Monday, July 12, 2010

My Quito apartment

In my last post, I mentioned that I tried to be quite thorough while reading and signing the lease for my sister's and my apartment in New York City. I also promised to share the story of the horrendous Quito landlord who made me the fastidious monster I am. Here it is.

The summer after graduating from college, I moved to Quito, Ecuador to teach English. Throughout senior year, I had watched my classmates spend hours visiting our university's career center, combing through online job listings and primping and preparing for interviews -- and decided I wanted nothing to do with it. Call it Peter Pan syndrome, but I was not ready to enter a world that would require me to wear collared shirts. Fresh off my year abroad in Chile, I was certain I was destined for more adventure in far-off lands.

So it was that I signed up for a program that offered teaching certification and job placement services in Quito. A few states away, my soon-to-be-roommate, C., was doing the same thing. The program placed us with Ecuadorian host families for the first month of our stay: C. in La Gasca, a neighborhood that creeps up the foothills of the volcano that towers over Quito's west side, and me in nearby La Granja. For us, it was a good area in which to live. It was easily accessible by public transportation, yet its corner stores, quiet streets and hidden parks lent it an air of peaceful seclusion. It was calmer and reportedly safer than the colonial city center and the teeming streets of the touristy La Mariscal district. It was, in other words, a true neighborhood, one we could easily envision ourselves becoming a part of. Plus, its slight elevation provided gorgeous views of the rest of the city.

When it came time for us to find our own housing, we decided we wanted to stick around. We devoted a pair of wet, foggy afternoons to trudging up the area's steep streets visiting apartments we'd found listed in the paper. There were a handful that we liked well enough, but the instant we stepped into the first floor of a duplex in the Las Casas neighborhood, we were in love. Hardwood floors and a large built-in bookcase lent the apartment a distinct vintage charm. The crowning glory of the place was the fireplace that promised to warm our guests at the gatherings we pictured ourselves hosting in the enormous living room.

On top of it all, the owner of the house -- a sweet older Ecuadorian man who lived upstairs -- seemed like he would be an ideal landlord. He offered us peppermints and even agreed to allow us to pay a lower rent until we got established at our teaching jobs. The fireplace, he assured us, was in perfect working order. A few days later, we signed the lease and enthusiastically began setting up our new home.

Almost immediately, there were signs we should have run away screaming from this stranger with candy. About a week after we moved in, I awoke to the sound of pounding outside my bedroom window. When I pulled back the curtain and peered outside, I saw our landlord hammering wooden planks together outside the doorless shed where he kept the washer and drier. Befuddled, I stepped outside to ask what he was doing.

"Building a wall in front of the washer and drier," he replied. "You used them, and that's not OK. So I'm building a wall."

I was taken aback. When C. and I had first visited the apartment and expressed concerns about not having a place to wash our clothes, the landlord had said we could use the machines in the shed. "But you told us we could use them," I said.

"No, I didn't."

"Yes, you did," I protested. "I remember it perfectly."

At this point, a strange thing happened: The landlord's eternally silent wife -- whom he always shooed away, claiming she was too deaf to understand a thing -- took my hand and gave me what I can only describe as a permeating knowing stare. It was a gesture I would soon come to understand.

The landlord refused to cede. We didn't know if his repeated denials regarding the washer and drier were due to a memory lapse -- he was, after all, over 80 -- or to the fact that he had made a promise he had never intended to keep. Unfortunately, we had taken him at his word and hadn't insisted that a clause about the washer and drier be added to the lease, so we had no written proof that he had ever given us permission. In the end, we buckled down and started taking our clothes to a nearby laundromat.

If our problems had ended there, things probably would have been OK. Unfortunately, our landlord had more surprises up his sleeve (or tucked away under the sweater vests he always wore). C. and I would arrive home to find our porch light bulb -- which we left on for safety reasons when we went out at night -- unscrewed and sitting on the windowsill. When we confronted our landlord about it, he claimed our safety precautions were running up his electricity bill. Then don't rent out the first floor of your house, I seethed silently.

