris. He was the fine owner of the establishment and, yes, the empty apartment was available. We talked for a while about my situation (divorced, one small kiddo, boyfriend next door). He was super polite and took the time to answer all my questions.
Chris spent a lot of time chatting with me that day, actually. I learned he had young sons of his own and that he owned properties all over town. He seemed kind and energetic, and I assumed he was glad to find a potential new tenant so quickly after the last one moved out.
He gave me an application, and I was able to fill it out and give it back to him before he was done with the flooring and ready to leave for the day.
It seemed like I’d stumbled upon the right place at just the right time.
Preying On a Single Mom With Financial Hardships
I moved in the first day of the next month. The rent was $520 for the one-bedroom. Slightly higher than the place I’d lived in directly after my divorce, but a pretty good deal for the neighborhood I was in.
I met with Chris again briefly in my apartment to give him first and last month’s deposit, and to get the keys to my new place. He left his information on the table for where I could mail my rent check each month or call him if I had any issues.
Again, he was pretty chatty with me, but nothing seemed off about our conversation.
I was happy with the new place, but some things were not ideal — like the fact that I didn’t have a bedroom. I gave my son the bedroom so he could have his own space to play and store his toys. For my space, I set up my bed and my dresser in the breakfast nook across from the kitchen. I was just glad I didn’t have to sleep in my living room at that point.
And of course, I worried that money was tighter now that I had only one income to use for rent, bills, and food. I was already on food stamps, and paying the bills was a struggle despite the fact that I worked at a daycare full time and at a restaurant on the weekends.
My boyfriend was always willing to help however he could, but his finances weren’t really any better than mine. We had been saving money by living together before, and now we had to adjust.
I was determined to stay on top of my adult shit and make things work. I felt fortunate to be in a safe building, with a seemingly good property manager who cared about maintaining things.
My first inclination that something was amiss with my landlord came four weeks later, when I was getting ready to mail out the next month’s rent.
I had misplaced his address, but I had his phone number stored. I texted him and asked for the address again, and he promptly messaged me back the info.
Then came a second text.
I’m at the bar down the street having a beer. Want to join?
I knew the place he was talking about. I had never been, but it was within walking distance, so I was familiar with it.
It seemed a little strange, seeing as he knew I had a boyfriend. But I talked myself out of being weirded out. I thought I remembered him telling me he was married. And it was early in the evening. So he was probably just grabbing a quick drink at the end of a long day and wanted to extend an invite since I’d contacted him at that very moment.
Innocent, I thought.
I can’t, I replied. I have my kiddo tonight. Thanks though!
My son was actually with his dad that night. But I felt the need to grab the excuse. I wanted to avoid any sort of awkwardness at all costs. So instead of being honest and saying something like, “I don’t feel comfortable coming out to meet you for a drink,” I lied to save his feelings.
I felt like a coward. But this was my decision. I went with the least uncomfortable option for me.
The next text from him, however, raised the little hairs on the back of my neck.
You know, I have a deal with one of my other tenants. She and I get together from time to time. You and I could work something like that out.
I stared at my phone, eyes wide.
“What?” I said to the empty room, genuinely perplexed.
It’s my typical reaction to something like this. If I’m ever hit on, or in this case, inappropriately propositioned, I don’t really believe it’s happening at first. I automatically assume I must be misunderstanding the situation. I’m just utterly clueless about it.
Even though the warning sirens sounded in the back of my mind, I asked for an explanation anyway. I must be missing something.
A deal? What do you mean?
Like, she does me a favor, he replied. Then I do her a favor with the rent. You know what I mean. :)
He typed out a little smile emoji. Keeping the mood light, I guess.
I paced my apartment, wondering how I was supposed to respond to a proposition like this from the guy who was in charge of keeping a roof over mine and my son’s heads.
You’re talking free rent for me…if I hook up with you? I asked.
You got it. It’s no pressure. Just something I thought I’d float out there. ;)
An Offer I Was Afraid to Refuse — Almost
It took me a while to respond. I thought about turning off my phone and never answering. If I saw him again, I’d just pretend it didn’t happen. Then I thought about telling him off. I thought about telling him if he ever approached me like that again, I’d go to…
This guy was independent. He owned the buildings himself. He was his own manager, his own boss, his own HR department.
And for the briefest of moments, I actually wondered if I needed to say yes. I wondered if saying no could bring consequences.
Sure, he was saying “no pressure,” but what if a rejection from me meant a higher rent down the line? Or even eviction? What if he used his position of power to do whatever he could to coerce me?
He knew all of my information. My age (25 at the time), my divorce status, my income. He knew I was a single mom who was barely putting food on the table.
He knew exactly what he was doing.
After about a half-hour of fretting and soul searching, I nervously texted him back.
Nope, I’m good. Boyfriend, remember?
You Have Somewhere to Turn
So I pretended to be casual. I pretended like nothing bothered me about this anxiety-inducing exchange.
Fortunately, I didn’t see Chris all that often. He had several properties to maintain — which I guess, looking back on our chats, was supposed to be this big deal that he hoped would impress me.
If I did run into him or need something fixed, we acted like the proposition never happened. I stayed at the apartment for the full year of my lease and didn’t have another issue with him.
But it still weirded me out. Knowing that he had put that on the table. Knowing that, if he felt up to it, he might try his luck again. Once in a while I’d think about it and worry that if he did try again, he might be more determined and/or aggressive the next time.
But luckily for me, that one time really was the end of it.
That’s not the case for every tenant, unfortunately. There are landlords out there now, taking advantage of the rampant unemployment and economic crisis that we’ve seen with the pandemic, preying on women who fear they have nowhere else to turn.
Some women end up feeling like they don’t have a choice. Like they have to comply to keep themselves or their kids off the streets.
“We have seen an uptick in this kind of thing,” says Sheryl Ring, the legal director at Open Communities, a legal aid and fair housing agency just north of Chicago. “Since this started, they [landlords] have been taking advantage of the financial hardships many of their tenants have in order to coerce them into an agreement — which is absolutely illegal.”
I didn’t know where to turn when it happened to me years ago. But for those who may be dealing with this sort of cruel, abusive, and illegal situation right now, there are resources available to you.
You can contact legal aid in your county. Or, you can file a complaint against your housing provider with the Department of Housing and Urban Development at 1–800–669–9777.
You can also call 1–800–656–467 to get counseling about the harassment you’ve experienced.