Imagine this: You hear a noise in the basement - not the furnace kicking on or the creaking of pipes - you hear water, and not just a drip, but a gush. You rush downstairs in fear and it’s even worse than you thought. You discover a mix of sewage backing up into your home; the smell and toxicity overpower your senses. Your mind immediately goes to the children living in your home, who already suffer from asthma. How will this affect them?
What do you do? You’re renting this house, so your first instinct is to call your landlord, but the landlord doesn’t respond. You know that this is unacceptable, but what recourse can you take right now? First you must take care of this issue. You have a friend help you pump the liquid out of the house several times a week while the kids are gone. Now, you have to decide whether to register a complaint against your landlord. In response to your claims, the city is unresponsive and unhelpful, too. Additionally, your landlord hasn’t officially registered this rental property and therefore is not on the city’s rolls. In protest, you do the only response that you believe is within your power to get justice: withhold rent.
The problem is that while the landlord has not undergone proper inspections with the city or upheld his end of the contract, this fact barely matters in an eviction court. Here, the only thing that matters is that you, the tenant, have not paid rent. From here, eviction is almost inevitable. You will have to uproot your family and find another affordable housing option, this time with an eviction on your record. Chances are high that you will have to move to a place with a similarly negligent landlord. You feel trapped.
This is not a hypothetical situation. The Detroit News recently reported on a story very similar to this that happened to Latasha Tucker in Detroit. While this is a particularly dramatic case, there are thousands of stories of renters being evicted for withholding rent from grossly negligent landlords in Detroit, with low-income families being more significantly impacted. The News did extensive research and found that one in five renters are evicted every year, flooding the eviction courts with cases. Detroit’s 36th District court has averaged 35,000 eviction cases a year since 2009. While renters withhold rent for a wide variety of reasons, and there are poor tenants just as there are poor landlords, the failures in the system are revealed in the many cases where rent is withheld out of protest for lack of heating, sewage, or lead testing - things essential to safety and dignity.
Many tenants withhold rent because that action is their only option. If occupants have the resources, they may move to new housing. However, that is a strong “if” considering that low-income families are the population most likely to be affected this issue. The greater the rent-to-income ratio, the higher the eviction rate. Even if a family is able to leave a bad renting situation, how can they be sure, in this environment, that they will be able to find better housing? If they choose to break their lease, it could damage their chances of finding adequate housing in the future. A more important question to ask is why they should have to leave in the first place, as there are inspections and laws that should prevent these problems from occurring. The vicious nature of this cycle is why we call this trap predatory rental agreements.
What are the consequences for delinquent landlords? At best, the penalties are inconsistent, and most often are non-existent. The Detroit News report is an extreme story from a city with a particularly acute eviction problem, but Detroit is certainly not alone in this. In 2015, an estimated 2.7 million renters faced eviction.
This is how predatory rental agreements often play out: Landlords are able to buy foreclosed properties for very cheap, and then rent them to low-income families. In many ways, they can operate these rentals with impunity – no need to make improvements on the property or submit to inspections because the city does not hold them accountable.This enables them to make a quick profit and expect, almost always, to have the upper hand in eviction court. In this system, there is nearly no incentive to operate with integrity, enabling landlords to become predatory, meaning that they intentionally profit off this broken and distorted rental system.
However, it is important to note that not all of these 2.7 million evictions are clear cases of predatory landlords. While landlords need ways to hold renters accountable, local governments often fail to hold renters to the same level of accountability. If Detroit can function as a case study for this issue, then it is clear that local governments fail to consistently uphold justice for renters, particularly low-income. The existence of predatory rental agreements arranged b predatory landlords represents a complete breakdown of local government responsibility. The News report points out that “City ordinance requires that all rentals be registered, livable and inspected yearly, but most landlords have operated without that scrutiny for more than a decade. Lax city enforcement has contributed to an eviction cycle where many tenants live in dangerous and unfit homes.” This leaves tenants with absolutely no opportunities for recourse, and therefore no opportunities for justice.
