Proceed Cautiously with Eviction Reforms

Carlos Lopez, a Los Angeles landscaper, inherited a house and let it out to rent. When the original tenant went to jail, a woman Lopez had never seen before was occupying the premises and refusing to pay any rent. He engaged an attorney to evict her. The squatter lawyered up, too, obtaining free legal services from a state-funded nonprofit whose mission is to reduce evictions. Lopez soon discovered that he couldn’t afford to push the lawsuit, which would cost anywhere between $8,000 and $20,000 to win.

“He was dealing from a nearly powerless position,” writes his attorney, Rikka Fountain, in the Wall Street Journal. “Tenants with attorneys always demand discovery, depositions and a jury. This drives landlords’ legal costs up from the typical flat fee of several hundred dollars to tens of thousands.”

Renting wasn’t worth the headaches, Lopez concluded. He hopes to sell the house.

California defendants represented by attorneys routinely seek several months of free residence, a waiver of unpaid rent, a sealed judgment, and a reference letter from the landlord so future landlords won’t know the tenant’s history. (The defendant in the Lopez case had been evicted from three other houses previously.) As if that weren’t enough, San Franciscans will vote next week on a proposition that will give all eviction defendants the right to a city-funded attorney regardless of income or reason for eviction.

As the social justice movement mobilizes to combat a purported eviction “crisis” here in Virginia, it’s worth bearing in mind what can happen when tenant rights take excessive precedence over landlord rights. Citing a recent study that showed that five Virginia cities ranking among the Top 10 nationally for eviction rates, the Virginia Poverty Law Center has launched a Campaign to Reduce Evictions (CARE). It is not yet clear what kind of remedies CARE will seek but, as a leader in tenant rights, California could serve as a role model.

As it happens, California couples the nation’s strongest anti-eviction protections with the nation’s highest rates of homelessness. Social justice warriors cite the ever-growing ranks of homeless people as justification for laws protecting the poor from being tossed from their homes. At the same time, punishing landlords reduces the supply of rental housing. There will be no lack of would-be homeowners in Los Angeles willing to purchase Carlos Lopez’s house — like most California cities, Los Angeles suffers from a dearth of new housing construction. When the squatter is eventually bought off and evicted, the house most likely will be taken off the rental market. As Lopez’s experience is replicated thousands of times, landlord-hostile laws reduce the supply of rental housing and push homelessness even higher.

Anti-eviction laws are one more example of the unintended consequences of the social justice movement. SJWs seize upon genuine misfortunes — let’s face it, many people live paycheck to paycheck, and a single financial setback can make them miss their rent payment — to justify laws and practices that apply to everyone. Trouble is, just as there are bad landlords, there are bad tenants who game the system.

Virginia law strikes a balance between tenant rights and landlord rights. RentCafe rated the 50 states for renter-friendly versus landlord-friendly policies based on “10 common aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship, which include security deposits, rent increases, the warranty of habitability and eviction notices.” Far from ranking as one of the most landlord friendly states in the U.S., as one might expect from its pro-business climate, Virginia is in the middle. On a 1 to 100 scale, with 1 being landlord friendly and 100 being tenant friendly, Virginia is rated 45.

By all means, let’s review the laws on the books to make sure they still make sense. But let’s avoid the temptation to drive policy by cherry picking a few of heart-rending episodes of families tossed onto the sidewalk. Stacking the deck against landlords can lead to fewer rental units on the market and even higher rental prices, which boomerangs on conscientious tenants who do manage to pay their rent on time. If Virginia SJWs want to help the truly unfortunate as opposed to the free riders, they would be well advised to urge solutions geared to households’ specific circumstances, not one-size-fits-all remedies as in California. Better yet, SJWs should try their hand at renting out apartments themselves to see what landlords deal with. It might prove to be an enlightening experience.

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4 responses to “Proceed Cautiously with Eviction Reforms”

  1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Thank you, Jim, for the excellent article.

    Now I am beginning to get it, to put things together. Likely this is just another front of operations launched by our culture warrior friends attacking and trying to defeat the latest devils within the “white capitalist’ system and establishment. The sad thing here is that that establishment’s success is the key to helping all concerned people here to solve these complex problems holistically as is critically necessary, including those few we mentioned in your earlier post.

    So, in light of these effort, which far too often only encourage irresponsible and counter productive behaviors on everyone’s part, now we got more obstacles increasing rapidly, as more and more segments of our culture and its cohesion and its ability to function competently, collapse, like dominoes. This is precisely what many of these social warriors are after. It’s so sad, simply another way to burn down your own neighborhood, and your future along with it.

    By the way, recall last years efforts to shut down the golf courses in northern Virginia by taxing them as if they were ripe to massive urban development? That was a national campaign too, going in many places around the country. There is a war going on. Most of us just don’t know it. Or won’t admit to it.

