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Inside the Wildly Popular Forum Where Landlords Plot to Screw You Over

It's a terrifying window into the tenant/landlord power dynamic—and a national housing hellscape.

by Rick Paulas
Jul 24 2019, 11:50am

Credit: Collage by Jacqueline Lin | Photo via Shutterstock

It's hard to visit BiggerPockets.com, a website targeted at property owners who "create lasting wealth through real estate," without wondering how, exactly, they're stuffing those pockets.

The site, which has been around since at least 2006, has accumulated quite the following. According to the site's about page, its 1.4 million users are part of "a movement within the real estate investing community centered around grassroots, democratized education." Some of the advice certainly does seem like innocuous tips for landlords. But a key way to stuff those pants is knowing how to be savvy in dealings with renters.

There's plenty of advice on that front, too. In fact, one of the more common gripes on this landlord forum is about the quality of tenants. To take one example:

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Identities of those active on the forum have been obscured because we were unable, in some cases, to contact posters for comment. All images are screenshots via BiggerPockets.com
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In another thread, a landlord posted about needing to claw back rent payments made to a previous property manager, and was offered support:

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In this case, advice came in for a California landlord who expressed frustration with a particularly needy tenant:

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(For more landlord concerns, check out the Twitter account @bigpocketsTXT.)

Varied as these complaints may seem, they illustrate an important point that all tenants eventually discover, but many too late: Your landlord is not your friend. Rather, this is a relationship informed by an inherent power imbalance. One person allows the other to pay a fee to live on their premises, and while there are a few basic necessities that landlords must provide, per local regulations, a Sword of Damocles constantly hangs over the heads of some 108 million renter Americans.

Law professor Susan Etta Keller examined this power dynamic in the 1988 edition of the Cardozo Law Review like so:

The landlord has no reason to please or appease the tenant, but the tenant has every reason to please or appease the landlord. Moreover, the landlord may find it in her interest to do the opposite. [A] landlord may seek to displease a tenant who she finds objectionable, hoping a better one will come along or intending to rent at regular market rates.

One clear way to think about this is by defining what the space being inhabited means to the two different classes. To the tenant, it is a home. To the landlord, it is a job.

"Tenants, especially when talking about poor tenants with several jobs and several kids, they're just trying to make a life for themselves," said Eva Rosen, assistant professor at Georgetown's School of Public Policy and an expert on urban sociology. "Landlords are coming at this from a much more strategic place to maximize profits." When told about the (very believable) rumor in the crunched San Francisco housing market, wherein prospective renters bring baked goods to open houses to win over potential landlords, Rosen laughed. "The goals are very different, so strategies are different," she said.

What do some landlord strategies look like? Let's dip back into the forum (the following posts are not all from the same thread):

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While the differences between owner and renter are embedded in the model, the fault-lines weren't always as stark as they are now. As detailed in the 2014 report "The Rise of the Corporate Landlord" by the advocacy group Homes For All, the U.S. foreclosure crisis resulted in a dramatic shift in ownership. Virtually overnight, in some cases, former homeowners were shunted back onto the rental market and into property now owned by investment companies.

The terrain upon which these battles are taking place is also important to consider. Laws vary from state to state, city to city—Megan Hatch, associate professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University, classified three different legal approaches to police the tenant/landlord relationship: protectionist, pro-business, and contradictory. ("Protectionist" looks out for tenants, "pro-business" is pro-landlord, and "contradictory" is a mix between the two.) But it fairly consistently sides with property owners. As Keller wrote in 1988, "[A] landlord is somewhat legally protected to make the tenant's living situation a living hell, but that legal protection is not extending in the other direction."

This power imbalance further reveals itself in court. The number that often gets tossed around is that 90 percent of landlords are represented by lawyers while 90 percent of tenants are not. The obvious reason for that is the income disparity between the tenant, who cannot afford to buy a place, and the landlord, who the tenant is paying money to. (In a way, a little bit of every month's rent is going to your landlord's lawyer.) Meanwhile, any new tenant protections are fought in court as long as possible by landlord groups; even if they lose, they get those extra rents while the battle drags on.



How are tenants supposed to fight back?

The first is simply knowing the operating logic of your landlord so that you can work within it. If this is their business, then you are their customer. As my dad once told me when I asked him how to fix something in my first apartment in L.A., "Call your landlord, that's why you’re paying them rent."

Second is to know your legal rights as a tenant, which differ widely throughout the country. Some cities allow only "just cause" evictions, meaning that a landlord has to have a reason for evicting a tenant, whereas other cities allow eviction for any reason at all. Some places allow tenants to withhold rent if their landlord fails to provide essential services, while others do not. RentCafe has a good chart of the most renter-friendly and most landlord-friendly states, but your best bet is to consult your local tenants association to get the most up-to-date and detailed information.

Number three is to build power with other tenants. If you live in an apartment building, introduce yourself and share contact numbers. Start an email list for open communication with other tenants. If the time comes that you need your landlord to do something—trim the backyard, get rid of a rat problem, install new plumbing—you'll have more success when more tenants demand it together. And, if there's something particularly pressing that needs to get done, organizing a rent strike is an option to consider with your neighbors, albeit one that has risks.

But in terms of changing the core reality that allows such a power imbalance to exist? That's a tough nut to crack. While the issue can be fought in state legislatures by organizing massive blocks of renters into a coalition that shifts landlord-friendly states into renter-friendly ones, any advances seem like a pittance as long as the current system of viewing housing as a commodity remains in place.

"Just as the problem isn't the tenants, the solution isn't the tenants," Rosen said. "This will continue short of solving the housing crisis and the problem of housing allocation."

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.