The Mystery of
Quercus Gardens Apartments
                      by Patricia Hilliard - Copyright June 2017

Chapter 7 – Gathering of the Good (3265 words)

“That was some meeting last night,” Beth said as she lifted her cup of tea. English Breakfast Tea, plenty of caffeine to get her going this morning.

“Yeah, I’d say we scored a victory. A big victory. The landlord sent various companies in to get all that work done. I’m beginning to think that’s the way it was meant to go. Maybe our Super was trying to keep all the work to himself, hoping to make money on each job. That’s why he wants all the calls for repairs to come through him.”

“He got in over his head,” Bob responded. “He couldn’t keep up with all the work. He didn’t have the tools and supplies to do each job. The landlord might have refused him tools and supplies because the landlord wanted bills from contractors so he could count that for his rent increases. In court, it’s best to have a bill of lading as proof.” Bob picked up a slice of toast and bit into it.

Beth thought about what he had just said. As a union rep, Bob had to understand how businesses operated in order to know what was really going on so he could get the workers the best pay possible. Beth realized she needed to know how the landlord operated too. But Bob was also indicating that Ramon Perez was looking at his job in a different way, like he too was running a business within the landlord’s business in an attempt to get more money out of his position as superintendent. That had to be the real reason why Perez didn’t want them contacting the main office. Murder? How ridicules.

Beth sipped on her cup of tea and gazed out the window. A squirrel leaped from one oak tree to the next. “Wow, did you see that?” she called out looking at Bob. “You know, sometimes I wish I could live like a squirrel. Just live in the moment. Why do I get myself into things like this?” Beth looked at Bob, pleading for an answer. They had been married ten years and surely he knew her well enough to answer that question.

“Beth you’re not happy if you’re not slaying dragons and rescuing the world,” Bob said with a laugh. “That’s why I like you. You’re like me. Look at what I do. I’m a union official with lots of headaches. I’m always rescuing workers, saving their jobs, getting them into alcohol rehab, helping them make the child support payments by talking the boss into giving them another chance at keeping the job. I have to cut deals with the boss to save their necks. Then the ungrateful asses blame me if they have to pay more dues to the union. Why do I do this?” Bob looked at Beth in wonder.

Beth took a slice of toast and put some raspberry jam on it. “I was wondering if the Tenant Action Network was hiring. I checked their web site a few days ago, but there were no openings. Maybe if I get enough experience here at Quercus Gardens, I could apply for a job there.”

“Keep it in mind,” Bob said. “Then you can have headaches like me.”
Beth smiled. “But when we retire in ten years, I’m not doing this kind of thing ever again. Never.”

“Never say never,” Bob scoffed. “You’ll have more time on your hands to slay more dragons. Right now, worker, you need a job. Better start looking. Our vehicle is about to fall apart. No more camping vacations for you.”

Beth pouted, “I really am trying to find a job. It’s not easy in this economy. I’m a woman and I’m over fifty. The bosses don’t want me anymore. I don’t look young and sexy.”

“And you know too much. You know how the bosses operate. You expect a high rate of pay. You know they can afford to pay it. But they know they can hire young people for half what they were paying you. Still, you have to try to find something. I could be voted out of my union position at any time. But you’re right, if we had lived like most people, we could have had a house full of kids and a mortgage debt to pay. Beth, we took the easy way out.” Bob smiled.

“We got into this…do they call it a “lifestyle” now? Remember back when we were protesting the war in Vietnam? We got into a lifetime of fighting for one cause or another.” 

Beth thought back over the years. They had both grown up in a small town surrounded by rolling hills, farms and forests. They had started out protesting a distant war in Vietnam that made no sense to anyone. Life caused them to depart from each other after high school. Later they met up again at a political conference. They kept seeing each other, moving in the same general direction, not always in agreement, but enough so to share a special sense of unity. Their causes and beliefs got them moving toward bigger towns and cities until at last, they were living a stone’s throw from New York City, an area so covered with buildings that it looked as though cement and brick had taken over the entire world.  

Beth liked their apartment at Quercus Gardens because it seemed a nice match of forest and small town, yet close to the excitement of big city living. In another ten years they could retire here and live happily ever after. Yes, sure, of course. 

The phone rang. It was Alice. Beth listened then responded. “Sure, I’m free. Yes, let’s have lunch together. Where to? Dos Amigos? Sure. See you there.”

Beth turned to Bob, “Alice had to take the day off to get her car fixed. She wants to do something productive. We’re going to have lunch together while she waits for repairs. We can talk over the tenant situation and make plans.”

“Sounds good,” said Bob. “I’m off to work. Gotta rescue those poor wage slaves from their master.”

“I’m sure you’ll do a wonderful job for those poor souls. Let me see what I can plot against their landlord.” Beth laughed and gave Bob a kiss.

Dos Amigos was a nice mid-priced Mexican restaurant with all the usual Mexican piñatas hanging from the ceiling and sombreros on the walls. The two women grabbed a booth and sat looking at the menu. 
“I’ll take a burrito and some chips and guacamole,” Alice said.  
“Same here,” Beth responded. 

