Everything Wrong with Rent - The Landlord

8 November 2020

The is part 5 in a series on rent.

Besides preventing people from enjoying all the benefits that a home can offer, the interposition of a landlord has several other negative consequences.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, the need for maintenance and repairs is often brought up in defense of renting: landlords are responsible for carrying out the work a resident couldn’t do or wouldn’t want to bother with. Unfortunately though, it can just as well be the landlord who can’t be bothered to take care of a problem.

Fundamentally, this is an issue of incentives:

  • An owner who lives in his home cares about both the integrity of the structure, and his own comfort.
  • A tenant is interested in his own comfort, but less so about long-term issues.
  • A landlord wants his property to remain intact in the long term, but is not directly affected by any shortcomings in the day-to-day quality of life it provides as long as someone else is living there.

Naturally, all of the above is in theory. Individual personality quirks still apply. But fundamentally, a landlord has less incentive to carry out renovations, or repairs with any alacrity, compared to the tenant living there.

I once lived in a home in Jerusalem with a crumbling kitchen counter and a cracked sink with recesses under where it met the counter, which seemed designed to become rank with mold. The whole thing was repellent, and had it been mine, I would have replaced it all. But it wasn’t mine, so I did my cooking reluctantly, uncomfortably, and only when necessary. The landlord was not interested in making any improvements at all, even as he raised the rent from year to year. Why bother? If I left, he’d just get his rent from a new tenant. The location was excellent and quality apartments are hard to come by in Jerusalem. If in twenty years he decided to sell it, or move in himself, he could always straighten it up then.

Later, I lived in a much spiffier apartment in Tel Aviv. It was newly built, or at least recently renovated. It was clean and smooth, freshly tiled and painted, with no dank corners or foreboding recesses. I only managed to snag it because I happened to be the first one to show up after the ad was placed.

But its appearance was deceiving. Later on, in the winter, our pristine apartment began to take on a different appearance:

Mold on ceilingWater damage by window

Mold spread across the bathroom ceiling. Water soaked through the wall in the kitchen, and poured in from upper part of the window when it rained. I had to mop the floors during storms so the furniture wouldn’t get damaged. The landlord came by for a look, and eventually sent someone to make repairs. He fiddled a bit with something, but the problems persisted, and then we’d have to call the landlord again. This cycle repeated many times, at an agonizingly slow pace, for months. Would the landlord have let the problem drag on if he were the one breathing in mold and jumping out of bed at 3 AM to mop?

This was a strange case because it wasn’t a cosmetic issue or a broken appliance. There were structural problems there that caused more and more real damage over time. The landlord should have been as eager to halt them as we were, given his basic incentives. But even though this was his “investment,” apparently the psychological remove was sufficient to dampen his motivation. By the end of our sojourn in that apartment, we had come to a standoff where I was threatening to sue him if he didn’t compensate us by reducing our final payments.

It can be difficult enough to maintain a home without having to go through an intermediary. Unfortunately, tenants often cannot hire electricians, plumbers, or exterminators for even light jobs on their own, let alone arrange more for more serious structural repairs. They are at the mercy of someone whose incentives are not always aligned with theirs, and even when they should be, they may simply be lazy, busy, or ineffectual.

The law can offer some protection in these cases, but only after a long, strenuous process. In my case I was able to get a rent reduction by bringing an attorney’s letter and talking tough. Perhaps the same flaw that induced that landlord’s lackadaisical approach to his own property also predisposed him to take the easy way out with me. But in any case, such a result is never guaranteed and I would have preferred to receive neither the discount nor the strain that preceded it.

A landlord is no more guaranteed to be a facilitator than an obstacle. Therefore, is better for the one living in a space to bear his own responsibility for maintaining its quality. If he cares to keep it intact, he will be free to do so without hurdles or delay. If he abstains, he’ll only reap what he’s sown, and no one else will be to blame.

Everything Wrong with Rent - Wrested from the Uncanniness of the Universe

4 November 2020

This is part 4 of a series on rent.

So far we’ve discussed how home rental is an asymmetrical relationship between landlord and tenant, which exploits the latter for the former’s enrichment. That’s not the only drawback though. Here we’ll look at why home ownership is what we should be aiming for, even aside from financial considerations.

