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The landlord tenant relationship - It’s complicated!!

March 10, 2021by Biswa Das

The past year has been unlike any that most of us have witnessed during our lives. While natural disasters and pandemics in specific parts of the world have occurred with growing frequency, the global scale and magnitude of COVID-19 will remain as one of the most devastating and disruptive events in world history. No country has suffered as much as the United States, losing over 523,000 lives as of this writing. The economy is in a downward spiral from which it will take a long time to recover to the pre-pandemic levels of January, 2020. The economic slowdown continues to have a big impact on all major parts of the economy. Rental housing has been in the limelight with a lot of media coverage highlighting the difficulty that many tenants have experienced trying to pay rent, the assistance that they received from the federal and state governments, eviction moratoriums, landlord decisions on eviction, etc. Expectedly most of the focus has been on the tenants. As in academic research over time, the current crisis has shed less light on the landlords, the challenges they go through during difficult economic times, and how they navigate through to sustain their businesses.

At the core of the rental housing is the complicated relationship that exists between landlords and tenants. Nothing better captures this than what one landlord had to share in her survey response – “I offered to let them pay a little later because they're good stewards of my property and I'm not an a……. They have not needed to take me up on that offer.” As we can expect, the nature of this relationship varies depending on the characteristics of the landlords and the tenants. The general perception however has always been one where the tenant has less power and the landlord is the one backed up by different types of regulations they have at their disposal that they can enforce on the tenants at any available opportunity. Stories in the media further this perception by mostly focusing on stories of tenant stress. Seldom does one come across positive stories of landlords assisting tenants in one way or another. The visuals of an eviction are such that it becomes difficult for most to go beyond the tenant to understand the landlord’s situation and perspective. In no other time during the last 50-60 years has this relationship been tested more than during the ongoing pandemic and the resulting impacts on tenants and landlords.

While we have become accustomed to this general stereotyping of the landlord as the ‘enforcer’ who is making it difficult for the tenant at every available opportunity, nothing is farther from the truth. Landlords are not a monolithic group with similar characteristics who behave almost uniformly across the landscape. Landlords are a highly heterogeneous group, dominated by small mom and pop types who own and rent a small number of units. Run as a formal and well-organized business, landlords who own much higher number of properties and units and are usually more visible across communities, especially in large population centers. It is however surprising that housing research has not given more attention to the landlords. As a result, we do not understand the complicated relationship that they have with tenants. Our study is a step in that direction. It goes in depth to understand how landlords have been impacted during the pandemic as well as the types of response they have come up with for their tenants, while trying to keep their businesses afloat.