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The Year Landlord Discourse Took Over the Web

More and more people rent these days — and they sound just about fed up

Humans gravitate to binary thinking. Black and white, either/or, right and wrong. These arrangements are convenient, but they also erode complexity: the traditional gender binary has no room for any number of the identities on a more expansive spectrum. Still, and especially when we’re arguing, we revert to oversimplification. “There are two kinds of people” is a memetic phrase that long predates the internet and a kind of folk wisdom that continues to permeate our language. And so might we sort everybody into “tenants” and “landlords.”

The U.S. has more renters than it has at any time since the 1960s — over a third of the population. Millennials’ rate of homeownership is significantly lower than it was for previous generations at the same life stage. It makes sense that some of our revolutionary ire would bend toward the people who ignore our calls about repairing leaky faucets and want to drastically raise our cost of living for “capital improvements” to the building’s front stoop. In short, the stereotype of a landlord in a time of rampant renting and housing shortages is an increasingly Scrooge-like figure, the brutalizing, incompetent “cop” of your would-be sanctuary from the world. The landlord kills every paycheck, a grim reaper sent by the status quo.

No wonder we take it as a betrayal when a person judged to belong to the tenant class — like musician Nathan Williams, frontman of the indie rock band Wavves — turns into a landlord advertising $3,000-a-month one-bedrooms in Silver Lake. That’s not how it’s supposed to work! This is a textbook method of selling out: sitting back and accruing wealth by as little work as possible, all that future income predicated on the good fortune you had to obtain property that is more valuable each day.

The outrage was twice as bitter when comedian Hannibal Buress gave a podcast interview in which he discussed buying apartments in Chicago to rent out on Airbnb, and “roasting” a “dirtbag” previous tenant who needed extra time to move out before renovations. Buress added fuel to the fire just days later, when he tweeted that Sen. Bernie Sanders was “wrong” to say that we need a national rent control standard. Suddenly it felt as if any theoretically cool celebrity could turn into your smug, dickish, greedy landlord overnight.

That Buress went so far as to solicit donations for a landlord group hit a nerve that’s been agitated a lot in 2019, implicitly forwarding the idea that owners, not renters, are the true victims of our present system, and routinely bullied or taken advantage of by leaseholders.

This also appears to be the narrative in backchannels like Facebook’s “Landlords Round Table,” a private group where people trade anecdotes and tips on the business. “Landlording is a job and like all jobs it can SUCK ass,” the page declares. “So here at Landlord Round Table we help each other to succeed as landlords.”

Ostensibly, “tenant bashing” is forbidden, though you realize what a toothless restriction this is when you get a look at some of the actual content. Here’s a fun post from a landlord working overtime to scam good tenants out of their security deposit refund — it went viral on Twitter, with dozens of replies detailing similar mistreatment after moving out:

In a similar vein, here’s a thread of landlords thinking up loopholes in new tenant protections:

Regardless of this simmering rage, no one was prepared for the zenith (or nadir) of this year’s landlord discourse, sparked by actress Jameela Jamil. A star of The Good Place frequently at pains to prove herself a worthy activist, she committed the unthinkable error of muddying her pro-choice views with a disastrous, tone-deaf metaphor: “The choice is the Landlord’s, not the tenant’s, nor the neighbour’s,” she wrote in an Instagram post. “Your uterus. Your choice.”

The rest of the internet did not appreciate the bizarre framing, as you might expect. It’s just that when you’re a millionaire, whether you literally rent property to people or not, you probably don’t understand how ordinary folks feel about landlords sucking up half of their income. As such, you end up in the “landlord” category by default, the same way any civilian schmuck defending horrific police violence and wearing Blue Lives Matter gear can be effectively branded “a cop.”  

It’s possible, as these tweets indicate, that we’re reaching a point where it’s hard to touch on any topic that doesn’t impugn capitalism in one way or another. The antagonism between tenant and landlord happens to epitomize the struggle of widening inequality and give it personal scale; it’s a common, relatable instance of problems that play out on the macroeconomic level. That renters’ fury is growing louder and more extreme (memes that allude to Mao Zedong’s mass killings of landlords in China are not a rarity) should of course worry the landlords, but it sounds as if they’re too busy chiseling fines out of us to notice. Meaning the tension is bound to keep rising as we enter 2020, and until… what? A general rent strike?

I wouldn’t mind it, honestly.