RSF Author Meredith Greif Discusses Her New Book: Collateral Damages

July 25, 2022

Meredith Greif is the author of the RSF book Collateral Damages: Landlords and the Urban Housing Crisis. For the book, Greif followed 60 private landlords serving low- and moderate-income residents in the Cleveland, Ohio, metropolitan area for three years to better understand how local regulations, such as criminal activity nuisance ordinances (CANOs) and local water billing regulations, affect their landlording practices. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Meredith Greif is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. 

Q. What motivated you to write Collateral Damages? Why is it important to study the experiences of landlords?

I first became interested in writing this book because we know relatively little about these important housing providers who provide most of the nation's affordable housing to lower income renters. It's clear that they are now major players in our housing market and it's essential to understand how and why they make important decisions that affect renters. That includes decisions about who to rent to, how well to house those renters, and whether to evict them. So, following these landlords gave an important window into how they make these important decisions. 

One thing that I want to note, that was especially striking, was that these landlords did not typically fit the mold of what we consider to be a slumlord, or callous landlord. When we look at those who engaged in some disadvantageous practices, they were doctors and nurses and teachers and other professionals who really proclaimed have entered the business with good intentions. They wanted to build a nest egg for retirement, or earn some cash on the side, or for a full time paycheck. These landlords were also really diverse by age, gender, and race. It was really striking to me that the population of landlords here could be so different in so many ways, and yet, over time, follow similar trajectories towards engaging in behaviors that were harmful to their tenants, and that also were oftentimes illegal.

Q. What national and state-level economic and policy shifts have resulted in tenants becoming increasingly vulnerable to harmful landlording practices?

It is really important to understand just how vulnerable renters have become. This is key to the story on how laws can fall short and even have unintended consequences for renters, despite policymakers’ good intentions. There are at least a few different societal shifts that have put tenants in a more vulnerable position. First, we see that renters are grappling more than ever with affording their housing. As a nation, we're losing those jobs that pay livable wages, which allow people to afford decent housing. So, more and more renters are experiencing housing cost burden, that is paying at least 30% of their gross income towards housing costs. It's also become more challenging for lower income people to receive cash assistance from the government to help them with affording basic needs like housing. We know that government funding has been shrinking and there continues to be more bureaucracy that stands in the way of some renters getting that help that they need, even when they're eligible for it. 

And, finally, we have to address the criminal justice system as a force, which makes some renters especially vulnerable to harmful landlord practices. We see the rise of mass incarceration, headlines about police brutality, which create mistrust towards police, especially among black Americans. And this can actually have a spillover effect towards mistrust towards various authorities, including into the housing world. This sense of mistrust can lead to what sociologists call system avoidance, which means not wanting to engage in authorities of all kinds. And for the current story that can look like a tenant who doesn't want to contact the city because their landlord won't fix the heater in the middle of winter or who might fear appearing in court for an eviction hearing because of negative experiences with authorities. So altogether, I'll just say that it's important to acknowledge as part of the story that as a society, we're really positioning renters to be more vulnerable to these landlord behaviors that put them at risk of unstable housing.

Q. The concept of financial precarity is central to the book. Can you briefly explain what financial precarity is? 

Financial precarity is considered landlord's real or perceived uncertainty about whether the cash they earn in the business is sufficient to cover the range of costs of doing business while also leaving enough take-home profit in their pockets. So, for the landlords in the book, the small-time ones in particular, that feeling of dissatisfaction or unpredictability with their profit, inspired motivation for practices meant to save money, but which also disadvantaged their tenants. So, importantly, we have to remember that the landlords are in the business for profit, and that doesn't make them inherently exploitative. But, it also gives them some motivation to prioritize their own financial interests over their tenants.

Q. Criminal activity nuisance ordinances (CANOs) are sources of financial precarity for landlords. Can you briefly expand on what CANOs are and how they contribute to a sense of financial precarity? How does the financial precarity engendered by CANOs ultimately negatively impact tenants and potential tenants?

These criminal activity nuisance ordinances or CANOs are actually sweeping through cities across the nation. They are usually locally enforced laws which are meant to keep undesirable activity off of our streets. There's a growing list of nuisance behaviors on the books in many cities that includes loud noise, drug use, and calling the police too many times for assistance, even if that means assistance with domestic violence issues. And according to these ordinances, property owners can incur hundreds of dollars in fines and even criminal charges when there is nuisance activity, such as drug use on their property. So, as a result, landlords have reason to be worried about potential tenant nuisance behavior on the property, and they therefore search for strategies to deter these activities in ways that disadvantage tenants. 

For instance, there were landlords who looked to remove tenants who engaged in drug use on their property. Some landlords evicted tenants legally and pursued the case in a formal courtroom setting. But, there were also landlords who used off the radar tactics, otherwise known as an informal eviction – which is illegal – and found ways to threaten tenants, who they believed engaged in nuisance behavior, to leave the property, though they didn't necessarily have tangible evidence. Despite not having evidence, their concern was so high that they would threaten and harass tenants to get out. They would even use subtle tactics, which could lead tenants to be paranoid about police scrutiny, which would ultimately trigger them to leave. 

