Pity the Landlord

2024-05-30 20:59:557
Charlie Dulik , October 2, 2023

Pity the Landlord

Is the “mom-and-pop” landlord a myth? A New York apartment building sits atop a pile of cash.The Baffler
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Lincoln Eccles is feeling the pressure. For the last few years, the Jamaican-born landlord has struggled to operate the fourteen-unit rent-stabilized building in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn his family has owned since the 1950s. He is, by most metrics, a “small landlord,” though as with many small landlords, the diminutive is complicated: he “owes [his] break” to his uncle, reportedly the owner of more than one hundred multi-unit properties. For a single-building owner, Eccles’s tribulations have received an inordinate amount of press. Since 2020, he has appeared in the New York Times, theNew York Daily News, theNew York Post, CBS, NY1 Spectrum News, Yahoo, CNN,Curbed, Tablet, Crain’s, and more. He is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, incredibly active on Twitter.

Eccles’s complaints are copy-paste: onerous rent regulation and anti-eviction protections jeopardize his ability to do basic building maintenance, encourage malfeasance from delinquent tenants, and threaten his ability to scrape out a living. All unsurprising opinions for a landlord to hold—but Eccles takes it a step further. Oppression of landlords, he argues, is a racial justice issue.

Pity the Landlord

As Eccles sees it, any regulation designed to protect tenants amounts to a continuation of the country’s long history of racist housing policies. Rent stabilization is “the new redlining”; fining landlords for poor building conditions in their buildings is racist, anti-Semitic, and unfairly targets “immigrant landlords of color.” He has favorably equated the defeat of new tenant protections to the Supreme Court striking down racial gerrymandering in Alabama. In 2021, Eccles tweeted that politicians seeking to halt evictions during the pandemic were “saying Black Property Owners’ lives, particularly those of Black women and children, don’t matter.”

Eccles’s widespread media presence is no accident. In 2019, he became one of the public faces of Responsible Rent Reform—a faux-grassroots group backed by the Rent Stabilization Association (RSA), the largest landlord organization in the state—which has set about weaponizing the stories of a dozen “mom-and-pop” landlords to undermine rent regulations. Eccles, in other words, is not an everyman plucked by the papers by chance; for years, he has been part of a landlord lobby that has become increasingly organized in response to tenant protections passed by the New York State legislature in 2019 and to the economic precarity of the pandemic. His social justice-inflected grievances are the bleeding edge of a revanchist development in New York housing debates: landlords, especially the smaller ones, have begun repurposing the identitarian language of systemic oppression in a relentless public campaign against rent regulation and eviction protections.

And they’ve been successful: for four straight years, tenant-backed bills have failed to reach a floor vote in the state legislature; the state’s pandemic era eviction moratorium was abruptly scuttled; landlord groups have launched bold new campaigns to circumvent rent regulations. The president of the RSA, the largest of the state’s landlord organizations, has called the effort “one of the most robust public relations campaigns in the history of [the New York real estate] industry.”

Perhaps most significant in the backlash to 2019’s pro-tenant legislation are five active lawsuits—backed by major real estate industry groups but with “small” landlords as plaintiffs—that seek to overturn rent control entirely. This month the Supreme Court will decide whether or not to hear these cases, threatening to stamp out rent control for good.

Central to this assault is the figure of the mom-and-pop landlord—a decades-old archetype honed into a full-fledged victim in the era of identity politics. But what makes someone a mom-and-pop landlord? A compact stature or portfolio of particularly undersized buildings? Some would argue the defining factor is whether buildings are registered to an individual owner or an LLC, but those categories are hardly mutually exclusive. The common understanding is that small landlords rent only a few units. But how few? For a near ubiquitous term, there seems to be no consistent legal or journalistic standard.

