Tenants and Landlords: Is It Always About Class?

I’ve met many lovely people while walking my dog. There’s Ross, a newly-married young guy who, with his wife, resides in their duplex down the block. Our pups don’t really spark but Ross and I chat amiably a few mornings a week. Then there’s Dick, the retired physician who owns an immaculate fourplex around the corner. I’ve seen him on morning walks with his beagle Alice for years. These folks own property but they are not of the landlord class.

Ross and Dick are the kind of property owners who make my neighborhood better. So I never think ‘landlord’ when I see them. I am not especially conscious of class, either, probably because Ross, Dick and I have more in common than whatever would divide us. Namely, we value our community.

But I live in rental housing as a tenant. That means I have no guarantee to my home. The law requires only 60 days notice for me to go.

Mom-and-pop owners like Ross and Dick are the kind that the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA) likes to put in the foreground. But AAGLA is no grassroots coalition: the board of directors includes not a mom-and-pop owner among them. Instead it tilts heavily toward bigger players in the industry.

Ten boardmembers are affiliated with a property management businesses. Eight are or were real estate brokers. Six boardmember own multiple rental properties and another six own or are are affiliated with property development companies. Five have expertise in real estate finance and four claim to be industry lobbyists.

Not your typical mom-and-pops! Moreover look at the company that AAGLA keeps. They are all organizations that lobby against tenant protections. The Apartment Association of California Southern Cities; the California Rental Housing Association and its national umbrella, the National Apartment Association; and the industry specific lobbying groups like the Beverly Hills/Greater Los Angeles Association of Realtors. Then there is the homegrown Beverly Hills Property Owners Association.

I see an organization steered by, and run for, landlords as a class: those in the surplus-extraction business. The term ‘landlord’ comes from the feudal era, of course, when lords-of-the-land were able to extract tribute in the form of labor from landless serfs working the landlords’ fields.

The emergence of a landed aristocracy has its contemporary parallel today in the rentier class that commands an ever-growing ‘unearned increment’ from the increase in the value of land. In other words, the rent is too damned high!

Now consider how that age-old arrangement between landed gentry and landless peasants plays out today. Not so different (though we do have more laws to regulate it). But until rent control regulations fully rein in landlord abuses like excessive rent increases, wanton evictions and other signs of a power imbalance, property owners will be free to take advantage by exploiting tenants.

Recently I was put in mind of the class divide when paying a social call north of Santa Monica Boulevard. We met while walking dogs. Invited over for a morning poolside puppy klatch, I gained a renewed appreciation of the difference between landed gentry and the rest of us. Historic home. Fabulous pool. And decor reminiscent of nothing so much as an English manor house.

I learned from polite chit-chat that our host is in the residential rental property business. No mom-and-pop he! A minute of googling showed thirty limited liability companies associated with him (and many were clearly holding title to apartment properties).

A minute more of googling turned up an ugly Ellis Act eviction that displaced a building full of moderate-income tenants in northeast Los Angeles.  It was followed by street protests that had my host hanging in effigy.

I just hope my hosts haven’t googled me. Our pups got along great and that pool was just fantastic! But I haven’t been invited back.