The war on renters

Anthony Sanders Attorney, The Institute for Justice
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Ever rented an apartment or a house? If so, you were a “social problem.” You undermined the health of your community. You caused crime and created nuisances. The fact that you did not actually commit any crimes, vandalize property or fail to pay the rent is irrelevant. Simply by being a renter you degraded the neighborhood.

This is the view of many city governments today. To them, renters are a group of second-class citizens, not people who simply rent their homes instead of own them.

In city after city across the country, governments are ratcheting up the regulation of renters and rental property. This is not traditional regulation of landlords, mandating that they treat their tenants fairly and respond to their safety needs. The regulation is ultimately directed at renters themselves. And it is frequently unconstitutional.

In countless communities, renters are being forced to submit to government inspections while owner-occupied homes are free from the prying eyes of city officials. Allegedly these inspection programs are meant to “look out for” the safety of renters, but often they are a cover for crime control. The Fourth Amendment protects all of us from searches without probable cause, but if a city slaps “rental inspection” on the search, courts frequently turn a blind eye. Under this topsy-turvy understanding of the U.S. Constitution, the government needs evidence to search a suspected criminal’s house, but does not to enter the home of an innocent tenant.

The government also places unreasonable restrictions on landlords.

For example, in some cities in Minnesota only a small percentage of homes on a block can be rented out. West Saint Paul, Minnesota bans homeowners from renting out their homes if ten percent of the homes on the block are licensed rental property. Rental bans like this can force homeowners to go into foreclosure when they have to move and can’t cover their mortgage without a renter. And fewer rental properties, in turn, can lead to higher prices and less availability. These cities don’t care that the law violates the centuries-old right to rent out property because, to them, renters are simply bad.

These laws and other regulations discriminating against renters and their landlords raise serious problems about treating people equally. Some cities fine landlords after a certain number of police calls to a property, even if the calls are for completely different households. Owner-occupants are not similarly fined. Some cities require landlords to take extensive all-day “crime control” classes before they rent their properties out because of the trouble their tenants might create. Owner-occupants, it goes without saying, can move into their homes without this training. Again, tenants are suspects, owner-occupants are not.

No matter how hard the government works to make it harder for landlords and their tenants to exist, renters aren’t going anywhere. Renting is normal. One third of all Americans rent their homes instead of owning them. Renters aren’t just college kids and ex-cons. Safe and responsible people everywhere of all ages and income brackets have perfectly good reasons for renting. Just because some people choose to send their monthly housing payments to a landlord instead of the bank does not mean there is something wrong with them.

Local governments should do the old-fashioned constitutional thing and treat renters like individuals, not as some kind of social problem. Some commit crimes and some have loud parties. So do other people who happen to own their homes. Most of both groups do not. Deal with those actually harming others and let everyone else be free to rent or buy without obtrusive government regulations.

Homeowners should be free to rent their property out as they see fit, to people they believe will treat their property with care and respect. And cities must stop subjecting renters to unlawful inspections as “punishment” for renting, instead of owning property. Property rights are the foundation for all our rights. The biggest “social problem” of all is the government failing to protect them.

Anthony Sanders is an attorney with the Institute for Justice.

Anthony Sanders