The walls really can talk, actually

Innovative renters can improve their housing and leave a creative legacy for future renters.

John Hoff

Wouldn’t it be nice to transform cracked, peeling walls into neat paper patterns of paisley, English rose, or maybe a striking and modern geometric pattern?

You can do it. You can deal with your landlord and obtain permission to improve your housing situation – not just for yourself but for future student-renters as well.

I know this landlord gig. When I’m wearing my landlord role like a stiff starched hat, you don’t have to call me “Lord,” but it would be nice to sense it in your tone. In Seattle, I helped manage 124 units of housing in a 1920s brownstone high-rise near the University of Washington. We once evicted a mentally ill woman who filled her apartment nearly to the ceiling with garbage.

For several years in flood-prone Grand Forks, N.D., I lived in a roomy basement apartment for free in exchange for light security and property improvement duties. I helped send two men to prison for cutting the locks on the sacred coin boxes in our laundry room and once found one of our tenants was wearing an ankle monitor. Sometimes, while renovating walls and floors, I would find mud from the flood of 1997, hard like old cake frosting.

I have a cool housing situation near St. Paul’s notorious and crime-ridden Frogtown area. It costs me $124 a month, utilities included – most of it worked off assisting with renovation and keeping the property secure. Right now, my “landlord” owes me money instead of the other way around, $32 to be specific. Sure, I have to sleep with a Dumpster-dived baseball bat, but that’s the gig. You think being a renter is tough? Try managing property.

Actually, I like to think I was a decent and kind landlord when it mattered, when I managed all those units in Seattle. There was a particular female tenant, an art major at the nearby university, who always wanted to improve her apartment. She had flaming red hair and a personality that could light up the classic wood and stone lobby like a burning hearth. Not only did she talk me into free buckets of paint, but she would convince other tenants to ask for paint, too.

Hey, a free paint job in exchange for some leftover latex was always a great deal. Besides, it’s latex, baby. You can wipe it up with a wet rag. Heaven knows I wouldn’t trust tenants with anything oil-based near parquet-wood floors, unless they were professional painters.

I wish I could remember her name, but what I remember is that flaming red hair and her smile. She had a long series of co-tenants, using her apartment as transitional housing right under my nose, careful to properly add her new roommates to the lease each and every time. That girl could work a co-tenancy like she was playing the commodities exchange market.

It was hard to tell if co-tenants were coming and going because of romance or housing opportunities, because she was quite open about the fact some of the girls were her lovers. One traumatic afternoon, I had to help a jilted girlfriend fill out paperwork to get off the lease, breaking news that her belongings were in boxes. There would be no in-person goodbye, but “hopefully no need to talk about a restraining order.”

If these walls could talk, indeed. I’ll wait for the movie.

Once she (the vivacious redhead) asked if she could put Con-Tact paper in her kitchen cupboards and drawers. Mind you, if it were up to me personally, I would let tenants turn their apartments into art galleries. But in the role of assistant manager, I had to sing the odes of conservative decorating schemes and paint in the colors of cream, eggshell Ö plus, well, white.

I demanded to see the roll of Con-Tact paper. It had a pattern something like a rustic old building, next to a tree in bright fall foliage, the exact shade of her hair. It looked like stuff you buy in a store but I suspected she made it herself in an art class. If I knew a thing like that, it might be hard to explain to my superiors, so why ask?

I told her to demonstrate her interior decorating skills with one small drawer, and then I would consider whether to let her do the whole kitchen. At the appointed time, I came to look at her drawer. The Con-Tact paper had seams as perfect as a manila envelope. It was exquisite, a hymn to sticky decorative functionality.

Most of the time, it was the older tenants who asked about making improvements to their own apartments. College-aged tenants seemed to think landlords were so uptight they would prefer to keep a broken pane of a leaded French glass door in its busted condition than, my word, fix it. My only concern was that the fixes be actual improvements instead of daring but disastrous experiments.

Most likely, somebody will live in your apartment after you. They might be like you in feelings and attitudes. This person could have been your drinking buddy, lover or a smart and helpful classmate. This person will have to endure the urine-scented carpet, the crackhouse ambiance of peeling walls, the wooden step cracking in half which would require an hour on a lazy Sunday evening to repair perfectly. Yes, you should report that stuff in order to get it fixed. In fact, it’s important to know your rights and prudently assert them.

But some things aren’t desperately needed fixes. Some things can be a small, personal legacy of creativity, a restrained but expressive practical work of art which says “(Fill in your name) once lived here and made it a little nicer.”

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]