  2. Acbar Avatar

    Marc Lockhart got us started on this subject, and provoked a good discussion:

    Yes, we don’t want a ‘solution’ that makes things worse. As a former landlord in the Fan years ago, and an observer of “nice” rental neighborhoods in the District’s Capitol Hill and in Arlington, I can vouch for it: there are certainly tenants out there who specialize in abusing their quarters physically and manipulating the legal system to extract settlements giving them free accommodations for a time in exchange for simply leaving. Rents from rents, so to speak. Yes, the “establishment’s success is the key to helping all concerned people here to solve these complex problems holistically.” I agree with you, Jim, that the shortage of decent rentals in otherwise vibrant urban revival markets is a major deterrant to the better sort of gentrification, which I submit is a good thing even with all that gentrification implies.

    The question is how to fix the problems identified by Marc that affect a much broader, and generally much less articulate, segment of the population — Mosby Court and McGuire are not the Fan! — and to do so in ways that don’t create loopholes and opportunities for abuse for those inclined to take advantage of them. This is not a new question. We heard Marc’s explanation of the problem; is there a fix, or is the only path forward the downward spiral to Apocalypse? I for one invite Marc to come back with more about proposed solutions, examined in light of the concerns you’ve highlighted about the potential for abuse (perhaps in very different rental markets — but as you say, the same landlord-tenant law applies to all).

    It’s an attitude thing. We spend too much time lambasting each other from both ends of the political spectrum, never taking the time to come up with constructive fixes. Yet people in the center, with talent and experience, can come up with workable solutions even to “solve these complex problems.” And blogs like this can be where they are crafted and put forward. Reed, you are absolutely right, the alternative for us is “simply another way to burn down your own neighborhood, and your future along with it.”

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Fine comment, Acbar.

      Cranky’s earlier comment in Jim’s earlier post you referenced sparked a few memories of the late 1970s when, representing national real estate lenders, I was asked to foreclose on, and take possession as a court appointed receiver, of several very large “affordable housing apartment projects” in the Washington DC region. One project comprised roughly 120 low rise units. The other included some 1100 apartment units, these in one high rise building and roughly a dozen mid-rise buildings spread across many acres.

      These projects also had interesting histories. They were built per ongoing post WW 11 federal housing programs aimed to stimulate the building of housing for the rising middle class of mostly white formerly out-of-towners who had begun to flood the DC region under the New Deal. This building boom in and around the capital continued thought WW11 and for three decades after the war, in DC’s urban, suburban, and rural areas around the nation’s capital.

      The two properties I mention here were built by Jewish interests. The first was a holocaust survivor who had arrived in America as a penniless refugee. Once here, he had worked his way through law school at night in DC and on graduation he founded a tiny law practice in DC and alongside it he started a small local real estate development business in the late 1940s.

      By the the late 50’s, and early 60’s, he was a wealthy man of consequence. He of course was not alone. By the 1960s, a truly remarkable number of these refugees who had arrived not to long before or after World War 2, whether they be Jewish or otherwise, or penniless and largely friendless, or uneducated on arrival and/or stayed that way, were by the 1960s among the most successful citizens of their communities. Their contributions to DC by then were enormous, and have remained so ever since. They were amazing job creators and wealth creators. They were hugely philanthropic. They had by then already build homes, apartments, and condos, by the tens of thousands and, as if that were not enough, by the 1960s, they were building shopping centers and Malls, and schools, and museums, and performing arts centers, and galleries, and hospitals, and churches, and memorials, and places of worship, and they had set up foundations that are still building our communities and our society and are still contributing to worthy causes today to numerous to mention.

      What makes this story (their story) even more remarkable was the enormous prejudice and racism that these refugees from Europe and Russia encountered on their arrival here and that they endured through much of the 1940’s, and 1950’s, and 1960’s in Washington DC and many other places in America. I witnessed this again and again in business, socially, and professionally. I felt it personally when my aunt married one of these folks. And of course, this prejudice against these new Americans was only a repeat of the enormous prejudice in America against Catholics, starting with the Irish, a racism unresolved until JFK’s election as president in 1960.

      To be continued.

  3. djrippert Avatar

    Complexity to government is like crack cocaine to an addict. They just can’t get enough of it. Why does the legal process in landlord / tenant cases have to be so complex and expensive? It shouldn’t cost a fortune in legal fees to resolve a dispute over a couple of months rent. Flippant as it may sound, Judge Judy does seem to get to the heart of the matter in about 15 minutes. Why should you even be able to have a jury trial? Talk about BS. Not only does it make things unnecessarily more complicated it pulls busy citizens away from their jobs and families for a trivial matter.

    Set up a binding arbitration operation for rental disputes under $5,000.

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