The Accidental Slumlord

Los Guido, Desamparados, Costa Rica

Ever find yourself asking yourself “How in HELL did I end up doing THIS???” Well, even if you haven’t, I have. To tell the whole story would require a book I’m not ready to write, but here’s the Reader’s Digest version.

I met Margarita back in 2004. We dated a little but eventually just became friends. She was (and is) the mother of 4. Not too long after I met her, I went to her ‘house’ for some reason I can’t recall, and got a good taste of what Costa Rican poverty was like. She lived in Los Guido, Desamparados, a suburb of San Jose. The place she lived in was built by the banks of a smelly creek, and to get to the entrance we had to ‘walk the plank’ and hop from there to a stone, then down to the ground over to the makeshift wooden steps (mismatched pieces of wood, with a couple of steps missing) up into the ‘house’ itself. It had a corrugated iron roof, or maybe it was tin. It was divided into ‘rooms’ by improvised curtains. It wasn’t as bad as several places I’ve seen since, and it was relatively big for a ‘precario’ (shanty).

Fast forward several years. Margarita decides, quite rightly, that the neighborhood is bad for her older sons, now teenagers, and rents the old place out and moves to a better area… still not so hot, and the house is pretty rundown, but it’s not really a slum, by Costa Rican standards at least.

Well, due to her ignorance, she ended up losing her ‘rights’ to the home. She never had title due to legal reasons I don’t quite understand, but essentially NOBODY will ever have legal title to the land due to government restrictions. However, she (or somebody) CAN have the right to live there, and can SELL that right to someone else. She can own the structure, but not the land… sort of. Sound complicated? You betcha!

Pura Vida

So, Margarita rents the place out, and due to ignorance and negligence on her part, the renters end up SELLING the place to some other people. How that was legal, or if it was, I have not the slightest idea. I have talked to an attorney regarding this and got just enough explanation to see that trying to recover the property for her by way of the legal system here would likely be a grand exercise in futility. The courts here move at a (pre-global warming) glacial pace, and the outcome is always dubious, based on the whims of the judges involved.

In any case, the current ‘owners’ agreed to give the ‘rights’ back to Margarita, but on the condition that she pay them for the improvements they made, which came to about $5000. Margarita would have had to rob a bank to get that money herself, so in steps Sir Galahad (me). The house’s market value would be several thousand more than the $5000, so when she explained it all to me, I decided (probably foolishly) to loan her the money to retake possession of her house. Unfortunately (or fortunately, maybe) she can’t move in the place herself, as she was able to get a government subsidized house of her own in a nicer (though still funky) neighborhood. The catch is that she can’t OWN another place, even if it’s just right of possession.

In order to cover my own butt, I decided to have the ‘right of possession’ put in my own name, with the idea of selling the place as soon as possible, and in the meantime, renting it out to one or more of Margarita’s vast family, maybe even letting them stay there for free if it came to that, to make sure no squatters took it over, which in this lovely country is something that is always a possibility, even if you have legal title to everything, including the land.

Assuming we can find somebody with the money to buy the place, which I am told is likely, we should come out ahead a few thousand dollars.

And so, at the moment, I am the Accidental Slumlord.

What a world.

(And yes, I know I need my head examined.)

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  1. bremss says:

    If you make money or not, you will still profit from your kindness.

  2. Don Quixote says:

    If you sell it for more than $5,000, who gets the profit? Also at the time of the "investment" I presume you were not in love. If I am correct, see Mario's above comment and remember it was not me that called you STUPID.

  3. Precarios in Costa Rica are usually built on vacant land, which usually turns out to be owned by the government. So, this is why there is no title. The right to live there is called in Spanish, "usufructo". It usually starts with squatter's rights.