After ordering, Beth took the lead. “I’m so thrilled that the landlord sent crews in to have the repairs made. Could you believe it?”

“I was amazed. I saw the truck pull up and a guy came to the door,” Alice said. “But you know it was lucky that I was home that day. I’m using up my sick time and personal days, so I was home getting a few things done. My point is, the damn landlord should have given us some notice. What if I hadn’t been home that day?”

Beth pondered Alice’s suggestion. “You’re right. They should have contacted the tenants and made arrangements. Does this landlord ever do anything right?”

“I work in a law firm. Sometimes we take on landlord-tenant cases. I’ve learned a few things. Giving notice is one of the issues landlords and tenants fight over. As a tenant, I must say, I sympathize with the tenants. But sometimes the law firm represents the landlords. Well, I’m embarrassed to say, most of the time. That’s where the firm can make more money. But it bothers me that the tenants surrender so often when, in fact, they were within their rights. They get intimidated by the guys in the expensive suits and ties. The attorneys even know that they are bluffing and that it works. That’s what gets me crazy. Intimidation works.”

Beth listened. Intimidation works. She hated to admit that sometimes she too felt intimidated by Perez. “I’ve been on the Tenant Action Network website. I’m learning more about this. For instance, we don’t really need an attorney to get repairs. We proved it. We let the landlord know what we need done. He sent a crew to make the repairs. I’m thinking maybe the tenants were so afraid of Perez that they didn’t tell him about the problems. You’ve heard the rumor about the murder, haven’t you?”

“Yes, Cassy told me a few months ago. She talks to everyone and tells them that story about the murder. She’s a crazy nut. I guess that’s appropriate for Quercus Gardens. Those acorns are always rolling around the place. Cassy runs some kind of business in her apartment. I haven’t had the time to find out just what she does. She has a whole bunch of friends in this complex that stop over and visit her for something. They all think she’s great.”

Beth heard this and wondered if Cassy was selling illegal drugs. She didn’t want to believe the worst. After all, she was supposed to be on the tenant’s side. But Cassy was the one spreading fear with all her talk about murder. Selling illegal drugs could get Cassy evicted. That would put an end to the rumor mill. Still, Beth wasn’t in this to get people evicted.

“Now, here’s what I was thinking,” said Alice, “I have access to special web sites where I can do a little research. I can look up details about our landlord, about cases that might help us understand our rights.” Alice picked up a chip and dipped it into the guacamole.

“What about murder cases? Like how was Mrs. Mary Gilligan really murdered? Or was she actually murdered?” Beth asked. 

“I could look into that.”

The burritos arrived and they ate in silence.  

The restaurant door swung open and an old man stepped in. Beth looked in his direction. It was John Oldham.

“Hey, John, good to see you,” Beth called. Alice looked up and waved to him.

“Oh, my favorite neighbors, how are you?” John said, “Can I join you. I have some pictures I can show you about our dear home base. Let me just place my order.”

He told a waiter what he wanted then came over and sat next to Beth.
“Here, here. On my device. I’ll show you the pictures. I was out for a walk today around the complex. You’d think they would send Perez out to look for these things, but I swear he must be blind. Look at this.”

John showed them a picture on the screen of a crumbling stairway near a front door. Then he scrolled through and showed them more pictures.

“Here’s a pot hole in the parking lot. You could lose a small car in that thing. And look, here’s a collapsed ceiling in a neighbor’s living room. They’ve been calling for several weeks now for a repair. Perez promised he’d get to it when he got time. That’s ridicules. I told my neighbor to download that form and send it in right away to the landlord,” John added.

Beth thought again about Perez’s warning. All he would have to do is come to her door again and grab her by the neck. Choke her to death for all those complaints in the mail to the main office. Her next-door neighbors had not come to meetings. They were still too afraid. No witnesses to the murder.  

Bob would come home and find her dead body draped over the railing of the porch. She’d be hanging there next to the little flower pots of marigolds and nasturtiums that she had planted. Is this how Mrs. Mary Gilligan had died? 

“We have our work cut out for us,” Alice said. She picked up another chip and nibbled on it.

“We certainly do,” John agreed.

“I think we should work with TAN. I paid dues so I have access to a lot of information from them. “That one tenant brought up the issue of rent increases. We need to know how we can fight unfair increases in rent.”

“If we can fight them at all,” Alice injected.

“There must be some controlling mechanism. The landlords can’t just raise the rents forever.” Beth looked at John and then to Alice. 

“The market controls the rents that landlords charge,” John responded. “Landlords can’t ask more than the market will bear. People will just look elsewhere for another place.”

Alice wiped some guacamole from her cheek and said, “Let me tell you what I know from conversations I’ve heard from the attorneys at my job. Rent increases are usually based on CPI – Market Value. It kinda works like this: The landlords are in competition with each other. So to make more money on the rent, they throw in a private garage or parking place, a pool, a gym and so on to add value. With added value, the tenants aren’t just looking at how many bedrooms, they begin to find the higher rent acceptable because of the added value.”

John nodded his head, “But if there is a shortage of apartments and a bigger demand, the rent can become exaggerated. I used to work in real estate,” he admitted. “In a really tight market, tenants are so desperate to grab something that they will accept an apartment that costs too much and needs repairs. The market sets the price.”

Beth felt really ignorant about the market. She could only listen.

John Oldham continued, “But if there is a cabal, a secret group of developers who scam the system, the landlords can secretly agree to set rents higher. That’s what I know for a fact. I saw it where I worked in the agency. I took pictures of the buildings for their ads. I used to hang out with them and, of course, I heard some things too.” 

“What would stop them from increasing the rents?” Beth asked. 

“Not much,” John said.

“We need to look into what the market value is for our area and see if there’s a shortage of apartments. If demand is high and availability is low, we will have to use a different strategy.” Alice said.

“I like the strategy we have,” John said. His food was brought to the table. “The service here is a bit slow, am I right?” He lifted a fork and scooped up some beans. “We sent the form, we got repairs, and we are happy tenants. That works for me.”

“The TAN web site says there are lots of governmental agencies that can help us. There’s the health board, building codes, fire safety…”

“TAN has to rely on the government agencies because it’s a volunteer organization,” Alice stated. “All they do is give tenants ideas. You’ll notice their web site doesn’t change much. Some of the links are outdated.” 

Alice said this with such absolute assuredness that it made Beth wonder whose side she was on. How could Alice doubt the Tenant Action Network? Beth’s hopes of getting a job with TAN were dashed also. As a volunteer organization, they wouldn’t even have the money to pay her to update their web site. 

“Oh well,” Beth said and shrugged, “based on the research I did there, we could contact the health board.”

“True,” said John, “The health board can force the landlord to fix the place so it offers amenities matching the rent the landlord charges.”

“But renters don’t want to pay more rent,” Beth said, “They want the quality they thought they were already paying for.”

John got up from the table and went to a newspaper stand in the corner near the door. “Here look at this thing.” He pointed to local apartment listings. He read off a few. Beth realized that rents had certainly gone up since she and Bob had acquired their apartment two years ago. 

Alice cleared away her plate. “It’s like at the grocery store, the price of a loaf of bread has been going up over the years. It’s inflation. As long as people can afford to pay it, they pay the increase.”

“But wages and salaries are not keeping up with housing costs,” Beth responded. Bob had preached this over and over at the breakfast table. “So what can a tenant association do now? People cannot live in squalor in hopes of keeping the rent low. Any tenant who looks at the issue this way is doomed.”

“That’s right,” John said, “People will need increases in pay.”

Beth smiled. She was glad that John understood. She was also glad that Alice could help with research. “We need to persuade people not to “hunker down” in hazardous conditions. They need to stand up and demand their money’s worth. I could write an article about this for our new website.” 

“I believe there are some government agencies for people who are so destitute that they may be evicted,” Alice said, “But the tenant has to be really poor.”

“Yes, I think I saw some of those listed on TAN’s website. But most of the people in Quercus Gardens really can pay their rent. We just want our money’s worth.” Beth looked to John and Alice for agreement.

A buzzing noise came from Alice’s phone. She picked it up. “Yes, I’ll be there is twenty minutes. It cost how much? What?” Alice grimaced as if in terrible agony. “Ah, oh well. Thanks for making the repairs. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

Alice looked at Beth and John, “It was great having a chance to compare notes. I think we’ll make a great team. Let’s talk again.”

“Sure,” said Beth. John nodded. 

Alice went to the counter to pay her share then waved good-bye.

“What I want to know is,” said John, “what we can do about these outside problems. How can we get repairs for these?” He pointed to his pictures.

Beth rubbed her forehead. “Ok, let’s create a petition and list all the repairs that you have photographed. We’ll get as many tenants to sign it as possible and then we’ll send that to both Perez and the main office. How does that sound to you?”

“Wonderful,” John responded. “I’ll create the petition with the list of damages and send it to you by email. Then, I’ll go door to door in those areas and get the signatures in the evening when most people are home. You know, Perez is never out and about in the evening. He tells me he only works weekdays from nine to five, unless there’s an emergency.”

“Let’s use that to our advantage,” said Beth. “Once you get all the signatures on the petitions, send scans of them to me. As president of the Tall Trees Tenants Association, I’ll email them to Perez and to the main office. I promised to work with him to get the repairs made. At least I’ll look like I’m trying to keep my promise. He can say to the main office that he’s already looking into it.”

John smiled “Good idea. Now, I’ve got to go. It was nice having lunch with you. The three of us should meet again.” He paid his bill and departed.

Beth ordered a glass of wine and stayed at the table to think about all that she had just heard. Ideas for articles for the web site newsletter were popping into her brain like lightening bugs in the lawn outside her window in summer. She really liked Quercus Gardens and wished it were a better place to live.