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.

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