For public justice to be upheld, citizens and governments must embrace their unique responsibilities. As the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Government states, “The government of a political community bears responsibility to legislate, enforce, and adjudicate public laws for the safety, welfare, and public order of everyone within its jurisdiction.” Adjudicating between a landlord and renter represents a basic function of local government – to settle disputes and uphold the law. If a rental law is well written, it should provide the basic framework for property owners and renters to both flourish, each having rights and responsibilities in the relationship. By not enforcing the laws that hold landlords accountable, Detroit’s local government has abandoned its role in providing justice for tenants. Government has the responsibility to ensure that there are livable and safe conditions for occupants. Neighbors can pump sewage, but they shouldn’t have to in the first place.
Most troubling is the wider impact that predatory landlords have on families and communities. When thousands of families are evicted from neighborhoods each year, neighborhoods deteriorate and decay, health problems arise, and children are forced to transfer schools with frequency and unpredictability.
Take a moment to appreciate these ripple effects of unfair housing practices. As families move around, their family units are disrupted as children are moved or passed around to other friends and relatives. It hurts neighborhood and city-wide efforts to restore communities to wholeness. Property values suffer, and government workers are frustrated or jaded. Schools face increases in transience and stress in their student population. Parents might have to spend limited resources on transportation to keep their children in the same school. Health is harmed by exposure to lead and other toxins, and finances are harmed by trips to eviction court. This forced transience makes it difficult to establish the beautiful and necessary relationships that are vital to a flourishing community. Businesses are less likely to rely on those neighborhoods for future development, and their aesthetic beauty, so vital to human dignity, is diminished from neglect. It is not hard to see how deep and wide the shrapnels of injustice fly in a community burdened by unjust housing. This is not an individual’s problem - it is a community problem.
There are certain laws that are not consistently enforced to the letter of the law for specific reasons – for example, speed limits. Many in Detroit recognize that some laws that are on the books are onerous and unrealistic to enforce; however, the government does grave damage to families and communities when it abrogates justice by not enforcing the laws that hold landlords accountable to their tenants.
Government is called to uphold the common good of the political community, which includes ensuring that families have the opportunity to flourish, and fair housing practices are essential to this. As the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Government goes on to say,“Healthy families help nurture future citizens, prepare future employers and employees, decrease public costs resulting from fragmented families, and build up strong social and cultural capital.” Converse to these results, as eviction rates go up, schools, businesses, and the whole fabric of a community begin to rip apart.
As Christians, we should be deeply troubled by this. Some people choose to rent, while some people have to out of necessity. Renting itself is not inherently evil, and should not add shame or stress to families. However, so often it does, reflecting a degradation of dignity and a disturbing disruption of families. We desire dignity and wholeness in our communities. Therefore, we cannot stand for negligence.
What can we do? Neighbors, churches, families, and local organizations can help, but the government has a unique and urgent responsibility here. It is not the church’s responsibility to drain sewage or make sure the heat works. The government needs to provide accountability in these areas. The first step, as it might happen in Detroit, is to assess what laws are already present. Are those laws upheld, and if so, are they creating an environment where renters have power and landlords are incentivized to act with integrity?
The next step is enforcement. How can the government take charge of its responsibility to shape housing practices? Do the penalties for predatory landlords provide incentives, without being draconian? In Detroit, some are working to restore this balance. Yearly inspections are currently required, and many agree that that is too frequent. With this, there are proposals to increase inspections and penalties, while simultaneously lengthening the inspection process to two or three years to reflect a more realistic timeline for landlords.
The bad news is that the issue of predatory landlords is incredibly widespread; there will not be a single comprehensive solution. The good news, however, is that it is an incredibly local problem — you can make an impact. Find out what is happening in your area, and advocate for government to fulfill its responsibility. When rental practices move toward justice, landlords, renters, and entire communities benefit alongside one another.
-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI.