| Times Herald-Record
PORT JERVIS – A tax lien sale for 20 properties in Port Jervis brought a small but avid crowd of masked, socially distanced bidders to the Port Jervis Fire Department’s Delaware Engine Company No. 2 firehouse recently.
Several bidders were regular participants who have multiple properties in Port Jervis, particularly Karan Garewal, who walked away with 13 of the 20 tax liens. Others included Avi Itzkowitz of Rockland County, who said he was bidding with the hope of getting ownership of property when liens are not paid off within two years. But Roger Kowalski, another bidding enthusiast, said that 99 percent of properties are redeemed.
Marion Johnson is comfortable with that. She likes the interest paid on liens. But she owns a number of rental properties in Port Jervis, some of which she acquired through lien sales over the last 22 years. She declined to say how many.
“We take good care of anything we touch,” she said. “I’ve gone through six property managers.”
Her 15 years teaching at Port Jervis High School, 2001 to 2016, acquainted her with the city and its residents.
“It’s a wonderful community,” she said affectionately.
But the learning curve has been steep for managing property there.
Johnson became interested in property management and renovation after marrying attorney Kurt Johnson, whose family had been involved with design and construction.
“He liked to renovate and flip houses,” she said, including historic houses they lived in.
She had accumulated some money doing surgical sales for a few years in a break from teaching, and she invested some of that money in property in Port Jervis and elsewhere, although Port Jervis is her focus, she said. Her first was 156 Jersey Ave., bought at an estate sale. Then she bought some properties from Art Trovei, “major fixer-uppers,” she said.
“We do multi-strategy buying. My husband flips them. I’m the mom/caretaker — safety first. There are needy people here,” she said. “I need to look out for them.”
One tenant lost their savings to an online scam.
“You can’t throw them out. You have to be patient,” she said. “I was involved in a hands-on way.”
But deception and destruction have also been issues.
“I really checked people out,” she said. “Someone completely fabricated their past leases. I said, ‘You said you lived here 30 years, but you lived in Florida five months ago.’ And they conceal their evictions.”
When health issues interfered with her vigilance, Johnson hired property managers, going through several before she found Karen Davidson. Their negligence at any point could result in calamity if they did a skimpy background check, hired an unqualified worker, or failed to keep an eye on the property.
In a no-cats-allowed building, one tenant had 37 cats. They were discovered when cat urine leaked through the ceiling of the tenant below, who reported it. The floor had to be gutted.
Another tenant poured cement into a toilet. Another tried to remove a toilet and lighting fixtures. One property manager angered a tenant who then smeared excrement on the wall.
Johnson appreciates not only Davidson’s thorough background checks and constant vigilance, but also her “mutually respectful” relationships with tenants. Davidson has not had to evict any tenants, although in a couple of situations, she asked them to leave, Johnson said.
Asked about her process for evaluating tenant applications, Davidson, a licensed realtor, declined to say, not wanting to give potential applicants clues that could enable them to elude her scrutiny. However, many new tenants have been referred by previous ones, she said. She manages buildings for several property owners and keeps an eye on them by driving past each of them at least once daily.
Johnson also buys tax liens in online sales in Florida, since she lives in Venice, Florida, part time.
“I have an 88-year-old couple who are tenants. I care for them like my parents,” she said.
Property investments have become a “passion,” but she warned, “You can’t do this as a hobby. You have to have financial backing or you can lose your shirt.”
Many properties she acquires need substantial work. Although usually tax liens are redeemed, last year she took ownership of two properties. She sold one, 9 East Main St., to her accountant, Alaina Jamieson of Dingmans Ferry, Pa., who said she spent $5000 just on removing the garbage. Her husband is replacing the roof. Another property, at 9 Cross St., still has no clear title.
“I had to gut it. It had extension cords in the walls. I took out the walls, spent $12,000 on new electric wiring, and the interior will have to be reframed. It’ll be pristine, and it will sell. It’s a nice neighborhood,” Johnson said.
The project will also provide work and training for people who will be out of their current jobs in two months, she added.