This is a transcript of the May 28 edition of Working. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Jacob Brogan: You’re listening to Working, the podcast about what people do all day. I’m Jacob Brogan. This season on Working, we’re taking a trip to Baltimore to chat with some of its residents about the various ways they make a living there. We’re hoping to learn a little about the ways that Baltimore shapes their work and the ways that they’re shaping Baltimore by working.
So, in Baltimore, more than 12,000 families are served by the Housing Choice Voucher Program and more than 3,000 city landlords participate, making their properties available to those with vouchers. For this episode we spoke to Damon Walker, who acts as a middleman between property investors and Baltimore residents who hold Section 8 vouchers.
Walker talks to us about making sure that properties are up to snuff, up to his standards, and up to code. And he also discusses some of the effort that goes into building relationships with both owners and the tenants who he places in their properties, how he checks out a property, and he also shares some thoughts about the ways that Baltimore’s real estate market has changed over the years.
Then, in a Slate Plus extra, Walker talks about taking care of his own home.
What is your name and what do you do?
Damon Walker: My name’s Damon Walker and I’m a concierge for investors.
Brogan: What kind of investors?
Walker: Real estate investors. So, whatever needs an investor has, I pretty much try to fit the bill. If he wants me to figure out what’s the best place to buy a property or how much he thinks he should get for the rent or if he needs an eviction. Suggesting different contractors like plumbers, electricians …
Brogan: So it’s about refurbishing homes and buildings and things like this? Properties?
Walker: Yes, so the investors—you know, Baltimore has a litany of abandoned properties, so it’s kind of a haven for investors. So they buy cheap houses and try to get a good amount of rent. So, I specialize in subsidies and that’s one reason investors like to deal with me, because with subsidies they get a guaranteed check from the government the first of the month, direct deposit. So it takes a lot of headache out of wondering if you’re gonna get paid for your rent everything month.
Brogan: So you’re working on property management issues, is that fair to say?
Walker: Yeah, property management overall, but I specialize with the subsidy. It makes it more attractive to deal with me because I have a niche of tenants, which are going to pay rent everything month.
Brogan: Who are these tenants? Who are the people you’re working with?
Walker: OK, well, most of them come from what’s known as the “Section 8 Program.”
Brogan: Can you explain briefly, just for our listeners, how Section 8 works?
Walker: OK. So Section 8 works like ... OK, a person they’re injured, they’re a veteran, they’re homeless, and they go through some social organization where they dispense these vouchers and so when they dispense the voucher, the person has to look for a house within a certain perimeter of cost. So if this is like a one-bedroom for Baltimore City, you can’t go over a $1,000, but according to, you know, you’ve got Baltimore County, you’ve got Anne Arundel County, you’ve got different counties, you’ve got all over the country. You know? Every region has its own allotment of how much they’ll pay for a house, and so when you understand that you can let an investor know what he should expect to get for his house and then you try and pair him with a voucher that will pay that amount for the house.
Then it’s the process for the inspector coming out. Every jurisdiction is different, some places they’re just, “Well, come in. OK, you pass.” Other places they’ve got a microscope looking at everything and they want you to fix—I mean, they just have all types of things they want you to do; bend over backwards to do things. But you kind of get used to what goes on and so that’s what my job is. To make sure that I know each perimeter and guideline of each different jurisdiction, so when the person puts that voucher on it, the inspection passes, and then they start to issue a monthly rent to the investor.
Now every tenant has a different portion depending on their income, so if they have no income or very low income, they usually have no rent. So the full amount’s paid by the government and you’ve got people who pay less amounts according to their income, and so basically as long as once a year the inspector comes in and the house passes inspection, they keep getting their check direct deposit. But if something happens where there’s a discrepancy with the tenant and they say, “Hey, things are wrong with the house.” The inspector comes out and they say, “Well, OK, these things are not . . . you don’t have smoke detectors” or “There’s a hole in the wall” or “You need to fix it.”
If you don’t fix it within a certain time, they’ll stop the investor from getting paid, and so that’s kind of how they weed out if you’re a bad landlord, because you’re not fixing things; but it still happens. So basically it’s just a situation where the government pays the rent for people who need a little help, be it physical or financially.
Walker: When I started, what I noticed was a lot of the landlords were not giving people very good properties. Things were dilapidated, rodent infested, it was just the bottom-of-the-barrel type of product. And so I felt like, if these people had good money and they were gonna get paid, probably above-market rent because the government has a higher pay standard in the area in most cases, so I was thinking: “Well, if they’re getting a great rate from these tenants, they need to get a great product.” And so what I started to do was target—I guess it was the crash, like the 2008 crash, kind of had a lot of investors that were planning on selling houses, had to windup holding them, and so they’d get best value for their dollar going the Section 8 route was what I would suggest.
