Warning: This story is probably going to enrage you. Part-time New Yorker Melissa Frost — full disclosure: she’s a friend of mine — wanted to help out the victims of Hurricane Sandy and she conveniently had a vacant room in the house she owns in Philadelphia. So when a 55-year-old man got in touch with her about renting out a room, she was all too happy to let him move in. “I got a response to the ad for the house from this guy saying he had been displaced by Sandy, and was still in Rockaways with no heat,” Frost told The Frisky. “He had pets and a seemingly good Internet persona–well educated, 55 … a reasonable adult.” Since her house happened to be unrented at the moment, “I told him it could be a good layover spot while he looked to find permanent housing.”
But no good deed goes unpunished.
So Melissa arranged to have the man come and check out her house, so she could suss him out personally. Instead, “He showed up in a van with all of his things––including his two cats and dog,” she explained. “He thought he could just move in right then and there, and I said, directly — multiple times — ‘I’m very uncomfortable’ and ‘Can’t I have at least a day to think it over?’ to which he basically said no. He said he had this rented van that he needed to return and these pets [to care for] and this and that.”
The plan was for the man to stay there for the month of November. Because of his Hurricane Sandy refugee status, Melissa asked for a check in the amount of $600, which is what she estimated her utilities would cost. Here’s where tenant/landlord law gets crazy. Despite not having a lease or sublease with her, when Frost cashed his check, he officially became her tenant.
Melissa returned to New York, and two weeks later, headed back down to Philly to check on her house. She was mortified by the sight that greeted her. “When I got there, the place was a mess,” she explained. “His stuff was in a bunch of rooms when it had been made clear he had the rights to one room.”
He’d been letting his dog sleep in Frost’s bedroom, and he responded in a wild, apoplectic way when she confronted him about it. A few days later, Melissa inquired about his living situation for the month of December, and though they’d agreed he’d only stay at her house for November, he responded, “Well, I thought I’d stay here.”
“I realized I needed to talk to him,” Frost said. Initially, “he was reasonable and calm and I was honest about my being freaked out because he was messy, and things in the house were getting damaged. He said he hadn’t found somewhere but he was looking and he would be out as soon as possible.”
Later that day, though, his approach took a 180. “He was angry and threatening,” said Frost. “That’s when he basically said that he was the tenant and it was going to be hell to get him out, that he had ‘rights’ to my house.” She attempted to reason with him, but “he was purposely speaking down to me in this really calm, sadistic tone I hadn’t heard before. He was saying that he had all the rights and I had none. Literally! I was crying, offered to pay him to leave.”
But he wouldn’t. And as the days dragged on, he became more and more firmly entrenched in her home. “He made it clear that if I touched any of his things, there would be problems. He threatens in that way — in vague, indirect threats, like, ‘You know better than to do that.’”
When Frost attempted to remove some of his ephemera from the house’s kitchen, he refused to put it in his room, and then tried to push her down the stairs. Thankfully, Melissa had a friend named Peter over who intervened, and while the man attacked Peter, Frost was able to escape and call the cops. But when the man heard Frost dialing the police, he also decided to call them, racing to file a claim against her before she could file an assault claim against him. Frost says he actually broke some of his own stuff so that he could claim that she did it.
Frost had had enough, so she filed to evict him.
But here’s where shit gets extra twisted. In a newspaper interview about the eviction, he admitted, Frost said, “that he had wanted me to file the legal eviction so that he could sue me without paying the court costs.” Because this man is so educated about the legal system, he knows exactly how to manipulate it. “He told me, ‘I’ve done this plenty of times and I’m going to ruin you,’” Frost told us. “He said, ‘You are going to spend the next two years of your life in and out of court.’” Did I mention that this guy claims to have a law degree and is representing himself in court?
