The Landlord Question

With evictions, unemployment, and the pandemic there are many people suffering in our community. In the midst of our current economic crisis, many people are now having hard conversations on what is “fair” when it comes to rental properties. Of course, when having these conversations on evictions and fair housing, you will occasionally come across the “What About the Landlord?” question. What will they do without their “income”, and how could they possibly “maintain” the property without it? This is a question most housing advocates, organizers and tenants will come across, but that question has this misguided affiliation with what a landlord is. This question says, “being a landlord is a job”, or “landlords are fulfilling a need”, but this is not necessarily true. The truth is that being a landlord is an investment, and that they are not fulfilling a need, they are taking advantage of one. This question also hides the systemic problem with eviction, and how it disproportionately affects the tenant in contrast to the landlord. So let's talk about it.

"It's a job"

Is it? One of the arguments for landlording being a job is that it provides “income” to the landlord, but stocks also provide income to people and we don’t consider ownership of stocks an occupation. A job requires the exchange of time for labor and getting paid for it, but landlords are not required to trade their labor to be one, it requires capital (just like a stock). Further, the price of rent is not based on wages but on property value. Landlords set rent prices off of what the housing market says their property is worth, not what the average income is for that area, just like a stock. It starts to sound like an investment when you really break it down.

If we talk about the maintenance of a building, yes landlords are required to make sure that their units are properly maintained; but then again so are tenants. If one was to argue fixing a leaky roof or baseboard heat in your property is a job, then tenants who mop, dust, turn off lights, or even flush the toilet are also aiding you in “maintaining the property”. So unless tenants are getting a subsidy for floor cleaner then maintaining a property is not a job, it’s a duty to honor the legally binding contract.

“Fulfilling a need”

Many people will argue for the necessity of landlords with this idea driving the conversation. It may not always be explicitly said, but it is the major factor in the Landlord Question. The problem is that it's not true. Since before human history was written, people have lived in a home. It is a need for survival like food or water. Landlords are not a need for survival, they did not come about because humans really needed to pay rent. The fact is they know people need to live in homes so they own more than they need to make a profit. Now one can argue that there are folks who like to rent because they are not sure if they want to permanently be a resident of wherever they are, but whether they are renting for a year or a decade it’s still true that they need a home to live in. Not all renters want to be renters and there are a lot of tenants that plan to stay in their city and are not renting on a temporary basis. Landlords are literally making profit from the fact that humans, whether they rent or own, need a home to continue being alive.

More and more luxury apartments are being built in our fair city, and not because the community needs more granite countertops, but because landlords can make more money on an apartment that costs more. This is about maximizing profit, not fulfilling a need. People are not homeless and on the street because there are not enough stainless steel appliances in their neighborhood. With rent increases annually and the ever growing lack of affordable housing in Harrisburg, it is apparent that most landlords are trying to profit more on the need for shelter than fulfilling the needs of the community they are operating in.

Eviction

Then there is the problem with evictions. Now some think the whole idea of eviction is barbaric, but there are defenders and they probably will be the same people who ask the “Landlord Question”. They would say that eviction is for when tenants don’t fulfill their end of the contract and are ejected from the property they were contractually obligated to. One of the many problems with evictions is the lop-sided impact of evictions on tenants. If one is evicted not only do they lose their home, they are permanently marked and will have to spend much more money and time to find a new home, if they can.

Landlords do not lose their housing, nor are they negatively impacted by how many evictions they undertake. There is no mechanism to track how often and under what circumstances landlords evict tenants, and no repercussions if it seems that they may be excessively punishing people. The only penalty for landlords when they evict someone is the loss of time to file the paperwork, but the tenant faces a black mark on their name, potentially forever. The benefit is that landlords are able to selectively rent to tenants they prefer, and tenants who support their ability to profit.

The fact that eviction is so detrimental to tenants is used as a threat, whether it is overt or covert, to make tenants pay rent even if it's at the cost of their other survival needs. Eviction is not a judicial dissolving of a contract, it is a punishment for tenants enforced by the system.

The one-sided penalties for eviction existed before the pandemic and the economic crisis we now face. So many have lost their income by no fault of their own and this virus has shown how important a home is, not just for the safety of an individual, but the safety of the community as a whole. This proves even more that landlords are not just taking advantage of individuals, but taking advantage of everyone in the community. When they profit off of the housing market, they profit off of the community we created. When they evict a tenant and put them in danger, they put all of us in danger. So the “Landlord Question” it's not about pitting livelihood against livelihood. It's about putting money before lives, not just one life, all of our lives.

A bleak picture is before us. All of the mechanisms in place seem to favor the profiters of property over the occupiers of it. The only way to change this unfair system of punishment and exploitation of our neighbors is to come together and demand change from our city, leaders, and most of all, landlords.