And I did it for a few of my investor friends that I knew personally, and then I just noticed it was a market and I just thought I would take advantage of it. At one time, people didn’t want Section 8 tenants at all. It was just a pariah, but because of the market going down, people had to have some different alternatives and people saw it as a viable source of income.
Brogan: So you’re trying to work between the investors, the property owners and the tenants, and make sure that these Section 8 houses are actually, these situations are pleasant to live in?
Brogan: That they’re actually nice places.
Walker: But they get great houses, I mean it could have granite countertops, stainless-steel appliances, finished basements, air-conditioning, you know, all the modern amenities that you should expect in a nice home when you’re paying top dollar. And there was a lot of, what they call “slumlords,” and a lot of problems I was seeing. So I felt like if it was ... you know, I like to do things that are practical and so finding somebody a house is as practical as it gets.
Everybody needs a roof over their head and I knew there were a lot of people, a lot of investors, that were hemorrhaging cash and not paying their rent, getting their mortgages paid, and it just kind of went all together. It was pretty simple. And so also I deal with nonprofit organizations and that’s really were you find the different situations, maybe it’s a battered mom or—
Brogan: This is how you help find tenants?
Walker: Yeah, this is where you get these social workers. They have caseloads and they issue vouchers, and so we go in and talk to them and let them know what we have. Trying to build a relationship, to make sure that they trust us, and know that we’re going to get that person a great place to stay.
Brogan: So you’re working between investors, tenants, sometimes nonprofits, sometimes it sounds like the government, city government, state government?
Walker: Yeah, it could be like, the mayors’ office is definitely a big place that does it a lot.
Brogan: So how do you get paid?
Walker: Well, with the investors.
Walker: At the end of the day after people move in, they sign their lease and everything is done. When the job’s done, like everybody else, you get paid.
Walker: It’s a—
Brogan: So it’s something you work out with them in advance when they first start working on a property?
Walker: Yeah, yeah, definitely. Everything’s negotiable, so—
Brogan: So, let’s talk through the process. How does it begin? Does an investor come to you and say—
Brogan: “Yeah, I have this property” or “I want to find a property”? What’s the start?
Walker: Yeah, a lot of investors ... Well, first I put out an ad, you know, I may put ads up on the internet, Craigslist, and all the different places people are looking for houses, and then I also have flyers, small postcards—
Brogan: But these ads and fliers, are they targeting the investors at this point?
Walker: Well, they’re two-sided.
Walker: You know, so I always target both at the same time. So, it’s just a postcard or a flier, and one side may talk about property management, listing all the things that I do, and the other side it will be talking about different properties that we may have available, and it just works. So I put my ad up. I put a stack of cards facing up, and I put a stack of cards facing down and people—one way or another, somebody gives me a call. I have an answering machine like anybody else and I check the calls and see who I need to talk to.
Brogan: So an investor comes to you, what do they, how does that conversation begin?
Walker: So basically somebody calls, they say, “Hey, I have this property.” I ask the address. Once I get the address, I get an idea of how much we’re probably going to get for the property once I know the bedroom size, the location. And so we talk about that and I tell him what his expectation should be.
Brogan: At this point, are they already qualified to list the housing under Section 8 or …
Walker: Well, I usually, like, depending on who referred them or how I got the person or if you got pictures of the property, or I’ll just go meet them the next day, or I’ll send somebody to meet them and so our people we understand: OK, these are the things we look for as far as the chipping paint, if there’s any type of cracks in the walkway, or anything we see that is abnormal that we’ll know will get a citation from Section 8, or from a housing inspector. So we’ll tell them exactly, you know, if this house is suitable for a subsidy, and if it’s not then we’ll say we’ll need to use it for a cash property and then go just a different route.
Now we also do higher-end places as well, but that’s a little easier, just because when you’re advertising something that’s kind of expensive, you usually get people that actually have money, who actually call you. So …
Brogan: But these other places, are you working with them from the beginning to help—I mean, you’ve gotta bring the place up to code, but are you also working to bring it …
Walker: Some people. So, say if it’s a rookie investor, like, OK this is your first house. I’ll go to the place and I’ll say, “OK, if you really want to make this house, put some wood floors in, take the carpet out, maybe update the vanity over here, put some paint on the wall,” and then boom, it’s up to standard. I can rent this now.