Three months later, Frost has figured out that this was his master plan all along, “It’s not that he just wants to stay in the house,” Frost said. “He does — I mean, he has a sweet deal. A house that usually costs $2,300 to rent, he has all to himself.” But he’s also trying to make money by suing Frost for emotional damage, slander — anything he can get his hands on. “He filed some 35-page response to my eviction, claiming i kicked his dog, punched him — all this stuff.” And because he had at one point overheard Frost talking about going on anxiety medication, he continually harangued her about being mentally ill.
When I asked Melissa why she hadn’t attempted to change the locks on him, she said “He has that place on lockdown. He is very literally holding down the fort.” Plus, “His things are in the house. If I were to change the locks, the cops would let him in immediately. And I’d go to jail and have something that he could actually sue me for.”
Because the landlord tenant laws in Philadelphia swing so heavily in the tenant’s favor, it doesn’t matter that this man hasn’t paid rent for the months he’s been in her home. Because he is de facto living there, he has a claim on the place.
“When I look back it totally makes sense,” Frost said. “The way he pushed me, the things he did — they all fit within the fucked up allowances he has under the law.” And that’s the trouble when you’re dealing with a well-educated criminal. “When I tried to file for a protection from abuse order — because of the way in which he threatened me and because he always shoved me but never hit me, it was classified as ‘simple assault,’ which they don’t prosecute for.”
“This guy terrorized me more than I could have ever imagined was allowable under the law,” Frost said. “He knew what he was doing. He still knows what he’s doing. He’s sitting in my damn house,.” Frost has depleted her savings and has taken on a second job to hire a lawyer to fight this man in court. (If you want to help her out, check out Help For Melissa, which was started by her friends.)
And here’s the really terrifying part of it (and it’s all terrifying) — this guy works with children. He’s a tutor for an online educational company!
Melissa — and I — believes this situation has played out this way in part because she is a woman and this man doesn’t truly feel threatened by her. “This guy is clearly a misogynist,” Frost said. “He has made multiple demeaning comments about women that were just bizarre. And I can say for sure that he would not have tried to do this to a man. The fact that I’m a young woman and he’s an older man made that all possible. There was literally that flip, where he went from being this cordial, polite person who understood he was a guest in my house, to someone who was approaching me aggressively and flat out saying, ‘This is my house now.’” Plus, because he doesn’t fear her, “The worst I can do is take him to court and win a settlement that he says he’s not going to pay. And that’s what’s happened so far.”
Above all, Melissa is trying to figure out how to piece together her identity after someone else tore it apart. “It was really strange to see myself in this submissive and fearful position because I’ve always been really tough,” she explained. “And unfortunately, that’s permeated other areas of her life. I told her I think she might have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and she agrees.
Frost now has a lawyer, who is handling the long and sloggy process of getting this guy actually legally removed from her house. They had their first of what will likely be many court appearances and the judge ruled in Melissa’s favor, telling the man, “I dont believe a word you say. You are incredible, and frankly, you’re scary.”
Frost is bow trying to move on with her life. Hopefully this man will be legally required to leave the house soon. In the meantime, she’s glad she’s speaking out. “At the time I was just so utterly disempowered and scared, but finding a lawyer, talking about it with friends and not going anywhere near the house has been good for me,” she said. She’s fearful of what this squatter will do to her house in her absence but is resigned to waiting out the situation and dealing with the damage when she can. She’s also pretty sure she never wants to be a landlord again, and after 10 years of home ownership, she’s considering selling.
As for what she now advises others to do? “Go with your gut,” she said. “I let that guy push me into something I was so not comfortable with. He was manipulative and pushy and I caved. I was being too empathetic, thinking he was that way because of his position following the hurricane. But do not let that justify someone pushing you into something you are uncomfortable with. I didn’t like him, I thought he was a misogynist, but I justified it with ‘He hasn’t had power for days, and this is probably so stressful and…’ Empathy is a great human characteristic, but it can totally be used to manipulate you.”
Contact the author of this post at Julie@thefrisky.com or follow her on Twitter at @havethehabit