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.

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