From very early in life we are sold the American dream of owning a home. But imagine stepping out to buy a home in a neighborhood “on the mend,” only to find yourself the constant victim of crime. This blog offers a reflection on my four years of owning a home, the nine crimes I experienced owning it, and the insight that I hope sheds light for those about to take the plunge . . .
Home ownership is not a venture to be taken lightly, especially when taking the plunge to invest in a neighborhood or city on the mend. You need more than a big heart and dreams undeterred. You need more than hard cash. You need more than patience. You need more than hope.
We are sold very early in our lives the dream of what it “means” to own a house. It can serve as the foundational start for one’s future. It can provide the launching point for starting a family. It can be the stimulation of one’s own and a community’s prosperity. A confirmation of individual and collective achievement. A marker of success. Accomplishment. For one. For all.
I purchased a two-family home in 2006 in the South Ward section of Newark, NJ, banking on the ideal of starting my version of the American dream. A house to live in with a tenant paying a portion of the expenses. I would save money, and use it to begin a nest egg for future opportunities. Buy a dream house. Start a family. Build wealth and prosperity. Invest in a local community. But two factors I did not anticipate or calculate in my equation of house purchase+ monetary and emotional investment = success. I did not foresee the expense of my naïveté and blindspots. I did not know such an equation and the ethos informing it are not universally respected and practiced. Erroneously convinced that a house is a portal into prosperity, I would come to learn the hard way that I was going to be a homeowner without a home.
Late in the night of December 2, 2007, I was home alone when suddenly I heard a crash. Racing to the front of the house, I was greeted by my front living room window being smashed. Bricks had been hurled through it, with such force that one even traversed the entire living room and put a hole through the opposite wall. The second lay in the center of the carpet.
I was alone. Penetrated. Vulnerable.
But this would NOT be the first time I would feel this way. There would be a total of six crimes to occur within the span of just a few months–December 2007 through June 2008. This would be followed by three more occurring in 2011, each incident escalating the contradiction of the familiar saying that a house is a home.
Just one month later the next crime followed. My tenant “welcomed” the new year with the attempted burglary of her own home. Delivering more damage than penetration, someone tried prying the door with such force that they busted the door frame, mangled the locks, and caved in the door itself. This resulted in costly repair and reinforcement of both our doors. But it also cost me my tenant who did not renew her lease and moved out. This infiltration of physical house and personal safety caused a loss in feeling secure, and a gain in expenses I did not foresee but would now be responsible for (and struggling) to cover.
A few weeks later in early February 2008, again late at night, crime struck again. A loud hissing, like the sound of steam coming out of a pressure cooker, resounded outside the back bedroom window. Afraid to go outside, I called the police. They arrived, and upon searching the perimeter found that the copper and Freon lines to the newly installed central air units were cut. So were the locks to the transformer boxes. Another malicious act that would cost over $1700 to repair. Ironically, one officer asked me if I had any foreknowledge of the neighborhood before moving in. And if I had a bat.
Literally days later crime circled back to do more damage. This time, tires chained and padlocked to the stairs in the backyard were stolen. I came home from church, and upon going into my backyard, discovered the thick metal chain cut in half, now lying like a tossed corpse on the cold ground. Was someone staking out my actions to time when would be the perfect time to strike? Why hadn’t I anticipated this before purchasing the house?
Could I still make it this house a home?
March 2008 blessed me with the respite of temporary delay. But then, in April 2008, my own residence was burglarized. I returned home to find my front door ajar. Warned by my date not to enter, we waited in his car until the police arrived–90 minutes later. After the sweep of the house I entered. I found the ADT alarm system ripped out of the wall and in pieces on the floor. The front door’s guts were busted open. The door frame mangled, damaged beyond repair. My laptop and other articles stolen.
In June 2008, the crime wave returned. My front living room window was smashed AGAIN. This time, the police did not even bother to come inspect the damage or take a statement. The operator simply took my statement of the incident over the phone.
Looking back, I didn’t foresee this level of attack and infiltration purchasing a house. Never in my educated guess of taking the risk to buy a house did it entail being the repeated victim of crime. Maybe having to do upgrades and repairs, such as replacing a water heater, redoing a kitchen, adding improvements to make the rental unit appealing and attractive to potential tenants. These things were on my radar. Repeatedly fixing intentional damage was neither on my radar nor in my budget. This was a dream detouring into a nightmare.
The story does not end there. Crime was not done with me yet, circling back for several visits this year.