What is a home?

A home is not just a place to sleep and sit, with a roof to block out the sun and rain. It is the one tiny point in the vast world that we can call our own and where we can live by our own rules. As Martin Buber puts it in A Believing Humanism:

These days I read in the newspaper that the Prime Minister of Burma has promised his people a welfare state in which each citizen shall have his own house. This sort of statement rings in our ears like a romantic utopia, hence like a utopia which lacks the most precious quality of a utopia: to be unromantic. But it is not so romantic and also not so utopian as it sounds; for it is bound up with one of those primal demands of the human heart which at any moment, overnight, will break through to actualization and become self evident. Man not only must have a dwelling, he also wants it. And he wants to dwell in a house. But in the imperishable primal language of the human heart house means my house, your house, a man’s own house. The house is the winning throw of the dice which man has wrested from the uncanniness of universe; it is his defense against the chaos that threatens to invade him. Therefore his deeper wish is that it be his own house, that he not have to share with anyone other than his own family.

A home fulfills so many roles. It is a refuge from the outside world where we can feel comfortable and safe. It grounds us when life is chaotic. It is one thing that can remain constant over the years, though jobs, friends, and routines of all sorts may change.

It gives us quiet and privacy when we wish, to the degree we wish. But it is also a place to open up and receive others, to entertain; a stage for our hospitality.

We may work from home, plant a garden, and grow our own food there if we have the space. It is also a place to play, cook, do crafts, and make music.

A home both stores and displays our belongings. It absorbs our character over time and grants an impression of our history and our tastes to any who visit. Over the years we alter and shape it more and more to fit our needs and habits, likes and dislikes, and it becomes in a way an extension of ourselves.

A home is a place of warmth and many memories. As I write this, I think fondly of my grandparents’ house, with its many old clocks always ticking away, different colors in each room, unusual furniture, the owl sculpture on the porch, the birdbath and bird feeders in the backyard, the garden my grandmother always filled with flowers until she was too old to manage it, the cobblestones my grandfather had placed to line the driveway. And I think of the times spent there as a child, holidays there with family, and how I later drove there to visit as an adult, and how my parents themselves were wed there (before I was born, but I’ve seen photos). When my grandmother moved to a senior development later in life to be nearer to my parents, she arranged her new home beautifully, but it was missing the memories and authenticity that build up over a lifetime.

Shaping our homes to fit us

Our homes may never reach perfection perfect (nothing does), but over time they can become more and more closely suited to the people who live in them. In our own home, we might knock down a wall to open up a kitchen. Or we might put one up, so as to get some peace from screaming children or a nagging spouse. A friend of mine who is rather tall found that kitchen countertops in most homes were too low for him. When he bought his own home, he had counters installed that he didn’t have to hunch over to use. We can install custom bookshelves, flooring, window treatments. Windows might be added, blocked up, or changed for a different type. We can pamper ourselves with French doors, stained glass, pet doors, beautiful tilework. We may combine rooms, build extensions, add or remove a fireplace, build a balcony or enclose an existing one.

Outside, we might add a railing to the stairs, repave a driveway, remodel a porch or patio, plant a garden or some fruit trees.

Half shutter on home in Mdina, Malta Door handles in Mdina, Malta

Above are two pictures I took in Mdina, the old capital of Malta. On the left are half-height shutters on a ground-floor window. It’s simple, elegant way to get some privacy without blocking out all the light. One the right are two beautiful fish-shaped door handles. The ways we can personalize our homes is as varied as we are.

But good luck doing any of these things in a rental. Even on the off chance that they are not expressly forbidden, since you know your time there is limited (or could be limited, since the landlord can choose not to let you renew), anything more than a light paint job is generally not worth the effort and cost. If you do make any changes, you may have to reverse them before you leave. And if your improvements do remain intact, their value will accrue to the owner, not you. He’ll actually be justified in raising the rent next time around, now that he’s putting a better property on the market.

