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Consider the small landlord

I’m one of the independent property owners who keeps housing affordable — and I’m terrified.

A house in Richmond, Calif., in 2012.
A house in Richmond, Calif., in 2012.Justin Sullivan/Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Ge

I never intended to be a landlord.

I became a member of that despised and striked-against group by following the advice of my own former landlord, a Harvard-trained economist who told me that I was wasting my money renting from him, and that I should buy. So I did. I found a 1911 Victorian in a working-class neighborhood of coastal Connecticut with great bones and vinyl-covered hardwood floors. I put my heart into it (and ripped the plastic flooring out). I intended to live there with my partner for years.

But less than 24 months in, we broke up and couldn’t sell the house as we found ourselves — along with the rest of the country — in the middle of the financial crisis. He moved out, I stayed and got roommates, and muddled through, faithfully paying the mortgage. Five years later we tried to sell, then twice more in the next decade, but our area’s housing market never really recovered. We got one lowball offer that wouldn’t have been enough to cover what we owed on the place, let alone the cost of the improvements we had made. Since I have no retirement or other savings, I, like many, have my financial future tied up in my home.

When the chance came to move cross country with my new partner to a less expensive place, I went. I found tenants for my house and reluctantly became a landlord.

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I am now a renter myself on the West Coast, while managing the house in Connecticut and its tenants and working full time. After paying my mortgage, insurance, and maintenance costs, I don’t make a profit on the rent I charge — though I still hope to come out ahead when I can eventually sell the house. I operate on the principle of treating my renters as I would like to be treated.

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I recognize that as worrisome as it is to live 3,000 miles from my 110-year-old house, homeownership is still a privilege. Katie Heinemann, a Minneapolis-based engineer who owns a triplex — and tweets on @_smallLandlord — put it well: “You have to think about your privilege, because just by owning property, you’re kind of deciding who can get housing and who can’t.” Like me, Heinemann has chosen to rent to those who have less-than-perfect credit or are in other situations that “maybe make housing a little more difficult for them.”

I’ve now had five tenants and — with one exception — they’ve been wonderful people. It’s made me happy to provide an affordable home for an English-as-a-second-language teacher, a Venezuelan immigrant, a community college instructor, and an environmental justice advocate. Because the house has a fenced-in backyard, I often rent to fellow animal lovers, whom I’ve found to be very dependable. I know firsthand how hard it can be to find a rental that accepts pets, especially if it’s a company-managed place. It’s why I rent from another small landlord, a single teacher saving for her retirement.

During tenuous economic times, these more personal relationships mean small landlords are more likely to keep people in their homes even if they’re struggling financially. “Small landlords are more likely to have that rental payment affect their own personal or household budget. Larger corporations that own multiple units can cover the costs of keeping units vacant. So small landlords are more likely to hold on to tenants that they have and work with them,” says Kristen Broady, policy director for the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institute and an economist who studies housing.

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When my tenants have been between jobs, or gotten hit with an unexpected expense, I’ve let them pay me late without a fee. I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck and know how one bad month can send you reeling.

When I started my landlord journey, I had no idea that I’d be part of a group that provides rental housing to so many Americans: While businesses own just over half the US rental supply, that still leaves about 23 million rental units that are owned by individuals. We’re more likely to own single units, houses, and duplexes, according to the Census Bureau’s American Housing Survey, and 30 percent of us make less than $90,000 a year.

It’s hard to hear the anger toward landlords and calls for rent strikes, even though I get it. I’ve seen my own income cut by 30 percent. But we smaller landlords didn’t get the level of assistance that big real-estate firms did from the $2 trillion CARES Act — despite being better at keeping people housed. Hearing about rent strikes is scary — if my tenants don’t pay me, I can’t pay the mortgage, I lose my house, and there goes another affordable housing option in my old neighborhood. Multiply this by all the small landlords like me, and in a few years corporations will become an even larger percentage of the rent collectors.

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During the pandemic, one of my two tenants was unable to pay her rent for five months. I used savings to cover a month, and then when mortgage deferment was available, I took it. I still have my house and my tenants still have a home. We’re all doing our best, and I never, ever want to evict anyone. But if there is help for renters (there should be!), there should also be help for those of us who know our tenants — and their dogs, cats, and guinea pigs — by name.

Starre Julia Vartan is a science journalist living near Seattle.