It's also important to note that these CANOs can deter access to affordable housing because landlords look to screen out applicants who they believe will engage in nuisance activities. So, they look to turn away people that have a criminal conviction. They look to turn away those who share with them that they had been they're survivor of domestic violence. Together, this creates more obstacles for people who already have trouble getting access to housing. In particular, we're seeing women and people of color facing the greatest fallout of the screening practices relating to nuisances.

Q. Local water billing regulations also contribute to landlords’ sense of financial precarity. Can you briefly talk about those? How do water billing regulations ultimately penalize tenants and potential tenants?

Water bills were such a contentious issue among landlords and their tenants, and they lead to more disadvantageous behaviors. It's important to note that water bills are skyrocketing nationwide for everyone, because the costs of upgrading our national water infrastructure is being passed on to the consumer. This becomes especially pertinent to landlords and their tenants because of a set of laws. In many cities, it's ultimately the landlord/property owner who is accountable to pay that municipal water bill. This is true even if the lease agreement says that the tenant is responsible to pay the water or if the water account is in the tenants’ name; it doesn't matter. Ultimately, it is the landlord who can face financial penalties and even, in extreme cases, lose their property, if those water bills are not paid. So, you can see that water bills have good reason to evoke a sense of financial precarity among landlords.

And while these laws are meant to protect the renter, they also leave landlords feeling as though they have even less control over the circumstance. Because, for instance, landlords are typically not allowed to enter the property without proper notice, usually 24 hours’ notice is necessary, except in the case of an emergency. Landlords also are not permitted to turn off the water service for any reason. So, these are important laws, no question. But from the landlord’s perspective, it makes them feel as though they have little control over their tenants’ water use when they can't see it, when they cannot turn it off, and so on. Which is just is an additional factor that makes them very anxious about water. 

So, going back to some of the proactive or reactive strategies that landlords use to save money, they turn to first proactive screening. They would look to turn away applicants who they feared would use more water. And they did that based on assumptions about people who are unemployed, because they worried that these tenants would be home more and therefore using more water. They looked to turn away larger families, such as those with multiple children, out of concern about higher water usage. These are already populations that face obstacles to gaining access to housing. So it amounts to a double penalty by putting this extra fear in landlords' minds about what their profit will look like, if they should have them. 

To reduce the water consumption of their current tenants, some landlords turned to lecturing, or would overtly threaten their tenants about mundane activities like watering the lawn, doing laundry, or washing the car. So, the fact that these regulations put a tension between landlords and tenants about behaviors that ordinarily, we don't think of as a society as being deviant or irresponsible, is really one key factor here in creating that financial precarity for the landlord. And it leads them to see their tenants as irresponsible for reasons that don't really align with how we tend to view irresponsible behavior. We have to think about the implications of water regulations for these reasons.

Q. Renting to tenants with housing vouchers or government benefits such as social security or disability seems like it would be a way to minimize landlords’ financial strain as tenants are guaranteed to have money to pay at least a portion of their rent. Why, despite this benefit, are some landlords reluctant to rent to these tenants?

You’re right, vouchers do hold a lot of potential to help out renters in securing decent affordable housing. The government makes the rent payment and conducts quality inspections that are meant to ensure that the landlord keeps the property in good condition, or else they will lose access to the rent payment that they get from the government. Yet, we still do see that the program falls short in some ways, because voucher holders do struggle to have landlords agree to rent to them, especially the landlords who rent properties in more middle income and racially integrated communities. 

Some of these renters' obstacles are rooted in policies and practices that are built into the voucher program. First, this pertains to the rent determination. Landlords who rent properties in more affluent areas where they can typically secure more financially stable tenants, and higher rents, often have to take a cut in rent payment through the vouchers' rent calculation. So, this this pay cut essentially disincentivizes some landlords to house tenants in the neighborhoods that are objectively advantageous to renters, with good schools and safe streets. On the flip side, though, this rent determination formula can give a rent boost to landlords who have properties in less advantaged areas. So, there's the creation of some perverse incentives for the landlords who provide the lower quality housing to house voucher holders. 

Beyond that, is the administrative burden that the program creates for landlords. This includes, what landlords talked about as, an unpredictable quality inspection process, a lot of paperwork, and unsatisfying interactions with the public housing authority officials who administer the vouchers. So, this administrative burden is a whole other factor that leads some landlords to be motivated to skip out on participating in the program. Especially for the landlords who can secure tenants who pay rent consistently, without a voucher. 

I want to note that there were some landlords who housed voucher holders in more advantaged areas, but they still sometimes did so under disadvantageous conditions, such as scrutinizing their voucher tenants more closely, trying to pressure or coach them about housekeeping, or even threatening or literally calling the police when they believed that they were violating city laws. They admitted that they scrutinize their voucher tenants more closely. That alone can create an unsafe environment for the renters in ways that are not at all conducive to their wellbeing or their housing security.