Those who own their home benefit from security and stability, and have the possibility of working on and personalizing it over time, until it is something they can take not only comfort but pride in. Those who rent their home cannot. The relationship between person and home there is distorted, the potential impeded, efforts perverted for another’s benefit. Security is exchanged for insecurity, personalization for anonymity, pride for helplessness. In the next post we’ll look at the further effects of this derangement.

Everything Wrong with Rent - Precluded Possibilities

1 November 2020

This is part 3 of a series on rent.

In the previous post we looked at two objections to the characterization of rent as an asymmetrical, exploitative transaction. There are more of course, and the next is perhaps the most common:

“But the tenant enters the contract willingly”

Does he indeed? It’s true that no one puts a gun to a tenant’s head to force him to sign a contract. On the other hand, he may have no other options.

The first possibility: roughing it

One way out would be to forgo housing altogether. But housing is not like an ice cream sundae after dinner. It is a necessity, not a luxury. Although there are and have always been nomadic societies where people do not live in permanent structures at all, in the modern western societies where I (and probably you, if you’re reading this) live, a durable, permanent shelter is a deeply embedded part of our culture, tied in with too many other aspects of life, so for most of us homelessness is not an acceptable option.

The second possibility: staying put

Some people have the option to continue living with their parents, or other relatives, instead of venturing off on their own after high school/army/college. Part of the housing crisis is surely due to more people remaining single longer and wishing to live independently, whereas in another era they would have been forming new households in pairs, when they married.

Remaining with family, when possible, isn’t necessarily a bad option. This isn’t the place to get into the “decline of the family” topic, but there are certainly benefits to multigenerational and extended family living arrangements. Families can come back together towards the end of life as well: two of my great-great-aunts shared an apartment in Brooklyn in their old age (one had never married, and the other was widowed), next door to my great-grandfather (their brother-in-law).

Nonetheless, for many this option is either impossible or very undesirable. Some family situations are uncomfortable, abusive, or stifling. There may just not be enough space, especially for someone starting their own family. And some people need to relocate to other cities, states, or countries where they have no relatives to take them in.

The third possibility: buying a home

The remaining option is to own your own home. But while rent is expensive in the long run, purchasing is expensive at the outset. One needs a down payment in order to secure a mortgage, the mortgage itself adds significantly to the cost, and the cost is high to begin with. The costs are much greater than they need to be though, and tragically, rent itself is one of the causes.

How so?

Imagine an island with 100 houses available, and 100 families in need of a home. And say this island had a law that each family could only own one house. No one’s got an extra home to rent out, and the island is isolated, so there aren’t any outsiders to sell to. What would happen? The wealthier families might bid up the prices on the grandest palazzi, while the sellers would offer discounts and installment plans on the more modest bungalows, until everything was sold and everyone owned something.

Now let’s strike out the one-house rule. What then? The wealthiest families would start buying up additional homes. Say 10 families came to own 40 houses between them. 90 families would remain, with only 60 houses available for purchase. This would have two consequences:

  1. Since the demand is greater than the supply, prices would rise as more people compete to purchase the same properties.
  2. No matter what, 30 families would be shut out from purchasing a house, forced to rent instead from the buyers who shut them out.

Of course, in the real world things are never so simple. Real estate is dynamic. New homes would be built. Some people seeking homes would give up and move in with family. Some would leave town for cheaper areas. Both suppliers and buyers can act with some flexibility.

But it is crucial to remember that houses are neither quickly produced nor fungible. While a bakery can respond to a sudden clamoring for croissants by baking more of them the next day, houses take quite a long time to plan, approve, and construct. And even then, a new house built an hour and a half away (at rush hour, say) from your workplace is not equivalent to the one ten minutes away that was snatched up by a speculator. Neither is a new house in a bland, low-density, car-dependent development on the outskirts of town interchangeable with one in the vibrant core of a city. Market responsiveness in this domain is sluggish and limited. New housing stock is also open to the same rapacity as old housing stock, and the more desirable new properties are, the more speculators and exploiters will be drawn to them.

The bottom line?

Buying up additional properties, whether they’re rented out or sit idle, lowers the supply of houses available to purchase, reducing options and causing prices to rise. Although this is mitigated by other factors, it is always part of the equation. Thus, not only are tenants pushed into renting due to high costs they cannot pay at the time, the landlords they “willingly” submit to are one of the causes of their predicament.

