Twenty minutes before his apartment-management certification class is supposed to start, students pepper Joseph Cavalin with questions. "How do you get rid of the tenants?" a man in the front asks. A woman in back needs to learn to run credit checks. A student asks Cavalin, who goes by "Cav," "Did you ever have an experience where your tenants misbehaved?" Cavalin, whose first job as a manager was dealing with college students in Northridge, shakes his head and sighs, "Oh, I have so many."
In the basement of Los Angeles City College, the 56-year-old Cavalin is training people to work in a growing sector of L.A.'s largely dead real estate market: apartment buildings and the people needed to run them. "There will be more opportunities," he says, "especially for beginners like you."
It's a good time to be a landlord. Los Angeles County's unemployment rate is near 12 percent, and prospects are not looking good for young people, with or without college degrees. Young people are looking to rent, but in addition to that, "The people who were homeowners and lost their homes in the recession are now in the rental market," says Gary Painter, professor of real estate at the University of Southern California.
As a result, in the United States, home ownership is the lowest it has been in 15 years. Much harder-hit Los Angeles, where tens of thousands of homeowners feel snakebit and prospective buyers are sitting it out, is still mired in a down economy that's feeding the move to apartment life.
What little residential construction growth is happening is driven by new apartments. Data from the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, a think tank, shows that in 2011 multifamily building permits, a leading indicator of construction activity, were up 60 percent, while single-family permits flatlined.
Condos are struggling, too. Developer California Landmark, for instance, had planned a 28-story for-sale condo building in West L.A. until the market convinced the company it should be turned into a 78-unit apartment building instead. That means a management team has to be found.
A quick Craigslist search brings up dozens of openings, reflecting a very rare job boom in recession-hammered L.A. — apartment managers who earn a combination of cash and rent discounts. One company offering free apartments to managers in Los Angeles, Hawthorne and the San Fernando Valley writes, "Do you love extending a helping hand to your community? Do you love assisting families? If yes, then you've found your PERFECT JOB!!!"
Cavalin's class description in the LACC course catalog points to the demand: "All these new apartment buildings need you as a manager — reap the benefits!"
Apartment managing seems like, but may not be, the ultimate slacker dream job in Los Angeles.
A lot of landlords discount their managers' rent, and in large (and therefore more troublesome) buildings, some managers live rent-free and receive a salary. But living rent-free, it turns out, means you act as a combination of full-time maintenance worker, college dorm R.A. and debt collector, depending on the property.
Eduardo Varguez Jr. is taking Cavalin's class with his dad, who manages 95 units spread around rough-edged, working-class areas like Downey, Bell Gardens and Maywood. About half the units fall under Section 8, the federal housing voucher program for the poor.
The Varguezes are trying to learn what their rights are when tenants cause trouble — "You know, when they get crazy drunk and stuff," says Varguez Jr.
That and the occasional horrifying domestic violence incident. Varguez says one altercation between a husband and wife at one of their properties turned into a stabbing. "They were arguing, and the husband hit the wife. Then she stabbed him," he says.
The management company kicked the couple out within a couple weeks.
"I think they ended up getting back together," Varguez says. "That was the funny thing. Probably like a month or two later, my mom saw them both at the grocery store, like nothing happened."
Julio Gonzalez is taking the class to learn how to run credit checks, a service normally conducted by his bosses who own the building. His community is usually quiet, and many of his tenants are seniors.
But even he has seen harrowing incidents go down, like the time a husband slammed his wife against the apartment wall. Gonzalez swings his arms like he's swinging a baseball bat to illustrate the force.
"Big guy, that tall," he says, reaching above his head, his arm fully extended. "He almost killed her. The cops came and arrested him."
JoAnn Meepos of KMK Management, which operates properties in the Los Angeles area, offers $200 a month off rent for part-time onsite managers. But when people get a taste for what's really involved, they often don't like it, Meepos says. "It's a pain-in-the-neck job."
On the other side of things, tenants utter a shared prayer: Please don't dump a fussy, nosy building manager on me. Less-than-ideal managers are those who go on power trips and assume the worst of tenants, Meepos says. But still, she defends the put-upon apartment manager, saying, "Who in their right mind would want to be in that business?"
And in fact, Cavalin's main theme for the first hour of his class is about how to not get sued. "Many managers don't know anything," he says.
Cavalin posits a hypothetical: Let's say the manager is cleaning the floor next to a glass entry door to the complex, and has marked the floor to show it's wet. A tenant outside knocks on the door to get in. He lets her in and she immediately slips and, thwack! — Cavalin claps his hands loudly — hits the floor, busting her head open.
Can she sue? Cavalin pauses, to blank stares. "Yes," she can, he says. "Why? Because the guy opened the door."
And that's just the beginning of the blizzard of laws that can put an apartment manager in a bind. Some might find state law a little intimidating: Don't ask rental applicants if they are married or have children, Cavalin says, because under California law, that could open a landlord to a discrimination complaint. Another example: If a Koreatown landlord hires a receptionist who can only answer phones in Korean, that could lead to lawsuits.
The law even protects superstitious tenants. If someone dies or is killed in the apartment, Cavalin says, for three years the manager must inform any subsequent prospective tenants. And the dead-tenant law gets far more complicated than that: Landlords must disclose the manner of death, but there's another layer on top of that — not if it's AIDS-related. Students raise their eyebrows when he explains that if the landlords keep tenants in the dark about past deaths, the renters can break the lease.
"Everything you do, you need to write a letter," Cavalin cautions. "You know why? You need the paper trail."
Maureen Lambe, of the National Apartments Association, says managing rental units is "probably the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the time, the residents are happy, they like where they live, they like how you keep their property well maintained, and they appreciate it."
Most important to the ranks of unemployed but educated young people, the jobs offer a foot in the door for recent grads, Lambe says — especially business management and real estate majors and aspiring entrepreneurs. They just have to realize, "You need to like people, you need to like solving problems," she says. "You need to like a job that's going to be different every day."