5 Reasons Landlords Say They’re Not to Blame for High Rents and Evictions

(iStock image)
(iStock image)

If you want a crowd to turn against you, then just tell people you’re a landlord. In some circles, those who own property and rent to others rank near the top of regional public enemies, alongside tech workers, Dodger fans, and oh, I don’t know, people who kick puppies for fun.

But are landlords really to blame for soaring rents, increased evictions and the much-bemoaned changing culture of the Bay Area?

Without a doubt, they’re one of the big players at the table when we talk about increasing rents and evictions. But as a number of “Forum” commenters have pointed out, there are many factors that add to the problem of scarce, expensive housing, including the relatively small slice of land available for development in the inner Bay Area and the increased competition for housing as the regional economy improves.

As KQED’s “Priced Out” series continues, we’re hearing a whole spectrum of views on housing prices and evictions. Here’s a brief list of reasons landlords say they’re not responsible for the current rental housing crunch. The quotes below are from KQED’s “Forum” last Friday: Evictions on the Rise in San Francisco. You can listen to the show in its entirety by clicking here.

1. Not All Landlords Are Created Equal

The “Forum” hour featured lots of complaints about big real-estate firms and corporate-style landlords raising rents and evicting tenants. But the Bay Area has plenty of small landlords who have a completely different way of doing business.

One property owner, referred to only as “Jeanne” at her request, said she was a “mom-and-pop landlord” running a business “not any different than owning a bakery.” Jeanne’s family has been in San Francisco “for over a hundred years,” and her mother bought a building 40 years ago. “That’s what supported our family. We are not part of the affluent class. Now that I have a family, I cannot afford to move out of the one-bedroom apartment in this building.” Jeanne said her family has developed relationships with their tenants, helping to take care of them as they age.

2. Landlords Get Screwed, Too

Chances are that at some point, your landlord has suffered at the hands of bad tenants or life circumstances. Mike in San Francisco called in during the show to share the story of what sounds like a generous landlord who found himself needing money because of health problems:

My wife’s uncle had two tenants in a building in the Marina and for 30 plus years he never raised the rent. He was a wonderful landlord. And he got dementia and needed to go into assisted care and the family needed to sell the building and what I don’t understand is — the two tenants who are in there — the longer you stay, you earn basically equity in the building. Because whoever wants to buy that building has to give those two tenants a huge payout in order to get them out of the building or keep them at $300 a month. You know, no matter whether you’re a teacher or whatever your role is in the community, at a certain point there has to be some way to measure the fact that you have been the beneficiary of when you have a great landlord.”

As easy as it is to vilify landlords for evicting tenants so that they can sell a property, some landlords may simply need the money. When you consider that possibility, selling to the highest bidder seems more a logical economic decision and less an act of greed.

And let’s not forget that just as all landlords are not created equal, neither are tenants. Jeanne praised many of her tenants but added, “We also have tenants who destroy the property, who harass other tenants, who steal and vandalize, and we can’t get them out.”

3. The Rules Have Changed for Many Landlords

The deal has changed for some longtime landlords in cities such as San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, which have approved rent control laws over the years. Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, a tenants’ group, said on the show that “landlords know what they’ve gotten into when they buy property, and they know what our laws are and they’ve decided to sign up.”

But that’s not always the case. As Jeanne and other listeners pointed out — many landlords bought their buildings before rent control was on the books.

4. Landlords Have Some Decent Ideas

Throughout KQED’s Priced Out series, many listeners and readers have asked about solutions to the issues of rising rents and evictions, only to be told that under current market conditions, there’s little hope things will get better soon.

But there are some ideas out there. Janan New, executive director of the San Francisco Apartment Association, said there’s a lot San Francisco could learn from New York:

“New York every year does a housing study, and they put out a book of statistics about the market and what rents are, what exists [in terms of] housing that’s available — we should be doing that here. … They have a department of housing and everything is run through there. We’re fragmentized here, where we have several  different departments in housing — nobody knows what the other department is doing. …

“… The other thing that New York has that’s different than San Francisco is their owner-occupied buildings are exempt from rent control. Our owner-occupied buildings were put under rent control in 1991 and they were exempt prior to that. And it worked a lot better. It allowed for flexibility for mom-and-pop owners to cut deals with their tenants, feed their tenants and not be punished for that.”

5. It’s Not All Their Fault

There are lots of causes for the lack of housing, especially affordable housing, in the Bay Area: the economy, the physical landscape and the loss of redevelopment money that allowed cities to help get more housing built.

Janan New of the San Francisco Apartment Association noted there’s a basic imbalance between what’s happening in the city’s labor market and what’s happening in the housing market:

“We created basically 13,000 jobs last year” said New, “and we put 120 new housing units on the market. So I don’t think we can continue this way without further cannibalization of the rental housing stock because people want to come here, people are going to continue to come here. And they need a place to live.”

In a rare moment of agreement, both New and Sara Shortt, of the Housing Rights Committee, acknowledged that one must look at the “broader context” of the housing market.

Said Shortt:

“We also have the hoarding issue… We also have people who have pied-à-terres in the city now, it’s their second, maybe third rental unit that they have, or they have it on top of a home ownership unit. We have people who are doing the Airbnb thing where they are holding the units off the market and they’re renting them out just as vacation rentals… We’re seeing more and more of those types of things.”

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Author

Amanda Stupi

Amanda Stupi is an interactive producer for KQED News. She grew up in Northern California, where her mother would woo her inside on warm summer nights with promises of The Monkees and CHIPS. Stupi is fascinated with the intersection between popular culture and the fine arts. Her idea of artistic perfection includes The Beastie Boys' Check Your Head, Joni Mitchell's Blue, Bull Durham, several episodes of Cheers, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and most of Wallace Stevens' poetry. Stupi's life goals include watching every episode of Law and Order, finishing a screenplay and thanking her mom in an Oscar acceptance speech.

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