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Why don’t we know more about landlords?

March 03, 2021by Jane Rongerude

We started this project with a simple question: How are landlords responding to the COVID 19 pandemic? In our early conversations as a research team, we realized that we could not predict how rental housing might play out as the shelter in place requirements stretched into the future and the economic repercussions of the pandemic continued to grow. A moratorium on eviction could help to keep tenants in place, but what kind of stress was it putting on the landlords? We wondered if these policy interventions were preventing an eviction crisis only to give rise to a foreclosure crisis in the near future. We have only just begun analyzing our qualitative comments from the landlord survey, but even a preliminary review shows that landlords have this same concern:

    “We own property in a desirable neighborhood. We have also been lucky that our tenants have been able to pay their rent. If any of them could not make rental payments, we would have struggled to make our mortgage payments. None of our lenders offered assistance.”
    “Yes, being a mom and pop business is hard. We suffer more due to the lack of city and federal support… Even with Covid 19 going on, the government stopped evictions but not but foreclosures…”

When we turned to the literature to find questions, we discovered something surprising; there are significant gaps in our understanding about landlords. To begin addressing those gaps, in 2014, HUD funded a 5 year ethnographic study focused on landlords in the Housing Choice Voucher program, which was carried out by researchers from the Poverty and Inequality Research Lab at Johns Hopkins University. This study looked at landlords in three cities: Baltimore, Cleveland, and Dallas. The findings from that study were published in a report by Garboden et al titled, “Urban Landlords and the Housing Choice Voucher Program: A Research Report (2018).” The study documented the heterogeneity of the landlord population among the three cities in terms of variables such as race of the landlord, portfolio size, and reason for rental property ownership. It also provided insight into why amateurs invest in the real estate market. Beyond this study, we lack even the basic research that allows us to talk about meaningful categories of landlords. Those of us who study housing tend to talk about the small holders who own one to four units, the large corporate interests who sometimes hold hundreds of units, and then we make vague gestures when we talk about everything in between. We do not know who the landlords are. We do not know how many units they hold, what their annual income is, or what percentage of their annual income is derived from their rental properties. We do not know much about their finances – either the extent of their reserves or how much debt they hold. We also do not know how to reach them.

The US housing system relies on the private market as its primary means for the production and distribution of housing. Nationally, rental housing accounts for 35.9% of the existing housing stock. That is 44,077, 990 units (ACS estimates, 2019). Yet somehow, we know very little about residential rental property owners, those entities colloquially referred to as landlords. The US Census Bureau’s Rental Housing Finance Survey collects data about units and buildings, but the landlord is not the unit of analysis, and as a result, is only indirectly present in the data. As evictions grow and housing stability becomes one of the urban central challenges within the COVID context, we see the danger in knowing so little about this category of housing providers. As we continue to analyze our findings and expand our study, we will continue to pursue the question: What don’t we know about landlords? As we find answers, we will continue to make them available on this dashboard.