But then you’ve got some of the guys who just, they know, it’s just clockwork. They understand they can just punch it out and add another one, and another one, and another one, and we just kinda work step-by-step like that. Once they’re finished, I just try to move people in.
Then you get some weird crazy stuff happens where maybe an investor buys a house next to an abandoned house and it has all types of problems with that house and inspectors are gonna say, “We can’t do that.” So we gotta figure out how to fix this house next door, or make it look good, clean it up, you know what I mean?
So before the inspector gets there they won’t really notice it as much and we’ve done stuff the way. … We had to put vinyl over a whole house just so you couldn’t see how—
Brogan: The adjacent house.
Walker: Yeah, the house right next to it. Just so that it wouldn’t look as bad as it could have. You know, I wouldn’t ever rent a house that I wouldn’t live in. I wouldn’t even show a house that I wouldn’t live in. And some guys they would say, “Hey, check my house out.” You walk in, it’s got flies, it’s all type of crazy, like, “Who am I gonna rent this to?” You know what I mean? Because, I mean, even if it’s a great neighborhood and it’s just infested with roaches or something, I just don’t feel comfortable putting a family into that environment knowing that I wouldn’t live there.
So, I didn’t wanna sound like we cut corners or anything …
Brogan: Sure, no, no.
Walker: But, yeah ... I love doing what I do, it really helps people. I’ve probably made so many friends that I never would have expected.
Brogan: You’re listening to Damon Walker. After this brief break, he talks about checking out properties and dealing with sour business relationships.
* * *
Brogan: You’ve been doing this since 2008, it sounds like.
Walker: Well, not 2008—2010.
Walker: I really started doing it, but I saw that was the kind of fallout that was taking place.
Brogan: Did you have a background in real estate and property management before that?
Walker: No, one of my good friends, now he’s a good friend, he’s like a millionaire. He’s one of my family member’s partner in business and I noticed things were falling through, ’cause the guy, he was kind of an out-of-towner, you know? The rich guy.
Brogan: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Walker: And he didn’t really ... you know, he couldn’t really fill the places, he was having tough times as far as people not paying rent, evictions left and right. And so I said, “Well, you know, do the subsidies” and boom, he filled up every … we filled up everything and it just became kinda like second nature to me after that, and—
Brogan: How many investors do you work with now?
Walker: It could be ... I don’t even count them because it kinda moves around.
Walker: Yeah, but it could be anywhere from a dozen to two dozen, pretty easy. It’s all about who’s consistent, who’s active, who gets it done. Because you can waste your time with a lot of people. I’ve had people—ah, man—rip me off. Or even people who—
Brogan: Investors or ...
Walker: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m saying in a sense that you help them out. You take care of your whole end and, ah man, you know they just ... you just realize some people are in business just to—they aren’t in business to make money, they’re in business to be greedy. That’s not necessarily the same thing, you know?
Like, people who make money, they make sure everything’s OK, because that’s how they keep it working. When people are greedy, they just want it all, and lose it too. I mean they usually lose it, it seems to me.
Brogan: When someone does screw you over, what do you do? Do you just walk away?
Walker: I mean, I’ll tell you, I’m not a very litigious person and it’s like I don’t care if I can sue somebody for $1,500, $1,000. I don’t waste my time, you know what I mean?
Brogan: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Walker: I can just say, “Hey, forget about that guy” and he’s gonna call me anyway; because nobody—like I really kinda made this kinda business. A long time ago, like it was a case where, you know I saw a need, and I would stand out in front of the housing department every day. Rain, snow, sleet, 100 degrees, I would stand there and ask people, “Are you looking for a house” and people saw me doing it. And I asked people, “Hey, can I get a job, can you help me” and I saw investors, or people who kinda did what I did, like property management people, and I was telling them, “Work with me and we can do something.” And they was like, “Aw forget about you. You’re gonna slow us down. You’re nobody.”
And so I just started cold-calling people, and especially foreigners, for some reason. Like most of my clients are Chinese, like Chinese people from China. You know, people from Egypt, people from Turkey, people from Eastern Europe, and they’re all literally from these places, you know? And I don’t know exactly—they never ever say anything like, “Are you in a wheelchair?” or “You can’t do it” or whatever the case. They just say, “Hey, buddy, get it done.”
Brogan: Mm-hmm [affirmative].
Walker: And they say what’s your bank account number, you know?
Brogan: And they give you the money.
Walker: Yeah, that’s it pretty much. They just want the job done and I make it easy for them. I like to work with guys with flip-flops or construction boots. Guys in suits . . . I don’t like those guys, ’cause they look too—they’re like con artists.
Brogan: Yes, we haven’t talked about this much, but you are in a wheelchair, does that complicate the kind of work that you do at all?
Walker: Well, yeah, and it ... OK. It makes it like, I feel like, if I could walk, I probably wouldn’t need anybody and I could just like run through and do all type of stuff. But having to be in a wheelchair makes me be like, more cerebral and tactical, and plot stuff out.
And so I implore young ladies to help me out. So I say, “Hey, we can work together. You guys open the doors and” Firstly, investors like pretty young ladies. And I say, “Hey, talk to this guy. We need to get this done. He needs this picked up” you know? They like that.
And like, I’ll send this young lady or that, you know, and people may think that they work for me or something, but we’re all partners. I have a friend, her name’s Tori, she really believed in me. I asked her to help me and she was like, “All right, I’m gonna do it with you” and we have great time. She’s a beautiful girl so, I was like, “Hey Tori go see that guy real quick” and just like, “Yes, we did it.“
Brogan: But when you’re going through a construction site or something like this, is the chair ever an issue there?
Walker: Yeah, I’ll tell you, man, I’ve been in all type of stuff. I just jump up, you know, I can buy a new pair of shoes. So I just slide, like you saw me slide through over there—
Walker: And go up under there. I just had to do it because that’s what you need to do to get stuff done. And so if I gotta jump up a flight of steps to open a door, or if I need to crawl on my stomach to take pictures, that’s what it took to build this business. And that’s what it took for people to believe in me, trust me, because no matter what they thought of me, I got the job done.
Brogan: Yeah, so that commitment.
Brogan: So can you walk us through a typical day? When do you usually get started in the morning?
Walker: All right, a typical day is ... I’d really like to say I get out the house by 9:30, but I get out by 10:30.
Brogan: All right.
Walker: You know, so I kinda lounge a little bit but, I just gotta get myself together. I gotta eat and probably the hardest days are, what they call, walk-in days, and where the people like … it’s certain days at the housing department where people can come in and deal with their issues, as far as these vouchers.
And so what I do is stand outside and the people come, I know they’re coming. So maybe somebody needs to move or somebody’s having a problem with their landlord, or whatever the case is: I’ll just say, “Hey, here’s my card.” You know, I’ll talk to them, ask them their name, finally build a little relationship, even if it’s just for 10 seconds, and those people will call me back. A year later, two years later. And so I do that on Wednesdays and Fridays. You know, like today I was just there just mingling, talking to people, saying hello. And maybe, some days, nobody wanted a house today. But last week three people at one time, “Hey, I need a house.” “OK, jump in the car.” “I need a house.” “All right, you wait, I’ll meet you later.”
And there, you know. We get them signed up and onto the next one.
Brogan: So that’s your morning on a day like this?
Walker: Yeah, that was the morning. Yeah, so usually I’ll probably be done by, like, 1. And I like to eat, so either I’ll try to cook something or I go to some restaurant or something. And—
Brogan: Long lunch?
Walker: Yeah, pretty long lunch.
Walker: Some wine and stuff, but I’m always thinking of what to do next. And really, it’s all about my phone. My phone rings, it’s either a tenant, “Hey I need a house” or it’s an investor, “I have a house.” And so we just work those issues out.
Now stuff in between, like I said, evictions, to, like, after I leave here, I have to go to the State Building to pick up some documents for an investor. You know, it’s a small processing-type fee, but it’s no big deal filing things at the courthouse.
So, it’s just every day’s different but Wednesdays and Fridays are the days that I go out and really try to get in touch with the people.
Brogan: Yeah. How much time have you spent on-site? How much have you spent actually looking at properties?
Walker: Yeah, I used to look at properties a whole lot; but nowadays I really don’t have to. I just send one of the young ladies and they know everything, ’cause we have on-site contractors at our place, and so she pretty much knows the deal. So I don’t have to really go to places. So she’ll send me pictures or whatever. She’ll say, “Look, the place was trash.”
And sometimes I do show up at places. Like some places she’ll be like, “Man, I’m not going to see that place. It’s in a terrible neighborhood.” But then I’ll say, “Let me go see it myself.” And if I gotta jump up the steps or I gotta get the investors take the wheelchair, and I’ll climb up the steps, and we get inside, and we look at it. And that just happened with this—it’s a bad neighborhood, but it’s a great place. It’s a huge building, has Section 8–ready places, large rooms, AC, and it’s gas and electric, water, all utilities included. And people can use that.