Recent legislation proposed in New York carved out exemptions for landlords with four or fewer units, the same number used officially by Los Angeles; meanwhile, the RSA suggests landlords owning up to nearly one hundred units should be considered small. Last year, the Times published a glossy sob story about the struggles of a “small” landlord who owns over six thousand apartments. Nobody can quite seem to agree. This is by design: since its genesis, the purpose of the diminutive has been to confuse, rather than elucidate, distinctions between owners.

From the outset, the mom-and-pop trope served to obfuscate the central players in New York’s housing politics.

Though in use since the mid-1970s, the term first graced a New York newspaper in a 1985 edition of the New York Daily Newsin an article headlined “‘Mom & Pop Landlords’: Even the tenants like them.” The piece focused prominently on Winifred Dozier, a Black woman and the landlord of a sixty-seven-unit building in Harlem. “Tenants say the fifty-six-year-old building, named after the first Black soldier killed in World War I, is well-maintained and a pleasant place to live,” the article read. “But Dozier has a problem: she can’t make a living on the building because of the city’s rent regulations. Seventeen of her tenants are rent controlled and the rest are stabilized,” referring to two types of rent regulation in New York state, which limit rent increases and require mandatory lease renewals on over one million apartments.

It’s not that landlords like Dozier were actually struggling much. In fact, approved rent increases for stabilized apartments outpaced the rise of landlord costs, meaning, on balance, profits had actually increased. Even those who hadn’t profited that year could apply for a “hardship exemption,” allowing them to raise rents further, though almost none did. The whole regulation system, the Daily Newsexplains, is simply too complicated for individuals like Dozier to understand; the simplest, fairest solution would be to dispense with it all together.

Reading the story, one might conclude that Dozier represented the average New York City landlord—indeed, the story cites a real estate industry survey reporting that 60 percent of landlords own only one building. But elsewhere, it admits that 12 percent of the city’s landlords owned the vast majority of rental units: 71 percent. From the outset, in other words, the mom-and-pop trope served to obfuscate the central players in New York’s housing politics, just as it does today.

As of October 2022, according to New York real estate data tracker JustFix, landlords with ten or fewer units own only 13.2 percent of the city’s total stock and only 1.2 percent of all rent-stabilized apartments. By contrast, the top 5 percent of New York City landlords control nearly 65 percent of units and 87 percent of rent-stabilized ones. Staggeringly, the top 0.3 percent of landlords, whose portfolios exceed one thousand units, hoard almost 44 percent of the city’s rental units, and a whopping 56 percent of those protected by rent-stabilization.

Today, almost three quarters of non-white New Yorkers rent. They are more likely to live in rent-regulated housing but are significantly more likely to be rent-burdened (paying over 30 percent of their income toward rent), live with serious maintenance deficiencies, and face eviction. Black renters face these issues at the highest rates. That is all to say: most tenants, and most non-white New Yorkers, do not have mom-and-pop landlords; they deal with faceless multi-property conglomerates. Conversely, most mom-and-pop landlords, by any reasonable definition, are not being squashed under the boot of rent regulation; they’re far more likely to not be regulated at all. Eccles and Dozier, in reality, represent neither the average owner of rent-stabilized properties, nor the average small landlord.

Not only does the Daily News’s initial deployment of small landlord myth-making amount to basic misdirection, it also exhibits many of the core elements of the mom-and-pop-aganda: individual owners with relatively few units are held up as representatives of the industry despite being anything but; their plight is taken at face value, absent evidence of financial struggle or the disclosure of ties to political advocacy groups; most importantly, a landlord’s right to profit is prioritized over a tenant’s ability to afford stable housing.

One might see this bait and switch as an example of powerful corporate elites cynically using their smaller counterparts to advance their own agenda. The truth is more nuanced—the trope of the struggling small landlord, and its aggressive weaponization, has been a byproduct of hard-won collaboration between the two groups.

As the post-war liberal order began to fray in the 1970s, political experimentation flourished among radical political groups seeking to reshape society, from hippies to the Weather Underground to the nation’s top businessmen. Big business in particular, as journalist Thomas Byrne Edsall writes, “refined its ability to act as a class, submerging competitive instincts in favor of joint, cooperative action in the legislative arena.” This sea change rippled across most major industries, not least New York real estate, where landlords became better organized and more politically aggressive.