Rent by a thousand cuts

Once corralled into the rental market, home-seekers continue to have their options whittled away. Since landlords still have absolute say over their properties, they feel they might as well take it upon themselves to direct the goings-on within, as if they were the ones living there. List of demands range from lax to draconian. Landlords ban or limit subletting (i.e., renting out the space, the very activity they are engaged in). They ban smoking, particular cleaning products, sticky tack. They forbid pets, or require a fee or deposit for them.

Once when I was looking for an apartment in Tzfat, a landlady told me I wouldn’t be able to bring a cat there. Why not? A cat had once jumped on her, she explained, and she was afraid of them. I asked her why that was relevant, since the cat would be living with me, not with her, and she would never even see it (except perhaps through a window). She had no answer, but neither would she budge. She had simply internalized the idea that once she was in a position to own an a second apartment, it became her prerogative to circumscribe the lifestyle of another human being, who would pay off her mortgage but use the space at her leisure.

No doubt she reasoned she was was only placing limits on the space, not on me, because I could always choose a different apartment to live in. But the more landlords impose these limitations, the less accurate that justification is. One or two tyrannical landlords can be avoided. But if they own half the rental apartments, half of apartment-seekers will not be able to avoid living under their rule.

When tenants face a shrinking pool of available homes under a looming deadline, they have to make compromises and pick the best of the worst, paying a real estate agent fee on one property to escape a pet ban on another, or settling for a poor location that adds to their commute time rather than a convenient one where they can’t smoke or make any noise after 8 PM. There are also trade-offs when buying, but the point here is that rent adds additional, idiosyncratic restrictions to the mix.

We don’t make choices in a vacuum. Like sour-faced Calvin in the cartoon above, we are all hemmed in by external forces, and the actions we take are not necessarily what we would elected if the selection had been broader. When renters excluded from purchasing a home choose the least bad, or the only option they have, “willing” is not the appropriate word to describe that choice.

Everything Wrong with Rent - One of These Transactions Is Not Like the Others

25 October 2020

Calvin & Hobbes cartoon

This is part 2 of a series on rent.

One of the two reasons home rental is so problematic is the fundamental asymmetry of the transaction. It takes advantage of one party while unduly enriching the other. Forgive me if this seems obvious, but since it is not obvious to all, it is worth getting down to basic economics to see this clearly.

The prototypical transaction

Rental of all kinds is very different from the prototypical transaction, where A gives something to B, and B gives something to A of equal value. The “something” can be an object, a service, or money; but in any case, each party normally gives up what they give. They don’t get it back.

Case 1, barter: Say John gives Peter 10 apples, and Peter gives John 10 five pears. Assuming 1 apple is worth 1 pear, all each one did is switch out some of his stock for a different kind of stock. Neither participant ended up richer or poorer. It’s impossible to point out a winner or loser.

Case 2, purchase: Ikea gives Peter one of their chairs, and Peter gives Ikea some of his cash. From then on, Peter keeps the chair, and Ikea keeps the money. As with apples and pears, neither party comes out richer or poorer. Peter may have less money in this case, but he does have a product of equal value.

And crucially, if Peter did happen to return the chair, the store would return his money also, as a refund. If they were unwilling to give him a refund, then he would not return the chair. You could say that for each action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction.

How is rent different?

Rent breaks this rule.

Case 3, rent: Paul the landlord gives Peter a space to live in, and Peter gives him money. (Repeat each month.) At some point, Peter vacates the apartment and returns it to Paul. But Paul the landlord doesn’t give him anything back. There’s no refund. He keeps both the home and the money, while Peter is left with neither.

Barter and purchase are just — if entered into willingly, without coercion or deception — because of their symmetry. Each party gives something to the other on a permanent basis.

The asymmetry of rent is what makes it unjust: the tenant gives permanently (the money will never be his again), while the landlord gives only temporarily (he gets his house back to himself and the tenant loses all rights to it).

It works the same way whether the tenant rents for only half a year, or stays 50 years and ends up paying more than the value of the home: he never gains any equity. Though this unfairness is most glaring over a long period of payouts, in principle it present even over a shorter period.

