Even Slumlords Need Good Boundaries.

How do you know you’ve been in an unhealthy relationship? When you find yourself clearing marijuana plants and grow paraphernalia out of the attic of the house you shared with your ex-boyfriend. Allow me to explain. When I bought into a house that V’s father owned, I was following my heart – never a sound fiscal platform for buying real estate. It was an older house with an oil furnace and septic tank (which would haunt me later) in a far suburb of the city, but I did love it. When we broke up, I bought him out of the house and lived there by myself.

Eventually, I moved out of the house, and rented it out to my cleaning lady and her family. None of them made much money and, in an effort to be compassionate, I agreed to a low rent and payment of the power bill. They seemed like a nice family, and although at times they were jobless and on public assistance, they usually paid the rent on time. There was an occasional plumbing or appliance issue and at times the energy bill was excessive but all seemed to be well, which was good because I didn’t know what I was doing.

Despite poor house sales in the area, I decided one summer that it was time to sell my house. I found an agent and informed my renters, who immediately became difficult and recalcitrant. After far too many months, tense meetings, and even a screaming match, they finally left and I got an offer on the house. The buyers submitted one last list of requirements through my agent and one of the requests puzzled me – to clean out the attic, which I remembered as nothing more than a crawl space with nothing in it.

The attic was draped with dusty, nasty tarps, there were plastic plant buckets everywhere, a new power outlet had been jerry-rigged into the space, and a few scattered marijuana leaves littered the floor. It dawned on us that here was the reason for the high power bills as well as the difficulty in getting the tenants to leave. My good intentions had not been good for me; I had enabled my “friends” too much, and the house had been turned into a slum. Being a landlord had bitten me in the ass, and I had become a slumlord.

In my case, it seemed to be a sort of genetic inevitability impossible to escape. When I was a child, my parents bought two separate apartment buildings in low-income parts of the city in a bid to arrange either an income-stream or a retirement plan. One could charitably describe the buildings as low-rent but it would be more accurate to call them slums. Tenants cycled in and out of units, managers called day and night to complain of plumbing problems and breakages, and rent checks bounced like beach balls.

Much of my childhood was swallowed up by “The Apartments,” the shorthand phrase by which they came to be known in our family. Sometimes I drive by one of my parent’s old buildings and experience a visceral recognition: the remembered smell of mildewed carpet and despair will fill my nose. For a long time, I resented my parents for the deleterious effects on our family by The Apartments.

I am sure their motivations were good – they wanted only to support their young family, but they didn’t seem to have thought the project out. People called at all hours with problems, they didn’t have much money for repairs, and they didn’t hire someone dependable to stand between their family and too much work. I spent hours there with my mother collecting quarters from the laundry machines; cleaning and painting apartments; interviewing, speaking with, and, sometimes evicting tenants; and instructing the managers. The Apartments swallowed my father, as well, requiring him to spend evenings and weekends fixing toilets, patching walls, and eking a few more months out of ancient disposals, dishwashers, and other appliances.

Because of my house, I believe that I understand a little better now how the best intentions can turn into the worst of realities, how quickly something can spiral out of control, and how important good boundaries are in every aspect of life. Obviously, my family wasn’t very good with boundaries so I never really learned what they were. Good personal boundaries are physical, emotional and mental limits that define who we are and how we would like to be treated by others and they protect us from being manipulated, used, or violated by others. Having good boundaries avoids exploitation, overinvolvement in others’ lives, people-pleasing, taking on too much, and staying in unhealthy relationships.

Caretaking actually tends to flow from caring, empathy, and a desire to help others – in other words caretakers have good motives but poor execution – but we need to learn better ways to use our natural gifts, while taking care of ourselves.  I realized that my relationship with my tenants had, in fact, been unhealthy for some time, including a lot of resentment on my part for the things that I had given them.  All I wanted to do was to be a good friend, and look where that got me! Having better personal limits would have saved me a great deal of pain, anger, and money.

As a chronic over-functioner and caretaker, it has taken me most of my life and lots of therapy to develop decent boundaries but it has been possible. I am much better at saying no, standing up for myself, and not giving too much away then I used to be, but, obviously, there are still failures: or perhaps I should call them “learning opportunities.” What I needed to learn here was that I could still be a good friend, just one with better self-care. I would have felt a lot safer and happier if I had been more honest about expectations, and required more from them, and I might have avoided having to clear a grow operation out of my attic.


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