Absentee Landlords and Their Critics

Star Tribune reporter Steve Brandt has written (Oct. 28,1999) of a new program in Minneapolis which would “help neighbors to get control of rental properties” that might otherwise be acquired by “absentee landlords”. This program allows them to purchase properties with as little as three percent down.

One such “neighbor”, Carol and Brad Pass, have acquired a dozen properties near their home in Phillips to help keep this neighborhood safe. Mr. Pass is an airlines pilot whose high salary would normally be a ticket to life in the suburbs, but he and his wife are altruistically staying in Minneapolis.

Some landlords are not buying the premise of this story, reinforced by an accompanying editorial. Brandt’s article is filled with code words. “Neighbors” are obviously good people; “absentee landlords” are bad. This phrase, “absentee landlord”, is used interchangeably with “slumlord” in the city’s political culture.

Brandt’s article contains other inflammatory phrases: “landlords viewed as problems”, landlords who ”charge what the market would bear and take the money out of Phillips.” Carol Pass is quoted: “There are people getting fabulously rich off this neighborhood; it’s like crucifying these people on their low incomes.” (my emphasis)

If pressed to find the point of this story, one would have to say that it is a morality play in which a virtuous couple - they don’t have to live in Minneapolis, after all - stay in the city and acquire properties for the sake of keeping them out of the hands of the evil, absentee landlords who cause urban neighborhoods to go downhill. The only hard news, once Brandt’s stereotypical overlay is removed, is that the Passes are getting one heck of a deal in being allowed to obtain mortgages with only three percent down.

The story assumes that private-sector landlords cause urban blight. If that were true, it would be a legitimate news story - one that Star Tribune reporters ought to pursue. But then they would have to show by facts and examples what landlords did or did not do to cause these problems. Did they neglect maintenance? Are their buildings dangerous to the inhabitants or to passers by? Probably that is not a problem. There would not be much of a story then.

The real problem is the people associated with these buildings. Landlords allegedly fail to screen incoming tenants; they will let just anyone live there, concerned only about collecting the rent money.

Of course, it is not all landlords who do this, just the bad ones, stereotypically known as “absentee landlords”. This word, “absentee”, smacks of someone who has gone AWOL or abused sick leave. It has the ring of illegitimacy. Technically speaking, it may refer to a landlord who does not personally reside in a building in which he or she rents space to others. Presumably, this type of landlord does not care so much about the property - “out of sight, out of mind.”

But is it true that business owners and managers do not care about businesses where they are not physically present much of the time? If that were true, then we could perhaps refer to an “absentee newspaper”, when its owners live in another community. Does McClatchy let its Minneapolis paper, the Star Tribune, go downhill just because its top corporate managers live in California? I would not make that accusation.

We come back to the Minneapolis landlords and their people problems. The landlord takes on the aura of the thugs and criminals who live in their buildings or hang out there. The rational response to crime would be, of course, for the incensed citizenry to become angry at the criminals themselves rather than at the owners of buildings. But the rational response does not suit Minneapolis’ political culture. Race may be a part of the explanation.

The city of Minneapolis is populated mainly by political liberals. To blame the criminal for crime would be discomforting to this type of individual because all too many of the street criminals who cause trouble in certain Minneapolis neighborhoods are young African-Americans. In contrast, most of the landlords who rent to them and their families are middle-aged white people. For political liberals it is not politically permissible to spread negative stereotypes of African-Americans; but there is no such inhibition, among these liberals, against holding negative stereotypes of whites.

Community organizing in inner-city Minneapolis seems to require that someone be the target of a negative stereotype. The “absentee landlord” - with the word “absentee” giving it the veneer of an objective complaint - makes a perfect target. He or she can become the sacrificial goat upon whom the sins of a neighborhood’s street criminals are loaded. That way, your politically correct newspaper editor or reporter, who may live in a comforatble neighborhood, can maintain a racially pure heart while also seeming to be concerned about urban crime.

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