TEXT BY MICHAELA CAVALLARO
PHOTOGRAPHED BY ERIN LITTLE
The bats, my tenants informed me, were named Hans and Gunther. Their monikers made me chuckle. Their existence on the third floor of my house, on the other hand, meant I was going to have to tackle yet another unexpected, probably expensive repair in the apartment I’d rented out for just a couple of months.
Oh, and did I mention that the text alerting me to Hans and Gunther’s presence arrived 10 days into the widespread economic shutdown precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic? And that one of my tenants is the general manager of a food truck business sidelined by the virus?
Suffice it to say, life as a landlady was not turning out how I’d imagined.
Owning a home with an income-generating rental unit was something I’d dreamed of since moving to Portland in the late 1990s. But I’d always chickened out or compromised with a partner who had different goals. Until last summer, when Portland’s white-hot real estate market put everything on the table — single-family homes, condominiums, multi-units — and I decided to look in earnest for my ideal place.
For months, there was nothing remotely suitable. Then, on a sunny Friday afternoon, a brick Queen Anne two-unit in Parkside went on the market. It had high ceilings, original moldings, and plenty of room inside, plus a small patio where I could imagine my teenage daughter and our yappy rescue mutts, Sparky and Meatball, spending summer afternoons. And then there was the third-floor apartment, which the sellers had renovated beautifully with vaulted ceilings, exposed brick, and skylights in the living room and kitchen. It seemed all I would have to do was make a handful of modest improvements and put up a For Rent sign.
Hans and Gunther, of course, had other ideas.
But they weren’t even the first of my challenges. After I closed in early November, I launched into the apartment upgrades I’d planned (and budgeted) for: I ordered a new refrigerator, washer, and dryer, had a closet finished, installed a dryer vent, rebuilt a gate.
And, as expected, I quickly found tenants — friends of a friend, who drove across country in an early-December snowstorm to move into an apartment they’d never seen in person. By email and text, Matt and Jessie seemed lovely. Especially since they were apparently undaunted by the fact that their new home would be warmed with borrowed space heaters until a proper heating system could be installed. You see, the charming 19th-century steam radiators didn’t actually pull heat from the basement all the way up to the third floor, and thanks to an unusually early cold snap, every heating contractor in the area was booked for weeks.
Once the heat was fixed, we hit a few months of smooth sailing. Matt and Jessie came down for drinks on Christmas, but otherwise we were companionably distant New England neighbors. At least until early March, when I received a text about a bat that swooped down into their living room, then shimmied into a crack near the roofline. They weren’t bothered by Hans and neither was I. So I went on about my business, blissfully ignorant of what it means when you find a bat indoors in winter. (Hint: The bat is your tenant too.)
They weren’t bothered by Hans and neither was I. So I went on about my business, blissfully ignorant of what it means when you find a bat indoors in the winter. (Hint: The bat is your tenant too.)
Meanwhile, the world was rapidly changing around us. As measures to reduce the impact of the coronavirus took hold in Maine, I lowered Matt and Jessie’s rent by a few hundred bucks a month. My living as a corporate writer was secure for the time being, and I worried about how Matt’s restaurant employment would be affected. When the popular local brewery Bissell Brothers launched delivery service a few days into the governor’s stay-at-home directive, I ordered a flat of their flagship IPA and left a four-pack on Matt and Jessie’s doorstep.
A few weeks later, Hans made a dramatic reappearance with his friend Gunther, the two of them darting over Matt and Jessie as they lay in bed in the middle of the night. Since denial apparently isn’t an effective pest control method, I called in the pros, wincing at their invoices and wondering what, exactly, I’d gotten myself into.
Then Matt’s company shut down. Just before the closure, he texted that there was something for me on the back stairs — a foil tin of rich, comforting macaroni and beer cheese he’d brought home from work.
And the world kept getting stranger and scarier. The uncertainty started nibbling around the edges of my own job and my daughter struggled with spending her school days on screens. One afternoon, we took out our frustration on each other, in the form of raised voices, slammed doors, and words we’d quickly regret.
That night, after my daughter had gone to bed, my phone buzzed with a message from Jessie, letting me know that the Easter Bunny had stopped by a bit late. On the stairs, I found a double IPA and a Mason jar containing a glass weight and handwritten instructions for fermenting vegetables. She didn’t mention the hours of strife that had surely filtered up through the floorboards — she didn’t have to. Later, watching my mixture of sliced carrots, peeled garlic, and salty water grow bubblier by the day felt like another little gift.
I had always seen becoming a landlady as a smart financial move. But as I write, the skylight in Matt and Jessie’s apartment is leaking, a limb from the neighbors’ tree has crashed through my fence, and the U.S. just recorded the highest rate of unemployment since the Great Depression. What’s growing out of this “new” old house that I love so much is clearly not my bank account, but rather a little community — one that’s resilient, flexible, and boundlessly kind. In times like these, it’s the most valuable asset I own.
A proud New Jersey native and Down East contributing editor, Michaela Cavallaro has lived in and written about her adopted home state of Maine since 1998. Her work has appeared in publications ranging from Organic Gardening to the Wall Street Journal, as well as just about every magazine that has covered Maine food in the last 20 years. By day, she’s a partner in The Writing Company, a Portland agency that specializes in explaining complex topics to all kinds of readers.