It is not for nothing that tenants instinctively bemoan “throwing their money away,” even though they are receiving shelter for the time being. Everything else being equal, there is a clear winner and loser in the transaction. Presumably, the losing party would not agree to it unless they had some strong external motivation – such as a lack of viable alternatives. This is normally the case, and it is what make rent exploitation, rather than just a suboptimal deal.

There are many “but”s one could raise at this point:

“But the tenant is paying for a service”

This would provide a good counterargument if it were accurate. But letting someone exist in a space is not a service in any meaningful way.* A home is an object, and the landlord’s involvement is minimal and passive: he merely allows access to it. He does not follow the tenant from room to room and assist him in his use of the structure (whatever that would even entail). In fact, he could lie in bed dreaming for a month, and he’d still get a check.

Compare the landlord to a car mechanic. He does not merely provide wrenches and a lift for the client to use. The mechanic himself uses them to carry out repairs. He expends time and energy, applying specialized skills and perhaps talents. If he dallies in bed, the car won’t get fixed and he won’t get paid. This is the difference between a service, and access to an object.

When is it legitimate to pay for access?

Now, there are some services that are primarily based on allowing access — but in these cases the access is very limited, while the objects in question are very costly and/or require a high level of active input from the provider, even if each individual client does not experience all that input directly.

For example, a library provides access to books — but consider that far more books are purchased than are in circulation at any given time, in order to create a broad selection to choose from. For most individuals, it would be incredibly wasteful to acquire a large collection of their own. Paying for access to a shared collection with external or distributed ownership is a better model. And some money must also go toward book maintenance and repair, cataloging, assisting users, etc. So in this case, what’s being paid for is not merely access, but breadth of options and maintenance.

Of course, libraries are commonly publicly funded (“free”), and perhaps publicly owned. But in principle it would not be illegitimate for an individual who owned many books to charge others for access to them, without relinquishing ownership, in order to assist with maintenance costs, and to expand the collection beyond what he could otherwise afford.

A hotel is an even more comparable example. Like a home, it provides access to a place to eat, sleep, and generally exist. But like a library, access is shared by many users, both concurrently and sequentially. Each uses it only briefly, and this high turnover requires constant maintenance, cleaning, and laundering. Visitors are downright pampered: they don’t have to make their own beds, sweep, change light bulbs, or even take out the garbage. Again, payment without acquisition is justified by the ongoing high level of provider input in service and supplies, before, during, and after a guest’s stay.

“But the landlord maintains the rental property”

This is one of the most common objections I’ve heard. It’s true that not everyone wants to or is capable of mowing lawns, painting, fixing broken doorknobs, or repairing leaky air conditioners. And a landlord is indeed responsible for a certain minimal level of maintenance.

But the critical question to ask is, how much is the landlord’s involvement worth? The answer is usually: not much.

  • A home does not generally require much maintenance by someone other than the one living there. Unless the home is in a critical state of disrepair, the landlord doesn’t have to get involved frequently. Yet the tenant must pay, and pay a lot, whether or not any help is required.
  • Unless the landlord is very handy, and lives nearby, which often he does not, he will usually hire plumbers, electricians, and property managers to do the work. If that’s what the tenant’s money is for, why doesn’t the tenant just pay them and not the landlord, as needed?
  • Some tenants don’t even want to do the work of researching and making arrangements with repairmen. But is it worth paying thousands each month for someone else to be an intermediary? Certainly not. If you owned your own place, you could still hire someone else to play that role, for a comparative pittance.

Maintenance is not mainly what the tenant is paying for. If it were, rent would be a lot cheaper, and renting out homes would not be such a desirable source of income.

The occasional wallop

Sometimes, a disaster occurs and quite expensive repair work is needed, and the tenant may be glad to not have to pay for it — for example if there is water damage from flooding. But on average, landlords are still collecting more than they spend; and if you rent for more than a short time, you will pay more than the cost of maintenance.

Often, this is due to poor construction, or building in a disaster-prone area. To the degree that these problems are preventable, they should be addressed directly through better building choices. Rent is partly to blame here as well, for encouraging development that is just good enough to turn a profit, even if others will suffer in the long run.

