Our landlord is a screaming maniac

We live above him and his mother, and twice the police have been called.

Published April 26, 2005 7:28PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My husband and I have been living on the second floor of a two-family house above our landlord and his elderly mother for over four years. About a year ago our landlord started dating a new woman and their involvement quickly escalated to her regularly staying over. They argue. He's always argued some with his mother -- which is understandable, as they are on a fixed income and he's home all day taking care of her. But his arguments with his girlfriend get loud. We can't hear everything that goes on, but we hear enough for it to disturb our daily lives. We don't hear evidence that they are physical with each other, just yelling, wailing, stomping, doors slamming, threats of leaving forever, etc. Once we heard her threaten to leave and never, ever, ever come back. We were hoping it was true.

The police have intervened twice. The first time, they were called by his mother, who couldn't handle it anymore. After they left he started in on her; he blamed her for it all and literally fell asleep babbling in a rage. That was scary. The next day I put a note in with our rent check explaining that his relationship affects everyone in the house, it is extremely uncomfortable and I asked him to please seek some third-party advice. I tried to be as objective as possible, only mentioning how we feel.

That's when we found out that his girlfriend is a therapist. The second time the police came was last Wednesday. I'll spare you the details and they have been quiet since, but whenever I hear a knock or a loud noise I flinch, expecting the worst. I don't expect it to be over and don't feel I can live with it anymore.

Through all this we've tried to be congenial with them. We live in their house, after all. We were friendly with him and his mother before the girlfriend came along, stopping in for a glass of wine and a chat or cooking out in the back yard. After the girlfriend started staying over regularly he didn't seem to be as social with anyone else, not just us. It was awkward and we distanced ourselves. They mentioned a few times they'd like to go out for dinner with us and we kept the plans open-ended.

Did I mention they got engaged? We got the wedding invitation last month. Then they nailed us down on the dinner date. We went and everything was congenial yet strained. We hadn't RSVPed for their wedding yet and they flat-out asked us if we were going. What could we say? "Of course."

After the last big argument we don't want to go to the wedding. How do we retract our RSVP? We absolutely do not want to bear witness to such a dysfunctional commitment. I feel guilt for not being the one to call the police or even bring it up. I feel like we're abetting the situation somehow. At the same time, how do you bring up something so personal with your landlord when they act as if nothing is going on when you see them?

Last night we got a message from a friend of theirs calling about some kind of wedding shower for her. I just erased the message. But I feel like I'm put in a spot because that call was from an acquaintance we know through them. So my not responding will bring up questions.

We are trying to find another apartment, but since we've moved here housing prices have more than doubled and rent is completely out of our price range. Moving to a more affordable town would mean we'd have to buy a second car, which we can't afford, and all our friends are within walking distance from us. He's only raised our rent once, by $25, and he had a really hard time asking us for that. He likes us a lot. (Which is also why it's hard to just call them regarding the wedding.) Should we suck it up and just find a way to pay for a different place in town? It sure would be easier than trying to talk to them. That last big argument sounded like it had something to do with someone who called to say they weren't going to the wedding.

We feel stuck in someone else's psychosis. How do we find a way out of it?

Stuck on the Second Floor

Dear Stuck on the Second Floor,

Believe me, I know how upsetting it can be to live above two people who scream at each other to the point the cops have to come. But why disrupt your lives further by making a hasty move, or by engaging them in fruitless confrontations? Instead, I suggest that you get a concrete plan together for your own next move. Put up with their craziness a little longer, making reasonable protests when necessary, until you have a secure option.

In order to define your options, you need to know where they are planning to live after they are married. With his mom? Or somewhere else? If they're going somewhere else, what do they plan to do with the house? If they're buying elsewhere, they may want to sell the place.

That would have a direct effect on you. In fact, whatever they do is going to affect you. If they sell, you might be evicted by the new owner, or at least your rent would go up, perhaps substantially. In that case you might as well move. If they're going to live together in your house, you'll probably want to move as well, not only because of their fighting but because eventually, if they are raising a family, they may want to expand into your upstairs quarters.

If you like the house a lot (there's nothing like having friends within walking distance) perhaps you could try to scrape some cash and financing together and buy it from them. With today's interest-only loans, you could probably swing it, with the option of selling and moving in five years or so.

No matter what you end up doing, I would start now looking around your neighborhood for a suitable place to buy or rent. Do not underestimate the importance of having friends nearby, nor the potential financial burden of having to own a second car and commute. If you can, I would pay whatever it costs to stay in your neighborhood, avoid the necessity of a second car and live where you want to live.

If you cannot afford to buy a place, then look for a larger apartment building, as tenants in such buildings are sometimes afforded eviction protections not offered to residents of two-unit buildings, and you are socially insulated from your neighbors, which might seem like a breath of fresh air after what you've been through. It may be a stretch financially to buy or rent at market rates right now, but if prices around you continue to go up, you will be much better off five years from now.

The bottom line, it seems to me, is that while renting from resident owners can be a nice arrangement, if their lives are in flux it tends to put you in an unstable living situation. So in general I would begin planning, emotionally and financially, to move.

Now, if this were a movie, we wouldn't spend so much time on the nuts and bolts. Instead, the movie would be all about the fact that this crazy screaming girlfriend is a therapist! We'd write that into the plot somehow. Imagine the scene: You make an appointment with her under some other name. You go there in a disguise. You sit down and explain to her that you're living above these insane people who scream at each other, and you've been invited to their wedding, and you just don't know what to do. You ask her what she would do in a situation like that.

That would be fun, wouldn't it? But that's silly. Your life is not a movie.

As to the wedding, I would go to the wedding. Attending the wedding doesn't mean you give your tacit approval to every aspect of the couple's relationship. It might make things marginally less awkward during the next few months as you plan to move. Maybe it sounds wimpy, but as long as you're living in that house, I would do whatever you can to keep things harmonious. But the most important thing to do is to make concrete plans to move. Stay in the neighborhood if you can. Get a place that's less crazy. If it's at all possible to buy, then buy. You can do it.

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