You know what I mean? People that really only make maybe $700 a month or something, they need that type of thing. And so I helped that guy out, I helped a lot of people out. A lot of these guys are young, you know what I mean?
Walker: Yeah, you know, some of them are, I mean, if they’re not young as far as age, they’re young as far as experience. ’Cause the guys who are good, I don’t have to go to their stuff. They’re like, “Damon, it’s ready, this is what I want for it,” that’s it.
Brogan: Find the people.
Walker: Yeah, just roll it out. Boom, I already know it’s a product, it’s, boom. ’Cause they–the people that I stick with—are the people that make the great product. ’Cause those, you don’t want anybody talking about you. I have a superlative reputation. You can ask anybody about what I do. And they’ll say, “He loves helping the people. He always gets it done.”
Now, I had a little crazy experience a couple weeks ago where an investor called me. She said, “Hey, Damon, I have these places.” You know, somebody I worked with a lot of times before. And she was like, “I need these places rented.” She’s like a debonair lady. She drives a little BMW and she has a lot of places in the hood, close to where I live, so ... And she gives me the lockbox and I’m like, “OK, I got some appointments on Monday.” But the place gets robbed over the weekend.
Brogan: Oh, shit.
Walker: So she tells me this Monday morning. So, I’m like, “OK.” She gives me a new lockbox. Now this was a couple weeks ago and it was about to snow, so my partner, she lives in, like, Laurel, so she wasn’t even up here yet. And I was at the supermarket trying to get some food. We were the only two people that had the code, at least as far as I knew, besides the investor. The place gets robbed again before she gets there with their appointment for Monday! So it got robbed over the weekend, they fixed everything back, and it gets robbed again before my agent lady gets there. And they’re saying I did it. I’m like, “What do I need a washing machine and a refrigerator for? That’s like $100 apiece, man.” I was like, “That’s stuff that drug addicts do, ya know?”
So we kinda had it out, and she was like, and her maintenance man was there, and she was like, only me, you, and him had the code. And I’m like, “So why is it me?” She was like, “Well I’ve known him for three years.” And I’m like, “Well you’ve known me for five! So why am I doing this?” And so, he said that, “Oh, well, I saw a woman going in the house, but I thought that was your agent.” I was like, “Well, if you know the place just got robbed, and you saw someone going in the house, why wouldn’t you say, ‘Hey, I’m the maintenance man, how you doin’, what’s goin’ on, the place just got robbed, just wanna make sure everything’s OK.’”
I was like, “Yo. You did it. You’re the one that stole the stuff, it wasn’t me.” And I told her that, and I walked away, and I let everybody know. I sent a group message to all the agencies, all the guys I know that do what I do, and I let them know, “Oh, this lady’s crazy. Don’t mess with her. She’s got some stuff goin’ on.”
I mean, that’s just a typical day. But what I was sayin’ before, and I don’t know if this stuff’s gonna be all jumbled up. When I started this, nobody was out there. And people saw me be successful. The ones that turned me down, the ones that was like, “Man, you’re gonna slow us down.” And they saw me doin’ numbers and they’re like, “Yeah, we can partner up.” Like, why do I need half of you when I’ve got 100% of me, ya know? Forget about you guys.
Brogan: But you do have your partners.
Walker: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But these are the guys that turned me down. They didn’t see anything in me before, ya know? So it was like, I’m not gonna deal with those guys. And it’s healthy for competition too. I love it when I like, I made sure those guys didn’t get a house, or I got the house before they got it. Or whatever the case was.
Brogan: You’re listening to Damon Walker. In a moment he talks about evictions, and about the changing dynamics of Baltimore’s real estate market.
* * *
Brogan: So yeah, we talked a little bit about the relationships you build with investors, property owners, people that you’re helping out there. But what about the tenants you work with? Do you have long-term relationships with some of these people?
Walker: All of ’em, really, in a sense that maybe I don’t remember everybody’s name, but I treat everybody like I want to be treated. I treat everybody like a friend. When you’re dealing with so many people sometimes, it can be confusion of faces and names and all, but at the end of the day, the relationship is built because they know I care.
Long-term, I see some families grow up. I see some people come up and say, “Hey Mr. Damon, how you doing?” They was little kids, and now they grown. Kids grow up a lot in five years. You know you see somebody this tall, and then they’re that tall, and you’re like, “Wow.” And you see people get their lives together. You see families stabilized. You see people going from being a single mom who’s shaky, to now, because they had a stable home, they got a job, career. They finished school, or whatever the case may have been.
Brogan: How does that feel to see people’s lives change like that?
