By Mark Honey
What do landlords even do? Let’s role-play a scenario: You’re renting. Your fridge stops working in the middle of the night, and everything in there is gonna go bad if it isn’t fixed today.
1. Let the food rot, let the appliance sit, abandon the kitchen, and never refrigerate anything again
2. Fix the fridge yourself
3. Phone a repair guy and pay out of pocket
4. Call the landlord and wait for them to fix it
The answer for renters is easy — we call the landlord. None of us are gonna pay to fix some 1980s icebox we don’t own, even if we have the money. Some of us might be able to fix the fridge, but finding time probably isn’t an option when we have to go to work, watch the kids, do the laundry, read the news, take a shower, and everything else. So you call the landlord and everything’s peachy, right?
Uh, no. The problem comes in the next scenario. Now pretend you’re the landlord. A tenant calls you because their fridge is broken.
1. Fix it yourself
2. Call a repair guy and pay out of pocket
3. Do nothing
You want to solve this problem as cheaply as possible, but you probably don’t know how to fix a fridge. After all, you’re a landlord, not a repairman. Your job is to collect rent, not fix problems! You could call and get the fridge fixed today… but quick service like that costs a fortune. It’s just too expensive to solve the issue right now, but you can’t just do nothing. So you do the sensible thing and pick option B (kinda), scheduling a repair for early next week. The tenant will understand. Right?
The thought process above is a fairly generous reading of the typical rent collector. Many will pick option C with no remorse, although it’s illegal for them to leave the basic appliances provided in a rental unit broken. But even this semi-sweet portrayal of the mini-lord leaves a sour taste in renters’ mouths. Why? Because by the time the repair man comes, the food has spoiled! Now the cost of the repair has been shifted from the owner to the renter because the renter must pay to buy new food. Apply this logic to air conditioning, running water, heat, leaky roofs, and any other problem that inconveniences a landlord but severely affects a tenant. If it’s money out the pocket, you can bet those landlord feet drag.
Please tell me again why we pay landlords. To putz around making phone calls? After all, couldn’t we call a repairer ourselves? The answer is yes. Yes, they do get paid to putz around. Yes, we could call ourselves. Out of all the options in life, a landlord is one of the most useless things a person can be. They charge twice as much as the mortgage on the building. They don’t do anything with their own hands. And they charge late fees if you wait too long to send the check. Paying to pay. Ridiculous.
In 2017 Americans paid $485.6 billion dollars in rent, according to analysis by real estate website Zillow. That breaks down to $55 million dollars an hour, a tad higher than most working class folks’ wages.
Now imagine we renters had no landlords. Just pretend they all flew into the sun together. We could share the space with our neighbors and community however we feel like. We could use the land to grow food, or build soccer fields or playgrounds. We could use the money we save to improve the buildings, buy new appliances, or throw ourselves parties. We could make rooftop pubs and basement art classrooms. We could turn the heat on when it’s cold! So many options open up when we own where we live collectively.
For now, our backs are laden with unfortunate riders who wake up screaming on The First. But tenant organizations all over the country (including Omaha and Lincoln) are working for renters. Take heart knowing we can fight for more and win.