NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I n the Age of Trump, the great entrepreneurs of Virtue Inc. and Character ‘R’ Us have been obliged to make accommodations. “Don’t talk to me about that fussy moral stuff — look at the economy!” the new catechism reads.
But in many cases moral issues are economic issues. Consider the so-called eviction crisis.
Evictions are up in many areas around the country, and, predictably, this is disproportionately a problem for the poor. There is a distortion in the market, and it is rooted almost entirely in government policies designed to make houses more expensive (a sop to middle-class and affluent homeowners, who are politically powerful) and in policies that make housing more expensive in a way that is unintended though entirely foreseeable, e.g. cumbrous building restrictions in the Bay Area. To be clear: Our policies are tilted toward property owners and against renters by design, for reasons of pure political calculation.
Andrea Riquier, writing in MarketWatch, attempts to draw a parallel between the spike in evictions today and the subprime-mortgage meltdown of a decade ago. Her case emphasizes the superficial resemblances (mortgage lending shifted away from smaller local institutions toward big financial firms, and landlords are increasingly corporate rather than individual, etc.) but ignores the most important variable, which happens to be the same in both cases: The fundamental problem is that certain people have entered into agreements that they will not or cannot honor. There were a lot of stupid loans made in the run-up to the 2008–09 crisis, but there would have been no financial crisis if the borrowers had not stopped paying their mortgages en masse. There is no eviction crisis for people who pay their rent on time.
We don’t talk much about that in the matter of evictions for the same reason we didn’t talk much about it in the matter of subprime mortgages: We have an unspoken belief that poor people are not whole and entire human beings morally answerable for their actions. We act as though poor people are children who have not yet reached the age of reason, and that their problems must therefore be the fault of some other party: “predatory” businesses that connived to . . . lend them money they asked for, or “predatory” landlords who charge them late fees when they fail to pay their rent on time and evict them if they do not pay it. Riquier quotes a couple of Georgia State scholars who describe this as “disciplining the tenant through state-sanctioned threat of removal,” which I suppose is how you write “eviction” if you’ve spent too much time in the company of Michel Foucault.
Riquier considers a number of restrictions that might be put on landlords to mitigate the problem and then concludes by quoting her scholars’ assertion that the best answer may be to “increase the supply of safe and secure affordable housing to low-income tenants” — and it never seems to occur to her that these are contradictory programs. Regulations that make it more difficult and expensive — and less profitable — to provide housing to low-income people ensure that there is less such housing. If you want to see more housing choices for poor people, then you should want to make providing that housing more profitable.
Anybody with real-world experience as a landlord knows that the most satisfactory development in the rental business is a tenant you never have to think about: no problems, no complaints, and the rent paid on the first of the month. Landlords will in fact go out of their way to keep such tenants happy. That’s even true in such famously tough rental markets as New York City: I was surprised by how far my own landlords there were willing to go to keep tenants (in a modest building in the South Bronx) who simply paid their rent on time. They offered substantial rent discounts or the option of moving into a better apartment for the same rent. When a good tenant gave notice that he intended to vacate, they’d come by and go the full Monty Hall.
One sees parallel developments at the lower end of the labor market. Fast-food restaurants are famous for their low pay, but managers often will go to extraordinary lengths to retain workers who have shown themselves reliable (the obvious strategy: pay them more) and to find such workers to begin with. The first year at Burger King may not be the best job you’ve ever had (it was far from the worst I’ve ever had) but people who are honest, reliable, courteous, flexible, and effective — people who meet their obligations — also move up quickly through the ranks of such companies.
People who pay their rent on time don’t get charged late fees.
People cannot help where they start off in life, and it’s no good pretending that that doesn’t matter — of course it matters, and we should be mindful of that. But there are many things in life that are your problem even if they are not your fault, and there is no one there to make decisions for us. Go sit in eviction court for an afternoon and tell me how easy you think the low-income rental business is. One of the reasons it can be a tough business is that many of your tenants will not pay their rent, and you will have to go through the expensive and time-consuming process of extracting it from them or evicting them. Why not invest instead at the higher end of the market, where people pay their rent more regularly — especially if government intends to make your business even more difficult than it already is?
The old caricature of the conservative is the man in a suit telling a panhandler: “Get a job!” But “Get a job!” is great advice—often the very best advice. “Pay your goddamned rent!” is pretty good advice for someone facing eviction or worried about being charged late fees. Our public policies should be oriented toward helping the poor, but not in a way that is based on the assumption that they cannot be expected to be responsible for themselves and to meet their obligations. Rental relationships are inescapably based on trust, and trustworthiness, though valuable, is not a luxury good.