During the mid-1970s financial crisis, the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY), the oldest, richest and most politically connected trade group, bolstered its operational capacity, expanded its professional staff, and for the first time decided to make its presidency a paid position. The RSA, today the most populous landlord advocacy organization in New York, was formed three years later by the government—typifying the state’s close relationship with property owners—as a body through which landlords were charged with creating regulation and policing themselves. Several new landlord organizations had also popped up, like the Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), a smaller group founded in 1966 that claimed to represent a diverse set of landlords. Today, members of these three major groups control over five hundred thousand rental units in New York City, about a quarter of its total stock.

As rent regulation devolved through several iterations, organized landlords steadily flexed more power. In 1974, New York introduced the rent regulation system the state uses today, known as rent stabilization. Weaker than previous forms of rent control, it crucially excluded buildings with fewer than six units, arbitrarily granting less protection to tenants in small buildings under the auspices of protecting small landlords.

For landlords, more organization and power did not always bring more unity. In 1978, for example, small landlords within the RSA, including several board members of CHIP, successfully waged a coup for control of RSA’s board, arguing their large compatriots had not done enough to fight regulation of mom-and-pops—higher profits had made them complacent. The little guys won. Post-coup, the RSA charted a more militant direction. Though still officially affiliated with the government, they hired lobbyists and PR consultants, paid lawyers to sue the city and state, and even set up a front group, the Neighborhood Preservation Political Action Fund, to collect donations and run attack ads. In 1983, New York state finally severed official ties with the organization, diminishing landlords’ direct power over regulation but allowing them even freer rein to take on political fights.

The following year, self-identifying small landlords continued organizing independently of the titans of industry, forming the Small Property Owners of New York (SPONY), which Lincoln Eccles would join some years later, and continuing the work of longer-standing associations and trade groups such as the American Property Rights Association, whose founder frequently compared rent control to Nazism. Collectively, these groups mobilized thousands of landlords to raucous political action.

This was the primordial sludge from which the figure of the mom-and-pop landlord emerged in New York: amid a national anti-regulatory mood, rapid industry-wide organization, and increasing—and increasingly aggressive—political agitation. The concept unified landlords big and small, providing corporate titans a way to launder their policy goals while ensuring the lowest on the ladder of property ownership felt sufficiently centered. One can understand the idea of a “small landlord” as the id of organized landlords: the most expressive, self-victimized, and ultimately, aggressive. The trope, at its core, exists to wed collective militancy to sympathetic individualism. It is no surprise that decades later, in another moment of tumult, it would evolve, raising the stakes through the language of social justice.

So what has changed, between the time of Winifred Dozier and that of Lincoln Eccles? For decades, organized landlord groups succeeded in adding loopholes to existing regulations while yanking some three hundred thousand units out of regulation by 2019. As big real estate’s campaign donation and lobbying efforts expanded in scope and efficacy, their public-facing organizing efforts decreased. By the early 2000s, the industry stopped paying for traditional public mailers altogether. Why focus on the general public when you have a direct line to decision-makers?

Landlords were even more successful outside of New York. Though a 1992 Supreme Court case unanimously upheld the constitutionality of rent control—with support from conservative justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas—more than thirty states implemented statewide legislative bans on the policy. Only California, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Oregon deploy some form of rent control today, mostly concentrated in a few municipalities and not without restrictions.

For landlords, the language of victimization, which both identity politics and right-wing grievance draw upon, proves a potent force.

As the housing crisis worsens nationwide, rent control has become increasingly polarizing. Within the last two years, Republican-controlled legislatures in Ohio, Florida, and Montana have banned the policy, while calls for its implementation grow in more liberal states like Massachusetts and Washington. Even within more conservative states like Arizona, Kentucky, and Tennessee, liberal cities with growing tenant groups have begun agitating for it. The Biden administration has flirted with the policy nationally, further raising the issue’s prevalence for major right wing groups.

