When my mom died in 2016, I inherited her four-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath house, worth roughly $600,000, double the value of my own home. Some realtors tried to convince me to sell it. My friends kept telling me to move into it. To me, it seemed like a smarter decision to turn the house into a rental property. The house is located in Montgomery County, Maryland, outside of Washington, DC, in an area where there aren’t many rental properties of a similar size. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find a tenant, but I thought that the good schools and relative lack of similar properties for rent might work to my advantage. If my plan worked, I could earn enough to cover maintenance and upkeep and put some into savings while the house grew in value. It didn’t sound like the worst retirement plan.
So, I started figuring out how to become a landlord. Montgomery County has extensive free online resources for landlords and tenants. I studied these documents, and without them, I think I would have felt much less sure of how to proceed. I figured out how to do background checks and what to ask on my rental application. I hired a stream of contractors to make updates and repairs. And I started to pay attention to landlord stories.
The Problem with Landlords
In places like the Bay Area, corporations have bought up housing stock, evicting tenants at a higher-than-usual rate, letting homes sit empty, and driving up rents. Across the country, landlords are illegally turning away tenants with Section 8 vouchers—people who desperately need safe and affordable housing. Seven people in my hometown died in an explosion after their management company failed to call the gas company though several tenants reported smelling gas over a period of weeks. Kushner Companies (owned by the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner) makes $30 million in profits a year yet rents properties in Baltimore that “have dozens of combined complaints” including mold and faulty electrical wiring. Even the Flirty Dancing viral video was ruined for me when I found out one of the guys was a landlord who hadn’t fixed his tenant’s broken dishwasher.
I also began to notice a lot of tweets like this one:
“Landlords should be launched into the sun” is actually a pretty noncontroversial opinion, at least on Twitter.
I became a landlord without ever stopping to consider whether it was OK to be a landlord. Landlords represent everything bad about the crumbling capitalist society we live in: They often do nothing—or worse, harm their tenants—and collect huge amounts of money in return. Thinking about all of this made me wonder, is it wrong to be a landlord? Is there a way to participate in the exchange of housing for money without being a scumbag?
I asked Meghan Hatch, who studies state and local policies governing landlords and tenants at Cleveland State University. Hatch says that she doesn’t consider renting property to be different from any other business—and there are good and bad business owners. “There are even landlords who go out of their way to help out their tenants when the tenants are having financial problems,” Hatch says.
One thing that feels wrong is how little work I have to do as a landlord. After taxes and expenses, I make somewhere between $13,000 and $15,000 from my rental property each year. When I’m in between tenants, I have to do things like make repairs and screen potential renters who want to bring their own toilets, have 100-pound dogs, and other wacky stuff—that all takes time and energy. But the rest of the time, months go by where I never do a single thing related to being a landlord except email a receipt for the rent payment. Is there something inherently wrong with earning money for doing basically nothing?
Alexander Andersson is a PhD candidate at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden who studies the issue of worker compensation based on effort or contribution. He says that when it comes to how landlords are paid, it might make more sense to compare them to investors and venture capitalists than grocery store checkers and office workers: “Landlords…take financial risks, do research about the property, and make sure that the house is habitable.” Andersson says we shouldn’t necessarily assess all people who earn income based on the same standards. He says that “even if you are not ‘doing anything’ in the traditional sense, there might be reasons why investors are deserving of a high income when you look at the big picture.”
A Systemic Issue
Perhaps the issue is not that being a landlord is morally wrong, but that the system allows landlords to behave in ways that are morally wrong. Hatch says that the government could do more to protect tenants, including expanding the Fair Housing Act to protect those with Section 8 vouchers, but she cautions that “governments have to enforce their regulations in order for them to be effective.” She also points to universal rental inspections as a possible solution but says there needs to be more research on their effectiveness. Some Democratic Socialist candidates—like Vaughn Stewart in my home state of Maryland—have proposed social housing legislation that would create publicly owned housing, available to people of all income levels. Plentiful and good-quality social housing would at least create a third option for low-income or vulnerable individuals who have historically been stuck with slumlords like Jared Kushner.
Hatch says that the affordability issue is at the heart of many of the problems with the American housing system and that governments shouldn’t overlook it. I’m lucky not to have to pay a mortgage on my rental property, but many landlords do, meaning they operate under much tighter profit margins. In fact, if I had to pay a mortgage, I might not make any money at all. Some bad landlords may be struggling to pay their own bills. Hatch says that housing policy is challenging because “an ethical solution has to involve things that are often seen as being at odds with each other—landlord profit, high health and safety standards, and tenant affordability.”
Can a landlord’s work make the world a better place? I’m not so sure. It might be most realistic to take a first-do-no-harm approach. I rent to high-income tenants who have a lot of choices about where they live, and I follow the law and try to be kind. Here’s hoping I won’t be launched into the sun any time soon. Being a landlord might not make me a moral failure, but it’s also probably not going to make me the most popular person at the next DSA meeting either. But in terms of my bank account and retirement plan, it’s the right decision for me right now.