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The Problem with the "Renters' Rights" Movement

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From late 2014 to early 2017, I occupied a unique spot in the tenant/landlord dynamic: I was both. I started out as a homeowner, but for several reasons I recently spent a year in an apartment, plus two more years in a rental house. This experience came in handy upon reading about Christine Drennon support for the creation of a renters’ commission to “augment the ongoing work of the Housing Commission” here in San Antonio.

Although Dr. Drennon's efforts touch on a number of housing-related issues, her real goal quickly becomes apparent: "renters’ rights."

The Drive for Local Renters' Rights Laws

Beyond the basic civil rights–related provisions found in the federal Fair Housing Act, protection for renters varies by jurisdiction.

Here in Texas, it’s pretty uncomplicated: we can expect peaceful, healthy conditions with adequate “security devices” to guard against unlawful intrusion. Any further details are spelled out in lease contracts, like those to which my landlords, tenants, and I agreed.

Outside the Lone Star State, bureaucrats are getting bossier with landlords.

They start modestly by eliminating application fees, as has been proposed in Portland, Maine. Advocates then proceed to capping deposits and limiting what property owners can charge for the use of their domiciles. This latter law was passed in Oregon last year.

In addition to dictating money flows, Oakland now forbids running criminal background checks on prospective renters, while Seattle goes further by mandating that landlords lease to the “first qualified tenant who applies.” As if to say “hold my beer,” the state of New York now orders property owners to let tenants for at least two weeks, at least, before eviction.

Needless to say, the use of the term "rights" is problematic, since it is unclear how these so-called renters' rights are similar to natural human rights. To analogize the two is to trivialize the latter.

In Drennon’s telling, there exists a “prioritization of property rights and ownership above all other [rights].” To the contrary, these kinds of property rights are merely one of several mentioned in the Bill of Rights. In fact, one could say that they’re not even in the top ten given how many others are listed in the preceding four amendments.

Moreover, where it is stated, or even implied, that only those who own property are “guaranteed (the Constitution’s) full protection?”

Nevertheless, aside from the logic that follows from a person having rightful title to that which she has legally acquired, property rights are the source of a free society’s prosperity.

Dr. Drennon is certainly correct when she states that only a small minority own “real property.” Not all of us, especially early in life, have the means to acquire such an asset sans borrowing.

That’s merely a temporary condition, however, for the determined, diligent, and committed.

Though these characteristics also apply to those who enhance their marketable labor skills, it is particularly true of those who create their own enterprise, be it a small business or rental property.

These entrepreneurs are the ones who take the risk to grow the pie of wealth from which the rest of us are free to earn a piece. No one in such a circumstance should be met with the slightest prospect that how they conduct business will be dictated by anyone or entity other than the party with whom they are dealing.

Moving is without a doubt a pain. I only did so, because my apartment’s imminent rent hike was too high for my blood. At no time, though, did it cross my mind to contact my city councilman to marshal public support to prevent my landlord from raising the price.

It simply doesn’t occur to me to outsource responsibility for my life to others.

Just as it is immoral to enlist the mob, in some twisted interpretation of the “democratic process,” to forcibly extract benefits or artificially high wages from employers, it’s wrong to do so in the name of an "extension of rights" for renters that requires the violation of owners' rights.

On the other hand, from the owner's perspective, it’s no day at the beach to lose tenants. That means a month or more of cleaning, repairs, marketing, background checks (due diligence), and extra bills.

In my days as a landlord, I never raised rent on renewals, and in fact dropped it once for a tenant when her spouse left her. I personally put more value on keeping responsible folks in my house. Had someone made me a nice offer to buy the place, however, I would have remembered why I was a landlord in the first place.

Just as tenants are free to move between leases, it is the right of the landlord to execute commercial transactions with her property as she sees fit, unencumbered by commands decreed by those whose egos thrive on popularity contests contingent upon handing out the most freebies.

As San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenberg has acknowledged, "a major challenge…is that there is just a lot of bureaucracy…a lot of entities that are involved in housing." Perhaps instead of wrapping the process in more red tape, it should abolish altogether previous government actions that have exacerbated the problem, such as former mayor Julian Castro’s "Decade of Downtown."

If a city wants to provide legal assistance to the poorest renters in an effort to hold unscrupulous and/or inattentive landlords to the letter of their respective lease contracts, that’s one thing. Further impeding the freedom of others to conduct their business affairs is quite another, and should not be up for debate.

Author:

Christopher E. Baecker

Christopher E. Baecker manages fixed assets at Pioneer Energy Services, teaches economics at Northwest Vista College, is a board member of the Institute of Objective Policy Assessment, and is a member of the San Antonio Business & Economics Society. He can be reached via email or Facebook.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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