Walker: It’s amazing. I guess I realized it one day when this lady, she was movin’ from the projects right around here. She was moving to a place called Cedonia, in Baltimore. Nice little neighborhood, a little grassy and stuff. And she was complaining, “I want window treatments” and all this and that. And I was like, “Man, she just moved from the projects,” but I realized like, it’s great just to help people go from one thing to the next level like. And maybe she didn’t realize it at the time, and I think some people don’t. And honestly, ’cause, people are very demanding.
I try to aim to please, but, yeah, at the end of the day, that’s what I’m there for. I want the people to be happy. And so, I know they’re gonna fuss, they want the world, but I’ll give them as close to it. This is my motto and I tell ’em: “Lookin’ for a house is like lookin’ for a relationship. You want the guy to be tall, dark, and handsome, but maybe he’s gonna be tall, dark, and ugly.” Or not obviously that, but maybe he’s just gonna be handsome and short or something. But you can’t get it all. But you try to get as much as you can, you know? And people are usually satisfied.
Brogan: When you’re first meeting a possible tenant, do you have to do much evaluation of them?
Walker: Well, it’s kind of—
Brogan: Is there anything you have to check on?
Walker: Yes, all right. You go down, you have basic questions. And then you also look at people. You’re like, are these people of sound mind and body? You look at somebody, like, not to say that you judge people by their appearance, but if someone’s very unruly, disruptive, disrespectful, I’m not gonna work with them. If they don’t respect me, if they don’t respect themselves, they’re not gonna respect the house. So I’m not gonna deal with these people. I’ll easily move a person to the side and go onto the next person.
Now, after that, it’s kinda up to the criteria. I know it’s kinda illegal if you’re a real estate investor, or a real estate agent, and I’m not a real estate agent. But if you’re a real estate agent, you can’t kind of discriminate on people according to age and all that. So with investors, they’ll tell me, “Oh, hey, I want a little old lady for this house. I don’t want young people.” Or “I need a guy, an older man.” So when I see a person, I see a house. Like, “Oh this is a great house for this little old lady.” Or “I’ve got this big ol’ house down here in the hood, but it’s huge, so this lady with five kids needs it.” Or “I’ve got this nice condo over here, but it’s small, for maybe a nice older guy.” I like that.
So I kinda match the people and the houses together according to the demographic, what they’re looking for. I kinda just go down a list and ask them what they want. And then I ask them where they live now, and that gives me kinda an idea of, you know, what’s their expectations. So if you’re coming from something that’s really hard, and you want something that’s amazing.
All right, for instance, and I don’t know this lady’s situation. She’s from Cleveland. She’ll probably get mad at me if she ever hears this, but she’s moving from out of town to Baltimore. And she’s like, “I need to live in a nice neighborhood.” And I’m like, “I’m gonna take you to the nicest neighborhood I can take you to. 21239 beautiful neighborhood. Chinquapin Parkway. Grassy knoll, and little streams, and ivy on the house, and white picket fences.” And she’s like, “Well, I don’t make much money.”
She’s basically saying she wants the house with no security deposit, and she wants all this stuff. And I’m like, “Well, you have to actually pay your security deposit, you have a certain amount of money you have to pay for your monthly, you’re gonna have to be prepared. You’re gonna have to mow the lawn, have certain things that you’re gonna have to get taken care of.”
And some people don’t think about what it actually takes to maintain a nice house. They think they can just come in and kick back and think, “Wow, it’s great.” But you have to do a lot of things to be a responsible home—even if you aren’t an owner, you have to be a responsible renter. And I have to make sure a person can grasp that if they’re gonna move in a neighborhood where they have, where they’re gonna call on you if you’re makin’ too much noise or if your trash can’s flipped upside down. Those things are fines for a lot of these investors that they have to pay.
Brogan: What’s it like to have to sometimes tell people that they can’t get what they want, though?
Walker: I mean, at first, it probably made my heart, like, palpitate, and be like, “Aw.” But then you realize it’s business, and you understand that business is all about a fair exchange. And if I’m giving you something, and also, I look at that as well as if you’re not willing to do something to get what you want, then you don’t deserve it. To get something, you’ve gotta give something.
Walker: It has to be a fair exchange. You know, there’re some cases where I make it real easy, like this is no security deposit or whatever, but those are usually neighborhoods that aren’t as sought-after. But if you want the neighborhood with the school and this and that, that’s something that everybody’s fighting over. So at least show that you really want it, and put your best foot forward.
