Why do landlords have so much discretionary, and ultimately fatal, power?

Yesterday, Virginia’s Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne informed the Virginia House of Delegates’ Appropriations Committee that the Commonwealth of Virginia is looking at a $2 billion surplus. The Virginia state legislature will meet in special session, starting August 2, to decide how to divide the Covid relief moneys. No matter what they decide, $2 billion is a lot of money. And yet … and yet people concerned about eviction are worried, very worried. Why? Partly because the money in Virginia, as elsewhere, has moved at a snail’s pace. The process of application is cumbersome and, for many, almost impossible. The scale of demand has far exceeded the capacity of state agencies. But there’s something else, something more structural than agency capacity and poorly designed procedures: landlords’ discretionary power. 

Virginia has more than a billion dollars in aid for people behind on rent”. Again, that’s a lot of money, and, again, people who need that money and their allies, communities and networks are worried. Why? “To tap into $1 billion worth of federal aid earmarked for Virginia, tenants or their landlords must proactively apply, and there’s no longer any rules requiring property owners to cooperate.”

Fairfax County, in northern Virginia, is the second richest county in the United States, a close to its neighbor, Loudoun County. Despite its great wealth, and despite the fact that it has access to great sums of rent relief money, Fairfax County officials and advocates are worried about eviction. Why? “Although Fairfax officials and other stakeholders say there’s plenty of emergency rental assistance to help low-income residents, they are concerned that it’s taking too long to get that money to landlords. County officials said that even if the rental assistance is available, landlords may decide it’s not worth it to wait months to receive the overdue rent and may evict their tenants anyway.”

Landlords may decide it’s not worth it to wait months to receive the overdue rent and may evict their tenants anyway.

Despite all the research and all the public discussion of the intimate link between transmission of the pandemic and eviction, between health and housing more generally, landlords still get to decide whose life is `worth it’ and whose life is not worth it. Do not ask what it is … 

Across the country, local jurisdictions are responding to this injustice. Some are instituting “just cause” eviction restrictions, others are going with right to counsel. Philadelphia, today, approved legislation to restrict landlords’ decision-making process. From now, landlords will not be able to deny potential tenants just because they have low credit scores or past evictions or evictions filings. The landlords’ process will have to be transparent and rational. Housing is not only a right, it’s also a matter of life and death, and that matter is passed down from one generation to the next. 

How did landlords become the arbiters of life and death, in the midst of a pandemic … or ever? Where does landlords’ discretionary power come from? And why and h ow did we let this happen? On one hand, the answer is in decades of real estate driven urban economies, that reward White homeowners and punish Black and Brown renters, creating an ever wider racial wealth gap, that is also a death gap. Some live long, others are “not worth it”, and the necropolitical maps of `urban development’ proceed. At its source, the concept of landlord is the power of a lord, “the male head of a household; a man who has authority over servants, attendants, or slaves.” It’s time to rewrite the terms and change the power. Our lives are worth it.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: NBC Washington)