And moreover, inasmuch as occasional high expenses are not preventable, it would be fitting to attack this problem directly — for example, by distributing unforeseen costs through insurance, or building simpler structures that are easier to repair — rather than by invoking a convoluted system where someone else owns the structure, just so the one who lives there does not have to pay.

* I suspect that most who claim housing is a service came to that conclusion simply because it is paid for as if it were a service. This would be circular reasoning.

Everything Wrong with Rent - Introduction

21 October 2020

A home in Jerusalem, which is probably not a rental, judging by the investment put into the vegetation

This is part 1 of a series on rent.

The practice of renting homes is something we all take for granted. At least, everyone I know in Israel and the US does. The general narrative is something like this: If you aren’t ready to buy a home, you pay for a temporary one until you’ve improved your circumstances and saved up enough to purchase one. (What else would you do?) And if you’re well-off and have money to spare, you invest in an extra house or apartment, and as long as you’re not using it anyway, you rent it out to someone who needs the space. Everyone wins.

Granted, there are complaints. From the landlord’s perspective:

  • They have to trust strangers on their property, who may be destructive or neglectful
  • Tenants may be delinquent with payments
  • Tenants may sublet without permission
  • Tenants can be very difficult to evict
  • Tenants may complain too much, always finding issues to nag about

From the tenant’s perspective:

  • The rent is too high
  • The quality is too low
  • The rent may go up each year (and not because the quality is improving)
  • The size, layout, furniture, etc. aren’t really suited to their needs or preferences, and there’s little possibility of altering them
  • The landlord imposes various restrictions, such as on pets
  • The landlord may be unresponsive or negligent in maintenance and repairs
  • The landlord may sell the building behind your back to a new owner, who may not want you there

The costs of rental, beyond the rent

Beyond these kinds of complaints about specific owners and properties, there are broader issues. Since tenants generally have no guarantees about their landlord’s future plans for the property, they suffer uncertainty and instability. What furniture should you buy? It may fit your current flat, but not the next. How much is it worth decorating and personalizing a space, when everything you hang up may have to come down in a year? A certain amount of waste, and wasted opportunity, is inevitable.

Each time a tenant has to vacate, they are faced with another race against the clock for an affordable place that meets their needs; further rounds of desperate haggling with landlords over terms while trying to prove oneself worthy of their trust; more forking over money to real estate agents employed for the landlord’s convenience, though the tenant could have done without them. And finally: another expensive move, a few more personal possessions damaged and lost, another neighborhood left behind, and another to half-integrate into.

And most ironically, although tenants may be renting because they can’t yet afford to buy, they’re hampered in their efforts to save by having to offload large sums of money each month to pay for someone else’s mortgage. Rent perpetuates itself.

Society pays a price too

Outside your door, there is a disincentive to putting down roots in a place where you don’t know if you can stay. A tenant can plant flowers, make friends with all his neighbors, and join the community garden, only to have to move to the other side of the city, or another city altogether.

This personal instability in turn weakens the stability of the neighborhood. Residents don’t know which of their neighbors will last. How much is it worth investing in any one of a influx of strangers who may not stick around long enough to repay the effort? A healthy community depends on long-term familiarity, mutual aid, shared experiences and challenges. The more people in a neighborhood who are just passing through, the less chance there is for rapport and social bonds to develop.

I would be remiss not to mention gentrification, which improves the safety and quality of a neighborhood, but displaces poorer residents in the process. It is by and large not homeowners who are displaced, but those who cannot meet their landlords’ rent increases.

Are the problems superficial, or fundamental?

What to do? The prevailing philosophy sees in home rental a system that is fundamentally acceptable, but in need of regulation, just like every other sector of the economy. Tenants are (rightly) understood to be the more vulnerable party, and it is up to the state to protect them from the worst abuses — without smothering landlords so much that they opt out and the rental market dries up. With the right mix of legal ingredients such as rent control, “affordable housing” mandated in new buildings, and public housing, it says, we can keep rentals available and affordable. This is the band-aid approach.