In New York, the decades-long deregulatory slide finally shifted in 2019. Facing sky-high rents and record eviction rates, and emboldened by left wing electoral victories that flipped the state senate, a resurgent tenant movement won a massive victory with the passage of the Housing Stability and Tenant Protection Act (HSTPA), which closed nearly every major landlord loophole used to undermine rent stabilization. Influential real estate industry members were stunned by defeat at the hands of a movement with so little money and traditional influence in Albany. But they didn’t stay dazed for long and quickly set about co-opting the tenants’ grassroots strategy, leading them back to the familiar and familial: mom-and-pops.

This effort kicked off before the end of the 2019 legislative session. Real estate groups put on a series of rallies called “Worker Wednesdays,” in which predominantly non-white construction workers and maintenance staff stood silently behind speechifying landlords, and they created the aforementioned innocuous sounding “grassroots” group Responsible Rent Reform with the intention of blocking the HSTPA. Though unsuccessful, this was the seed from which a new era of landlord activism would grow. Moving forward, landlords realized that communicating in a more progressive climate requires more progressive language, a return to the court of public opinion, and increased collaboration (the RSA and CHIP are even reportedly considering merging, completing the synthesis of landlords large and small). In the last four years, REBNY, the RSA, and CHIP have worked in concert to fund the creation of new astroturf groups with egalitarian sounding names like Affordable Rent for All, Gotham Housing Coalition, and Homeowners for Affordable New York—in actuality empty LLCs used to fund online and radio ads, statewide mailers, and of course, widespread social media campaigns, including on TikTok.

While at any given time these groups may purport to speak for individual homeowners, small landlords of color, or the general public, the board members of the real estate groups behind them are almost exclusively white men who own, on average, five thousand units of housing each. Between 2018 and 2022, these groups collectively donated a combined $8.8 million to political candidates, spent over $2.3 million on legal efforts to overturn rent stabilization, and dropped $7.7 million on lobbying, including hiring the MirRam Group, cofounded by the father of Hamiltoncreator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The lawsuits against rent stabilization now being considered by Supreme Court, filed in response to the HSTPA of 2019, pose a particularly dangerous threat to rent control nationwide. Typifying industry synergy, the plaintiffs are a perfect array of “small” landlords—an individual landlord whose sob stories pop up in media over the years, always on the vergeof going out of business but never quite; a family with multiple buildings; an LLC with twenty-four buildings across the city; and of course, two massive trade groups, CHIP and the RSA. Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Apartment Association, the Cato Institute, REBNY, SPONY, the California Business Roundtable, the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute, and the Minnesota Multi Housing Association have all teamed up to file amicus briefs in support of the case brought by CHIP and the RSA. The Manhattan Institute, an influential conservative think tank with ties to both Harlan Crow and Paul Singer—billionaires whose fraternizing with Supreme Court justices has been reported on by ProPublica—is also pushing conservative judges to take it.

While monied industry groups merely affect the posture of grassroots action and woke language while advancing high level political and legal crusades, small landlords like Lincoln Eccles, uniquely affected both by the pandemic’s economic precarity and its emergency regulations, have taken to the streets and Twitter, where they trumpet slogans like “landlords are people too,” “justice for mom’n’pop housing providers,” and “small landlord lives matter.” Some have even rebranded themselves as “indentured landlords,” “carelords,” and “community-based landlords.” When the New York City Council mulled a bill to target discrimination against formerly incarcerated tenants, a state committee member and shareholder of a Bronx gated community, spun it as “The End of Black Landlords.”