The seventh incident was this past January 2011, involving the breaking in of the upstairs unit. Days after evicting non-paying tenants, serving a warrant, and changing the locks, my husband and I checked on the unit. The door frame was busted, cracked and fragmented. The guts of the new locks were torn out and removed. The metal door itself minced beyond repair. The door frame dismembered. The damage required now not only the frame to be repaired (again), but now the door had to be completely replaced. Several hundreds of dollars in repairs. Again.
The crime contagion festered. Weeks later, my husband went to check on the property. He called informing me that the door to the unit where I used to live was now open. Hesitant to enter by himself, he rightfully called the police. Later he called back, informing me that when they entered the unit the remnants of squatters were there–including a live dog that left its feces throughout the carpet. We would later find out that actually TWO dogs were “living” there with their “owners.” Later a special police unit came to remove the canine. My husband in his bravery cleaned the feces before I arrived with a family friend who, thank goodness, set about with the chore of AGAIN helping us reinforce all the doors and windows and checking the security lights.
But resistance is futile. Just weeks later, an even worse incident occurred. When my husband checked on the property, he again found the front door ajar. And smelled gas. He called me to let me know he was calling the police. Upon them entering they confirmed the presence of gas. The police then called the fire department, and I called the utility company. This time, the perpetrators took it to the next level. The door to the backyard was busted off its hinges. Laying like yet another discarded corpse. They broke in and stole the washer, dryer, refrigerator, dishwasher and stove, walking out the front door with them (they were “polite” enough to simply unlock it and leave it intact). But, in recklessly stealing the stove, they left on the gas line abandoning it to continue leaking gas profusely throughout the house, to the danger of many. As usual.
I share this situation to save those contemplating home ownership some serious sorrow and misinformed expectations before taking the plunge. Especially in places that need investors of unfettered stamina, resilience and most of all deep pockets. There is a lot to deliberate before taking the next step. Here are some things I have learned from the dilemma of investing in the potential of neighborhoods. I wish I thought of them before, but better late than never . . .
Be prepared to invest in foreseen AND unforeseen expenses. Know you may have to regularly give more than just a down payment, and cover more than just a monthly mortgage and fixed expenses. Owning this house has brought on more misfortune than benefit, more financial damage than delivery. I anticipated and budgeted for renovation and home improvement. I did not discern I would have to wastefully invest in repeated repairs and start investing so much more in security: gates that cut off access to the backyard, reinforced doors, and an ADT system. Yet such efforts may not be enough, as I learned. I invested in spite of the futility of the security provided. An ADT system can be dismantled. The wrought iron side gates were already in place when this year’s three incidents occurred–the perpetrators simply climbed over them. Stolen appliances have to be replaced. I have had to repair and/or replace all exterior doors TWICE since owning the home. Consequently, because of the repeated incidents I lost my homeowner’s insurance, and after an exhaustive search to find a company who would take me, now comes at the cost of a high premium.
As well, each of the tenants I have had (a systems analyst, law clerk, law student, police officer and municipal worker) do not go without their own challenges. Rent is paid in portions and inconsistently (if at all), perpetuating the burden of carrying a home when dependent on rental income. You can also have tenants who trash the place to a level of unsanitary insanity. Clothes, furniture and trash were left by the downstairs tenant upon moving out. Feces, hair, food, and trash were left by the evicted tenant upstairs.
And factor in variables having to move for lack of safety, and like your own unemployment and under-employment . . . compounding my harsh reality while maintaining a property already debilitating me.
Do not assume that the neighborhood you move to will have your back. Neighbors and neighborhoods sometimes have agendas divergent from your best intentions. I would find out through a trusted grapevine that it was the next door neighbor’s tenant who burglarized my home and stole the laptop, and that another neighbor witnessed it, even though both gave statements to the contrary recorded in the police report. Regarding this year’s incidents, it is incredible that no one saw or reported several heavy appliances being carried out of a house. Even my former tenants have not been excluded from being impacted by the neighborhood. Crime happened to them too in addition to the aforementioned attempted burglary, such as the robbing of the next tenant while she walked home from the bus stop. In another incident, her roommate’s car was broken into while parked right on the carport.
To a degree, perhaps I should have been cued into what to expect when first purchasing the house. Upon signing the contract I then found out one central air unit was stolen. The night before closing, the other was stolen. Weeks after moving in, the in-ground lighting was pulled out of the ground–while I was home taking a nap. Recently the decorative bricks surrounding the tiny grass plots outside the front gate have been stolen. And there are the prowlers looking for goods that boldly wander onto your property and pilfer through your things, planning and plotting on what to steal next.
