For most Americans who rent a home or apartment, if something important breaks, like a pipe or part of the HVAC system, they can expect the landlord to respond and fix the problem in a reasonable time. However, our nation’s poorest individuals cannot always expect to have repairs to the housing they rent made in a reasonable and timely manner. Rents are expensive, and for many Americans work is hard to find and payments for housing falls behind. When this happens, exploitation is possible and many low-income renters end up trading their dignity for their housing.
In Evicted Matthew Desmond follows a landlord named Sherrena through the general course of her day managing several rental units for low-income individuals. In the book, several of Sherrena’s tenants fall behind on their rent and need help getting by. This creates a situation where Sherrena is able to skirt the rules on maintenance and upkeep for her rental properties. Desmond writes, “as Sherrena put it to tenants: if I give you a break, you give me a break.” The implication is clear, if you are a difficult tenant due to noise complaints, damage to the property, or late rent, don’t expect the landlord to stick to the letter of the law in terms of fixing and repairing the rental property. Its not so much giving Sherrena a break in terms of being slow to address concerns but rather an acknowledgement that Sherrena giving a tenant a break is an exercise of power which allows her to then avoid legal requirements related to general property upkeep.
There is a transactional sense where this seems logical. If a tenant is going to be late on payments or difficult in one way or another, then they should expect that the landlord is going to be less cooperative in return. This is a classic tit for tat type of transactional relationship where one person responds in kind to the provocations of the other. But as Desmond describes, and Sherrena’s quote demonstrates, this creates exploitative relationships between landlords and poor renters.
“Tenants could trade their dignity and children’s health for a roof over their head.” Housing prices across the nation have increased at a time when wages have stagnated for many people. Prior to 2020, unemployment reached record lows, but still, many people had left the job market and couldn’t find adequate work to support them with a living wage. For these individuals, being able to afford rent month after month is a major challenge.
Falling behind on rent may mean that a landlord will ignore problems with the rental property. This could mean they don’t call an exterminator if bugs are found in the building, that they don’t fix a broken window, or that they don’t hire a plumber to repair a clogged toilet. Renters who are behind on rent or have rocky relationships with the landlord have to put up with unsanitary or dangerous living conditions until they can get current on rent or catch up on any back payments. Being poor means they trade in their dignity and health in order to not get kicked out of their rental. We can argue that this is simply market dynamics and rational behavior on the part of landlords, but we should acknowledge that there is a dignity trade off taking place and that low-income renters can be exploited by more powerful landlords. This is a real issue that we should care about, no matter how lazy, how undeserving, or how bad we find the choices an individual has made to end up in their current situation. Trading dignity for housing should simply be untenable.