But, I submit that this is all a bit like a slave negotiating for shorter workdays or better food. If you can get the master to accede, you’re certainly somewhat better off than before. But you’ve missed the root of the problem, which if resolved, would make bargaining for better treatment unnecessary, even irrelevant. Some systems need to be replaced, rather than fixed.

The surface tensions of home rental rest on pernicious foundations, and it will be useful to distinguish two of them: the exploitative and encumbering relationship between landlord and tenant; and the severed connection between person and home. I’ll examine these in the next few posts.

The Two Ways of Dealing with Problems

18 October 2020

Well, here we begin! This blog will be an exploration of what’s wrong with our towns, cities, and suburbs; societies and communities; economies and politics; and how they could be better.

Why are homes so expensive? Why are some areas vibrant and thriving while others are run-down and crime-ridden, or just boring? How can we fit more people into our cities? How can we create more jobs? Why is everyone so depressed and what will help them? How can we bring polarized segments of society together? There are two ways to deal with problems such as these. One is to solve them, or at least to try to. The other approach is to discover why they arise, and if possible, not cause them in the first place. The latter approach, because it involves unpleasant things like questioning our assumptions, and undermining them, is usually overlooked. But that is the approach I will take here, because I believe it will produce the best outcomes.

The issue of rent, which immiserates so many, provides a primary example of this. It is as vexing to the individual and deleterious to society as it is unnecessary. I was among those who yelled and screamed in the 2011 protests in Israel against high housing costs (and the cost of living more generally). They took off when Daphne Leaf was ordered to vacate her apartment, and despairing at the prospects of finding another rental in Tel Aviv’s inflated market, pitched a tent in the middle of Rothschild Boulevard. Despite the fury of hundreds of thousands of fed-up citizens in cities across the country, the protests were ultimately a dud. The government made some gestures, the tents were removed, and guess what? It’s 2020 now and people here are still struggling to make ends meet.

What went wrong? I didn’t understand at the time of the protests, but a few years later I began to see an answer when I came to chapter 79 of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. The popular demands for increased regulation, taxation of rental income, public housing, transportation, freeing up land for construction, etc. were not wrong, so much as missing the point. In Alexander’s recommendation, he says something that stunned me at the time:

Do everything possible to make the traditional forms of rental impossible, indeed, illegal. Give every household its own home, with space enough for a garden. Keep the emphasis in the definition of ownership on control, not on financial ownership. Indeed, where it is possible to construct forms of ownership which give people control over their houses and gardens, but make financial speculation impossible, choose these forms above all others.

The problem was not quite that “the rent is too damn high,” as the slogan goes, but that it exists at all. It hadn’t occurred to me that this basic economic arrangement, which most of us take for granted, could be questioned, and eliminated if we wished (even in an otherwise capitalist, non-authoritarian setting).

Alexander’s reasoning focuses on the fractured relationship between a person and his home when he does not own it and is disincentivized from making adjustments and improvements to it, and the downstream effects when this is multiplied throughout a neighborhood. This is only one of several fundamental problems with rental, but what seems to underlie them all is an unnecessary indirectness — a mismatch — between two things that could have been more straightforwardly linked. One person lives in a home, yet he doesn’t have control over it; someone else does. One person pays for a home, yet never acquires ownership; someone else retains it no matter how much money is transferred to him.

I hope in future posts to look more deeply into this, as well as many other mismatches that make suffering inevitable:

  • We concentrate businesses in particular cities, and particular zones within those cities, while scattering the homes of their workers and customers wide and thin.
  • Sprawling settlement in general works against community cohesion.
  • Planners and architects design places they will never live in or near, while residents live in places designed without their input.
  • Individual buildings, and cities at large are often built outrageously out of scale to the needs and limitations of their puny human inhabitants.
  • The way governance is arranged is often ill-suited to how societies actually function.
  • Leaders in democracies are routinely promoted and chosen by methods that run contrary to the principles of democracy.

I will also point to some of the social and cultural practices that modern societies have lost as they’ve become unmoored from their foundations, and grown diffuse and unstable.

There is much to discuss, but ultimately, I hope we can begin experimenting to build real places that will be better fitted to human needs, that will obviate much of the alienation, injustice, despair, and sheer ugliness we see today.