This narrative—and the cash machine behind it—has proven effective in swaying politicians, blunting tenant progress. It was reportedly influential in stopping Good Cause Eviction for the fifth straight year. Discussing the bill, a central Brooklyn assembly member representing a district of nearly three quarters Black renters argued that regulating rent increases would actually lead to “Black grandmas out on the street.” New York Mayor Eric Adams, himself a landlord, said in February that it’s important to “remember that small property owner—who came from the Caribbean [and] was able to buy a ten-unit house—how their increases are going up, what they’re going through.” When pressed by a Holocaust survivor tenant about city-wide rent increases on stabilized units approved by the Rent Guidelines Board, the members of which he appoints, Adams accused her talking to him like a “plantation owner.”

This pernicious rhetoric has succeeded not only at moving liberals but at arming conservatives, offering them the guise of populism while muddying the waters of debate. It has allowed the real estate establishment to cannily exploit the contradictory commitment of Democrats to both wealth-building through private property and, nominally, social justice.

For landlords, the language of victimization, which both identity politics and right-wing grievance draw upon, proves a potent force, tying together a relatively economically and politically diverse movement. It is the central engine of real estate’s outrage machine. No matter how absurd some manifestations of the social justice-minded mom-and-pop trope are, they’re the face of a deadly serious campaign—one close to snuffing out rent control entirely.

The narrative of the “woke” mom-and-pop landlord has since been taken up across the country. During public hearings about a new rent control program in St. Paul, an opponent—on Zoom from a beach vacation, naturally—characterized the policy as a form of redlining. Small landlords seeking to roll back rent control in Portland, Maine, adopted progressive language to do so, with ​​some arguing that their willingness to rent to asylum seekers, those on federal housing vouchers, and other marginalized communities demonstrates notable liberal bonafides. In Seattle, opposition to a local measure was led by a mom-and-pop group called Seattle Grassroots Landpeople. A Democratic city councilwoman in Minneapolis who led the charge to scrap consideration of a rent control program derided tenant advocates as “wealthy beer drinking pants rolled up white men” who need to “get out of mommy’s basement.” In a landlord forum, she described her role as “getting ready, putting my lipstick on, curling my hair and selling our message. [Landlords] are the experts at giving me what I’m selling.”

Should the Supreme Court not take the case, relief may prove only temporary.

Outside of New York, this dynamic has played out most notably in California. The successful fight against Los Angeles’s pandemic eviction moratorium was led in part by the ​​Coalition of Small Rental Property Owners, “a California-based advocacy group that mostly represents black and Latinx landlords.” This past February, one small landlord launched a hunger strike to push for the end of Alameda County’s eviction moratorium, calling himself and other immigrant landlords “victims of government abuse.” The moratorium was ended by April.

Across the country, small landlords wielding social justice language are on the march, but their efforts could prove unnecessary. At the time of writing, the Supreme Court is mulling whether or not to hear any combination of five separate challenges to New York’s rent control law. Rent control has previously been upheld by the court, but with a ultra-conservative majority unbothered by established precedent, there’s ample reason to think they may take the case on—and undermine, if not outright abolish, rent control. Amid a national housing crisis in which rent prices are up just over 30 percent from 2019, the average American tenant is rent-burdened, eviction filings are 50 percent higher than the pre-pandemic average in some cities, and homelessness has reached record highs, the few restrictions on rent hikes that exist could be made unconstitutional overnight. The effects would be catastrophic, especially on renters of color.

Unfortunately, should the Supreme Court not take the case, relief may prove only temporary. The executive director of CHIP hopes their lawsuit can be used as leverage in legislative negotiations toward an “amicable solution that doesn’t require a court decision.” The landlords’ march will continue apace, whether it be in the courts, the legislature, the media, or the streets. In reaction to the 2019 pro-tenant law passed in New York, pandemic-era eviction moratoriums, mass non-payment of rent, and resurgent tenant power, the landlord lobby—with the reinvigorated mom-and-pop figure as its friendly face—has gone on the offensive in ways not seen in decades. And they’re more organized than ever: from small landlords in central Brooklyn to moderate Democratic state legislators in Albany, think tank technocrats in D.C. to real estate billionaires, they’ve all unified to defend private property from democratic incursion. No matter what happens at the Supreme Court, this is just the beginning.