Commentary: The landlord looters

©Tribune News Service

No one would think it’s fair to force construction workers to build houses for free. Yet landlords — property owners who make it possible for us to rent rather than buy homes — are being vilified for expecting payment to use the property in which they’ve invested their savings and time.

States like California and now the Trump administration are imposing eviction moratoriums in the wake of COVID-19. Under Trump’s edict, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will mandate that people making less than $99,000 a year ($198,000 for couples) can stay in their homes so long as they can prove they’re unable to pay their rent.

Landlords, meanwhile, would still have to pay their loans plus their own living expenses.

While the Trump administration is condemning the thugs looting Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, it is engaging in wholesale looting of America’s landlords. In eviscerating their contracts, it is turning landlords into sacrificial lambs who will bear the brunt of the economic devastation of the pandemic — and of the government’s authoritarian response, which has made that devastation far more severe than it needed to be.

Had the government done its job and ramped up testing for the months leading up to COVID-19 hitting our shores, while isolating the sick to protect the healthy, millions fewer Americans would be at risk of eviction. Instead, the government not only defaulted on its responsibility, it made things far worse with senseless lockdowns that brought the economy to a halt.

The government created this mess. How should it fix it?

What it definitely should not do is single out a completely innocent class of Americans and force them to have their pockets drained and businesses ruined in order to make up for the government’s mistakes.

But landlords make too tempting a target. The very term “landlord” harkens back to feudal times when nobles had political power over the people who lived on their land. Today, landlords continue to be seen as powerful exploiters who grow rich at the expense of tenants. Here’s how the popular Existential Comics recently put it:

“Landlords do not ‘provide’ housing. Construction workers provide housing. Landlords, in fact, do the opposite of providing housing. They take the houses that were built for people to live in, hold them hostage for rent, and evict anyone who can’t pay.”

The truth? Not everyone can afford to buy a home. Not everyone wants to take on the expense and responsibility of buying a home. Not everyone wants the long-term commitment and risks involved in buying a home.

Landlords take on the cost, risk and responsibility of property ownership so that anyone who wants to can rent instead of buy.

And that’s to say nothing of the challenges faced by landlords in their capacity as lessors rather than landowners. Whether it’s tenants failing to pay rent, causing damage, illegally subletting their apartments or initiating nuisance lawsuits, the caricature of landlords as modern-day feudal barons swimming in money effortlessly collected from their helpless serfs is ridiculous.

(As for radical proposals to remedy this “injustice” by expropriating housing from landlords and “turning it over” to tenants, they not only ignore justice, but the question of who will pay to replace a broken water heater, dated wiring or a disintegrating roof.)

No, not every landlord lives up to their responsibilities. There are bad landlords, just as there are bad doctors and bad teachers. But the function performed by landlords is fundamentally productive, not exploitative. And many of the problems people attribute to landlords are themselves the result of government control over the economy.

High rents? Overwhelmingly, those are a consequence of government policies like zoning laws that restrict the supply of housing, driving up costs — especially in urban areas. Poor maintenance? Often this is the result of rent control and quasi-rent control “affordable housing” requirements that make improvements less profitable and further restrict the supply of housing, meaning that landlords don’t have to bother competing for tenants.

The government has created the eviction crisis. And it’s now creating a contract crisis, where the agreements rule of law and economic prosperity depend on can be thrown out at the whim of the president.

We don’t need a moratorium on evictions. We need a moratorium on statism.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Yaron Brook is the chairman of the Ayn Rand Institute and host of the “Yaron Brook Show.”

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