Do not assume the protection of police or advocacy by municipal government. These nine crimes are all documented and have generated police reports. What they have not generated is a solution. I thought that so many crimes occurring at the same address would have made a bleep on someone’s radar. But there has been no follow up or correspondence regarding ANY of the NINE incidents. All remain unsolved. These events only show up on the radars of my own shame and embarrassment. This past May, Mayor Cory Booker himself responded via Twitter to share my phone number with him because he would like to help. I have yet to hear back. I have contacted his liaison who reached out to a local precinct, as I have as well, but to no avail.
Be thankful for the resourcefulness of others. We have a particularly awesome and reliable friend who has repeatedly come to the house to help with repairs. He came through to patch the hole caused by the brick, repeatedly returns to reinforce the doors until I can call (and afford) to have them professionally repaired (like installing a padlock on an exterior door), and has tried to help me think ahead and anticipate what to do to try and make the house as safe as possible (putting splints in the windows after the “dog incident”). He also put me in contact with a contractor who has been an awesome help in repeatedly returning to do the same repairs. And there are people met along the way–a sympathetic and helpful Home Depot representative who went beyond the call of duty to temporarily mend the first broken window, an empathetic locksmith who comes as soon as I have called, a realtor who has since become a confidante and adviser, a neighbor who is a spiritual motivator and guidepost, and a resilient husband–who each help to lighten this load.
Remember your decision impacts others. This situation with the house has put my husband in unfair predicaments. I can’t imagine what was going through his head when returning from a date we are then both greeted by a burglarized home. I can’t imagine what it was like for him to walk in on the last two incidents by himself. What if the dog attacked him? What if he stumbled upon the thieves, and in being surprised they shot him? From the night of the burglary until the day of the theft of the major appliances, his love has had to operate under inherited duress because this house. This house places serious emotional and economic pressure on our current goals. In hindsight, I would not have made the decision to buy this house. And now, with the mate I really want, we/he live in a situation of negotiating how we move forward with the past chomping at our heels and healing. Given the history he’s experienced with me, it’s miraculous he did not walk away.
This house has become a forgery of the future I really want.
I don’t tell this story to take jabs at the local police department, mayoral or municipal offices. I don’t tell it to demonize Newark as a city or South Ward as a neighborhood. I tell only the impact of the nightmare of home ownership standing in the intersection of potential and lack of safety. I can tell you the impact of what the lack of protection and advocacy feels like.
I feel alone. Penetrated. Vulnerable.
Jay-Z made a salient point in his book Decoded. Reflecting on why he did not attend the Grammys upon finding out they would not be televising rap awards that particular year (despite him being nominated three times), his epiphany was, “I wasn’t going to be a partner to my own invisibility.” I have been made to feel invisible because nothing has been done to find the perpetrators. Assure my safety. Restore my peace. I feel weighted by others’ (police and municipal representatives’) indifference and negligence, pushed back to the margins.
I hope sharing this experience gives potential investors and homeowners food for thought. And I hope it does give those charged with serving the city’s people a lens into another’s plight. In so doing, I move myself from the margins, diminishing the partnership with imposed invisibility, to come into the light.
Originally posted almost a year ago, I wrote this post when I was in a place of deep frustration and exhaustion. For the past several days I have struggled with whether to republish this posting. I really honor my international readership, and therefore try to write quality thoughtful blogs. I try to not take hostage readers’ attention or investment. Yet from being the victim of 9 crimes in four years (and to this day, all of these crimes remain uninvestigated and unsolved), there is a part of me that is still stained with regret, embittered by loss, and angry that justice remains implausible. But I did decide to repost as a way to deaden the dilemma, as we all struggle with letting go of something painful though it no longer exists within our lives.
After reading this, I hope you are inspired to keep moving from whatever has swallowed your song, shadowed your soul, and/or shattered your home.
As a lesson learned (or rather still learning), it is important to move forward into the magnitude of what is possible than reminisce over distressing, depletive, (and in my case even dangerous) experiences. I’ve deliberated a long time over this new posting, but I hope sharing this reflection and the original post about my experience strengthens you to let go of whatever hinders the broadening of your margins and horizons. Such ruminations become a pestilence upon the potential happiness to which you are entitled. I’ve got moxie and mastery to move forward, and want you to have the same . . .
A year later, I am in a better space (literally and figuratively), and when I look over the gardens of experiences which have since bloomed, there IS beauty to behold after the rain. . .