The great advantage that landlords have over tenants is professional organizing. They pay dues to support industry associations at the national, state, regional and local levels which then mobilize to beat back rent control in city halls. Associations find common cause with the constellation of landlord service providers, as I was reminded when I saw an upcoming seminar promoted by the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles. They work together to keep tenants perennially on the defensive.
The seminar announcement that I received in my inbox notice touted an event titled Dispositions of Security Deposit In Depth: Proper Handling of Security Deposits that will be occurring tomorrow:
The topic is ever-timely! I regularly hear from tenants about how a landlord has improperly deducted from the security deposit; or has failed to return it; or even refuses to accept delivery of a certified letter that may be demanding the return of the tenant’s deposit.
Indeed landlords withhold or deduct deposits unlawfully so often that the Beverly Hills rent stabilization office should hold a seminar about it for tenants titled something like, ‘Security Deposit: Ten Steps to a Timely Refund.’ But that city seminar won’t ever happen. So Renters Alliance has already posted two explainers about security deposits: Security Deposits: A Primer to explain the law and Security Deposit: Ten Steps to a Timely Refund to provides some additional advice.
The landlord seminar on the security deposit, I hope, will remind landlords what they can and can’t do with that money. Because walking away with it in any other context is larceny. However a few rental property owners seem to have made it part of their business model.
What Can We Read Into This Seminar?
Beyond the seminar topic there are a few aspects of the announcement worth highlighting.
First, seminars generally are really important vehicles for organizing smaller landlords. The Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles (AAGLA) holds them regularly and these are generally facilitated by apartment industry service providers. But these seminars are not targeted at professional operators but instead they focus on attracting smaller operators — the folks who are much more important to an organization like AAGLA than are the larger landlords..
Serious rental property investors need not bother with penny-ante seminars. They focus on tax policy foremost and pay experts for that advice. Or they work to increase managerial efficiency. So rather than shave few bucks from a tenant’s deposit — it is not worth the effort — they employ professional managers who know the law. It is the petty thieves among smaller and less-scrupulous family-type operators who grab the cash.
Indeed the whole reason AAGLA maintains a calendar of interactive events is because it needs to attract and motivate ‘mom-and-pop’ foot soldiers in the battle against rental housing regulation. That’s where the organization’s rhetorical legitimacy rests: We’re here for the little guys. If AAGLA signs them up for a seminar now, then later AAGLA can reach out with a RED ALERT about rent control to get the soldiers on to the battlefield.
Second, service providers play a key role in these seminars. Facilitators are not professional educators of course but are instead ordinary business promoters. They are out for the buck.
Take for example this ‘lunch and learn’ tips and tricks seminar (which is also facilitated by Patty from the seminar on deposits):
Patty is the marketer for FastEvict.com, one of the bottom-feeding eviction outfits that advertise throughout apartment industry magazines. Marketing is essential because the environment is competitive: we have Express Evictions, Fast Eviction Service and Landlord Legal Services with an old-school 1–800-EZ-EVICT number.
They compete with even lower-dollar paralegals and untrained unlawful detainer assistants (for which a state-recognized credential can be had for just a couple of hundred bucks). There are also plenty of one-man-bands like Dennis Block (evict123.com) that keep prices low through a high volume of cases. It’s hackwork but there a lot of hacks out there!
Third, these seminars are where the symbiotic relationship among apartment associations, publications and service providers is operationalized. All share a mutual interest in monetizing small and medium sized landlords. The seminar is the place to do it! The organization behind the deposit and tips seminars is the Apartment Investors Club, which is a revenue-generating arm of the publisher behind Apartment Management Magazine.
Magazines are crucial players in the landlord organizing ecosystem and it seems that there is one for every region and and management specialty.
The tips and tricks seminar pitches “free admission with membership.” Facilitating the program would be considered a loss-leader because the top goal is to sign up dues-payers. (Where apartment associations operate on the membership model, few to no tenant advocacy organizations do.) However the facilitator is there on her own mercenary mission. For all we know she’s paying the event coordinator to market to its members.
Fourth, seminars are about networking. The Apartment Investor Club’s raison d’être is to make “valuable connections between investors, landlords, property managers and industry professionals.” That’s why there is a coffee & tea table: networking is crucial to the organizing of landlords. And there is no better organizing principle than the common cause landlords find in maximizing operating income and freeing themselves from regulation.
These seminars are a tangible extension of the association’s magazines emphasis on issue pieces, legal columns, question-and-answer (i.e. ‘problem tenant’) columns, and bloviating editorials — all promoted by shock magazine headlines about big legal damages paid to tenants and the like.
Firth and perhaps most serious for tenants, seminars are a vehicle for disseminating industry knowledge. Tenants don’t have a comparable vehicle. Landlords already enjoy a great advantage in working with tenancy law daily in an apartment leasing business. Seminars then supplement that knowledge with fine-point topics: deposits, property management, fair housing law, etc.
What about tenants? Beverly Hills has held only one tenant-focused workshop in the past two years and it didn’t dig too deep.
That’s why tenants are on the back foot when it comes to the law. There is no such thing as a “professional tenant” (though AAGLA would have you believe otherwise); our only business is living, and for that we contract rental housing. But we are neither professionals nor experts. Only we encounter a problem with the landlord do we have to become lay experts in the law.
In contrast, the well-organized ecosystem of rental property interests and service providers perpetuate the asymmetry of knowledge — that gap between the landlord’s grasp of the law and our relative unawareness — to keep us on defense. Until tenants organize effectively, within and across regions, and support the organizations working on our behalf, both locally and in Sacramento, we will always be playing defense against the tried-and-tested landlord playbook.
I didn’t have to take a landlord seminar to come to these conclusions. I only had to sign up for a single AAGLA event. Then the event announcements come rolling in. “The Voice of Multi Family Housing Since 1917″ understands the value of organizing, networking, and motivating the troops!