Q. Some landlords were able to operate their businesses both lawfully and profitably. What were some of the strategies they used that allowed them to do this?

It's true, some landlords did, in fact, generate satisfactory profit in the business, and they had several factors in common. First, most importantly, they had more than just a handful of properties. These mid-sized landlords own several dozen properties, which affected their bottom line in multiple ways. First, having more properties means they can benefit from economies of scale. For instance, they could buy materials like paint in bulk, and typically pay less as a result. Even more importantly, though, it typically allowed them to hire full time staff who could run the show, whether it be screening, doing repair work, or dealing with inspection issues. Having that full time staff allowed the landlords to proactively keep their property is in good condition, pass housing inspections for voucher holders, and, overall, kept the stress level lower for these landlords. 

It also shielded them a bit from some of the stressful interactions that the landlords reported having with their struggling tenants, which can lead to mistrust. But importantly, these midsize landlords did get to know their tenants – enough to still see them as people, to see their humanity, and be willing to be flexible on issues like rent collection. Unlike larger corporate landlords, for whom their tenants really are just names in a database or on paper and don't have the chance or even interest to bend the rules to look out for them a little bit more. 

Another key factor that distinguished the successful landlords from those who were less successful was geographic concentration. So, it was strategic for some landlords to really invest in and have their properties a particular community or a select set of communities. That made it much more efficient to manage the properties, to interact with tenants, and so on. And so, as opposed to those who had properties randomly across the whole region, having a geographic concentration really made a difference. That was clear.

Q. What are some policy and practices that you would recommend to help remediate these issues? 

There are a number of policies and practices that I would want to recommend. First, at the outset, I hope that we will reconsider expanding public housing. Public housing has earned a societal stigma, but not because the notion of providing affordable housing for marginalized tenants is flawed. It's just that public housing was built poorly, not maintained well, and often located in very disadvantaged communities. We know that doesn't have to be that way. There are cases around the country to look to where we see developments built with higher quality materials, maintained well, and in integrated neighborhoods. There's no logical reason why we can't continue to expand on that model. And I believe it's necessary to help the most marginalized renters, who are locked out of housing with the private landlord for reasons. including marks of stigma, that they might have. 

I think it's also important to expand the financial assistance that we give to renters through a renter’s tax credit, which is meant to ensure that they don't spend an overwhelming portion of their income on housing. We have a homeowner’s tax credit to help out those who incur the costs of interest payments on their mortgages. I believe that renters also deserve such assistance, and in ways that don't invite the bureaucracy for the landlord or the stigma for the tenant, which unfortunately, the voucher program does. Renters can potentially receive a tax credit based on their income and discreetly, without the landlord even knowing. And this need not even be a very complicated process as a lot of the information, which the government would need to process as credit, is already collected through tax returns. It would just need some additional pieces of information from renters, such as their current rent payment. 

I also want to offer up a recommendation about alternative dispute resolution, otherwise known as mediation. Mediation could help landlords and tenants to resolve their disputes, such as over rent payment, but in ways that can benefit the renter. So, rather than having a case heard in the formal courtroom setting in front of a judge, in mediation, both the landlord and tenant have a more intimate gathering with a mediator, who is really meant to be a neutral third party. The mediator's role is to allow both parties to share their stories, and then simply present them with some alternative options besides an eviction. For example, for a tenant who fell behind on rent, that alternative can be a payment plan, so that the tenant can stay housed while also following a plan to repay their debt. It was a very eye-opening process for me to observe. One by one in these mediation sessions, landlords agreed to resolutions that did not necessarily benefit them at all, such as returning a security deposit to a tenant, even though the law technically was on their own side. One reason that mediation can work this way is because it gives landlords a sense of procedural justice, which is this idea of being treated by authorities with dignity and respect and in a neutral and unbiased way. This, in turn can lead people, landlords in this case, to make decisions that don't necessarily benefit them, but work to the benefit of somebody else. I think there's a lot of good reason to expand mediation opportunities, whether that be in the courtroom setting or in a less formal community setting.

And then, one practice I would also like to recommend is creating more opportunities for landlords and authorities to interact, so that landlords can make them aware of some of their grievances, which in turn motivate some of their disadvantageous practices. I'm really hopeful about the benefits of such events, because just the experience of being heard by authorities can impart a sense of procedural justice that could in turn disincentivize, some landlords from behaving in ways that harm tenants. Beyond that, it became clear to me during the course of my research that authorities really do need to hear more about these landlords' experiences. The authorities who I spoke with and observed acknowledged that they really had very little opportunity to learn from these landlords. They primarily interacted with them in isolated ways, like an eviction hearing, or an inspection, which does not provide an opportunity for a productive conversation about the issues, which were clearly very important to landlords and relatedly really impacted their tenants.

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