At first, we assumed we were being subjected to the inexcusable but understandable whims of a possibly senile man with an unpleasant disposition. We realized we were wrong the night we invited two friends over and finally put our beloved fireplace to use -- and saw the entire apartment fill with smoke before our eyes. When we asked our landlord about the problem, he suddenly remembered that the chimney of the fireplace he'd assured us was in working order -- the fireplace that had sold us on the apartment -- had been covered over years before. It was now obvious that we'd fallen into the trap of someone who had knowingly deceived us in order to secure our lease signatures.

And things only got worse from there. According to our contract, our rent was due on the fifth of each month, a date we never missed. This, of course, didn't stop our landlord from ringing our doorbell at the break of dawn on the first and demanding that we pay up. On one occasion, he even held his finger over the bell -- without letting go -- at 7 a.m. until I stumbled out of bed, opened the door, told him never to treat us this way again, and promptly closed the door in his face (not my best moment). Early another morning, he began pounding on my bedroom window when I didn't answer the door.

The straw that broke the camel's back was when C. arrived home from work one afternoon to find her mother, who was visiting from the U.S., mopping up an inch of standing water in our bathroom. Our landlord and a neighborhood car mechanic -- the former could never be bothered to hire actual plumbers or home repair workers -- had come in earlier to fix our malfunctioning toilet and had proceeded to flood the bathroom and track a trail of mud through our living room. Incensed, I went upstairs to our landlord's apartment, which was plastered with images of the Virgin Mary; apparently, he'd skipped over the "love thy neighbor" part while crafting his brand of devout Catholicism. I calmly told him that we appreciated the repair but that, if one were necessary in the future, we would expect him to leave our living space in the condition he'd found it.

"Why should I clean up when there are two young women living downstairs?" he demanded.

That was it. We were done. We were no longer willing to live under the same roof as -- and pay rent to -- a person who routinely harassed and disrespected us. I went downtown to Inquilinato, a government office charged with protecting renters' rights. When I explained our situation to an official, he recommended we break our lease and be done with it; the law would be on our side.

This is exactly what we did. Shortly thereafter, we moved into a cozy apartment just two blocks away (although we, wishing to break ties completely with Sir Lies-a-Lot, practiced a bit of dishonesty ourselves and told him we were moving out of the neighborhood). The night before we left, I went to the corner store across the street to return some recyclable soda bottles. The store owner, whom we'd befriended during our months of residency in the Ninth Circle, confided to me that not one of the renters she'd seen move into our house had stayed the full length of his or her lease. Apparently, we weren't the first people our landlord had scared away.

C. and I spent the rest of our time in Quito living in an apartment and neighborhood we loved. I can't imagine how different our experience might have been had we elected to tough it out at the duplex. Looking back, there were signs that our first landlord was suffering from some kind of mental illness; whether or not this disorder was associated with his advanced age, I'll never be sure. Whatever the cause of his behavior, however, I see no reason why we should have put up with the treatment we received. Leaving that apartment was the best decision we could have made.

As much as I resented him at the time, that nightmare of a landlord taught me to be damn assertive, a quality that has served me well during the years I've spent living abroad. He also taught me the importance of putting everything in writing, as unnecessary as it might seem. Had we insisted that he give us written permission to use the washer and drier, the onset of hostilities may have been delayed somewhat.

So take a lesson from me: If you're planning to sign a lease abroad (or anywhere), make sure everything is written down. And if a sweet old man offers you a peppermint while pointing out the working fireplace in a spacious first-floor apartment in Las Casas, don't believe a word he says.

2 comments: said...

Gostei muito tu blog.

Anonymous said...

OMG. That was the most passive agressive move I've ever read. "You used them and that´s not okay??" Warning bells!!!!