Brogan: We’ve talked a lot about the front side. Helping making sure a property is up to your standards, helping develop relationships with possible tenants, helping find them a place. But you also said that sometimes you’re involved with evictions. What’s that like? What’s that involve?
Walker: I guess, like, evictions, you feel like a bad guy for a second, but then you realize, too, there’s a victim too: the investor, who’s losing money. And not getting his rent every month. And he has a mortgage too, he has a family he needs to feed. So you can’t get too caught up in what’s happening. You just gotta understand it’s something that needs to be done.
It’s crazy when you go to these places when the place is trashed, and they’ve left a pit bull in the basement, or they don’t want to leave. Or the police actually have to tell them to go. It’s just weird. Sometimes I feel like they’re gonna get mad at me, rush my car or something.
Brogan: Has that ever happened?
Walker: No, it’s never happened at all. And even when I have to, like, serve people, I’ve gotta say, “Hey buddy, here’s this summons.” Ya know what I mean? It could be some thugs or whatever, but, hey, I guess they respect that I just walk up and give it to them.
Brogan: They know that you’re just doing your job?
Walker: Man, pretty much. Nobody ever got mad so far. Now I have a situation that just popped up a few days ago, where one of the tenants passed away. And she was a Section 8 tenant, so they informed us they stopped payment effective the day they called us, but her family still lives there. The boyfriend, the kids, and all. And so I have to put them out of the house. Since they’re not on the lease, there’s a possibility it’s something I can do without having to go to court, but it’s gonna involve the police. Which, anytime you get that type of high-anxiety type of thing going on, it’s just not cool. Its just one of those things you just gotta do it. It could be forced kids, but everybody has to get a place to live.
Brogan: Are you a Baltimore native?
Walker: Yup. Born and raised.
Brogan: So do you feel like your work is specific to Baltimore? Does it fit into the city and its ecosystem?
Walker: I think it fits a lot of cities like Baltimore, like the intercity, like it’s underdeveloped. Baltimore’s finally catching up with development. Cities where it’s a transition. I was in Baltimore when it was said to be one of the largest black populations in the country. Where it was one million black people, but that was just one million black people alone, but the whole population dipped under 500,000, and it’s kinda amazing to see.
That’s like an anorexic city. It went from being big to small. The Section 8 part, I guess is the revitalization. The early aspects of the gentrification to where you have a mouth of missin’ teeth and you get ’em fixed kinda one by one till you’ve got a whole pretty row. So maybe the investors come in and fix maybe one or two houses in the block, and as long as they’re gettin’ revenue, one or two more houses are gonna get fixed. And before you know it, the whole neighborhood is vitalized.
A very good example of that is Reservoir Hill. If you look at that now.
Brogan: That’s a neighborhood here in Baltimore?
Walker: Yeah, if you look at Bolton Hill, it’s affluent. And Reservoir Hill is across the street. Now, what stood in front of it was like the projects and a certain type of people lived there, but the investors. Reservoir Hill sort of got strangled. They have these huge houses, and they’re abandoned. They look like mansions. But now people have been there for years, maybe turning them into apartments, leaving them as houses.
But investors, one by one, kept fixing these places up until now one of the universities bought the projects, knocked it down, and they’re about to do a whole new development right there. That wouldn’t have been possible if Section 8 wasn’t pumping money into that community. I know whole buildings where I’d put five, six people into them in one block. And that’s their lifeblood. Those subsidies.
Brogan: Do you feel like you’re making the city a better place?
Walker: Oh, yeah. I’ve definitely seen a street where it was one house that was livable, and now it’s a whole viable neighborhood. And that’s only been in a short five-year span. Things kinda slowed up a little bit, but I’ve definitely seen it with the overflow from D.C. and the whole 295 corridor. A lot of people want the urban living but they can’t afford D.C., so they come over here. And as the west side gets developed more and they connect the new train from D.C. to Baltimore and the new train station, I think it’s gonna really explode.
Brogan: You talked about this as the early stages of gentrification. Do you have any concern that the kind of work you do might eventually price out the kind of people you work with?
Walker: I know it does. I know it does, because I can talk to an investor and he’s like, “Look, man, I want $1,200 for a subsidy. Because if I can get a subsidy, I want that money.” And then he said, “It’s gonna be a headache, because rent court is hell, man. Someone can come in with a chewed up piece of bubblegum wrapper, and say this is my receipt for my rent, and they’ll believe him.”
I’ve seen some crazy stuff in rent court. And it’s even to the point where if you don’t pay your water bill in Baltimore city, they’ll take your house. So people livin’ in the house don’t want to pay the water bill, and then the investor has a $900 bill he has to pay for nine months’ worth of water being used. And it becomes a real struggle for a lot of these investors. Because a lot of these guys aren’t rich. They’re working people trying to make a buck.
Brogan: What about the tenants, though?
Walker: The tenants? This is how I look at it: Baltimore has great—still has—great-priced rent. But people have to understand how to make a community. You can’t want to move into a great community. You have to be willin’ to make a community. You don’t just come into a community, and, oh it’s great because it’s great. It’s great because the people there worked to make it. They do stuff to establish it and to maintain it the way they do.
So if you took the same effort, that you want to run over to this community or that community, in your own, then maybe you’ll have a great community too. ’Cause I see some of the same houses that are nice and beautiful and painted and all this on the exact other side of town, but a few blocks down it’s all busted and jacked up. It’s ’cause of how the people feel about themselves, and that’s a reflection of the community.
Brogan: But other underlying economic factors…?
Walker: I believe that, I understand that. But at the end of the day, I feel that no matter who you are, if you had a little shack of a house, if you really are a ... It’s not about money, it’s about being a good neighbor, being a builder of a community. You’re gonna have a nice shack. Maybe you have a little rug in front of yours, but you gotta make the best of what you have.
And see, the reason I say this is because I see people that come from nothing want everything. And it doesn’t work like that. You have to earn, you have to move into that. I’m not saying anybody doesn’t deserve anything, but it’s not just given to you. And those same people who want to move into this great neighborhood, they turn the neighborhood bad now.
Brogan: Do you think your job would be different at all if you weren’t in Baltimore?
Walker: If it was intercity, if it was L.A., if it was Detroit, if it was any intercity where you got people that need housing, it’d I think be pretty much the same. It’s just D.C., the only issues there is everybody’s priced out. The subsidy can’t compete with the market rate whatsoever, so they don’t even consider it. As long as it’s a place like Oakland or something, where things are kinda in the changing point, then, yeah, that’s what investors need.
If people were smart, and this is the thing. We talk about these economic things, and I come from nowhere, nothing. But I know that you have to invest in your future. So sometimes you gotta get a house in a neighborhood that’s not so great, but it’s gonna be great. You understand? Because you’ve got a vision, you can see it the same way.
I show a person a house that may not be ready. The cabinets are not in, or the fixtures are not all up, but you can look at the house and use your imagination to understand this is gonna be a great house at the end. And they’ll say, “Oh, no, it’s not finished, I don’t want it.” But then someone else takes it, and then it’s gorgeous, and then they’re like, “Oh, man, I wish I would have gotten that house.” Because everyone wants everything perfect, but you gotta be patient, and earn it.
* * *
Brogan: In this Slate Plus extra, Damon Walker talks about taking care of his own home.
So, how has helping people find homes, helping make sure that homes are great, change the way that you think about your own house, your own living situation?
Walker: All right, this is a funny question, because even way before I started this, I always had this obsession with looking at properties I couldn’t live in—’cause I’m in a wheelchair. So I always see these great lofts with these winding steps, or this little crazy-lookin’ place in the alley that you gotta go up this back way that’s just this cool space. But, I couldn’t live in it. So one of my friends might be lookin’ for a place, and I’d be like, “Hey look at this, look at this.” And I would just be like, “Wow.”
I always wanted a house where I could just go—like a warehouse—and I could come up in an elevator, and just like go into the room or something. I was like, “I can’t do that stuff ’cuz it’s dangerous. So I’ve gotta have a regular house.”
So I got a house that was kinda like a fixer-upper. It’s like an old house, and I made the best out of it. It was really nice, so that’s why I get on people about how they do their houses, because I’m like, “If I can take this little cheesy house and turn it into an oasis…” I put flowers up, and had a nice little umbrella in the backyard. It was cool. I painted the walls and the fence. You know, because I wanted my environment to feel good.
And so, when I moved to my next house, at first, it was definitely a way nicer house, but I think that happened because I took care of my first house. And so that’s what I want people to understand. Just take care of what you have, and you’ll get everything you want and need. So I moved from that house because I had a wife and kids.
I had to get a smaller house, but it’s still nice. It’s in the hood, and again, I take care of it. It’s a nice house, but it’s in a rough block. But it still stands out that somebody loves this little house. And it was some rough neighbors, it was some neighbors that I was like, “Oh these guys are crazy.” But because I cared about the neighborhood, and because maybe my neighbor cared, more people who cared moved in, and now they cleaned up the neighborhood. There’s still some bad people, but I see collectively, we work together to make it as best as we can.