Why MPRAC has not been too concerned about having a bad reputation

by Bill McGaughey

There is a difference of opinion among Twin Cities landlords. Minneapolis (or Metro) Property Rights Action Committee has been accused of having “slumlords” and “some of the worst landlords in town” among our ranks. Our members have allegedly included some persons of questionable character.

Critics, even ones friendly to our cause, suggest that we clean up our reputation before we seek to change city policy. The purpose of our communication and activities should be to try to convince the public that we are “the good guys”. We are “responsible” landlords. Otherwise, the public will tune out our message because of who we reputedly are.

I have resisted that suggestion. In whatever discussions have come up on this subject, I have argued, quite firmly, that it would be a mistake for members of our group to start evaluating each other’s business practices. This would, in fact, be a trap. If we start judging each other on the quality or character of our individual business practices, then we become divided. We shift the focus away from our common fight against abusive practices of city government directed at us. We start fighting among ourselves.

As a matter of policy, we therefore welcome to our group anyone who is sincere and well intentioned in our common fight against city abuse. We at Minneapolis Property Rights Action are like a landlord “union”. So long as we stand united with one another and speak with a single voice, we have some chance of prevailing in the political fight. In that context, internal evaluations of character would be a mistake.

There is another reason, too, for not going the “responsible landlord” route. Persons who try to make themselves or their organization look good on television are “a dime a dozen”. The television-viewing public can smell that agenda right away. Therefore, I say, don’t try to doctor your image. Be who you are. Say what’s on your mind. Just let it rip.

When the television public senses that we are real people with both virtues and faults, people start paying attention. By our candor and straightforward free speech, we will gain credibility. The public will know we are not your usual political or corporate talking heads.

I liked to call MPRAC’s cable-television show “a cross between a public-policy discussion and the Jerry Springer show.” We were not people who took ourselves too seriously, even if our discussion was directed at a serious end. This makes for a more entertaining show on television. But, by the same token, it does make some people question our motivation.

Back to the philosophical point of whether MPRAC should put more emphasis on polishing our public image. My assessment of this question is that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to polish our image. Our critics have an unshakable conviction that we are slumlords whose businesses hurt the city.

The Minneapolis police department spends millions of dollars a year convincing people of that. Its public-relations unit, CCP-SAFE, works with neighborhood organizations to make “problem properties”, and not criminals, are the source of neighborhood crime. We with a budget of less than $5,000 cannot hope to counteract that well-funded, systematic effort. So why try? Just relax and be ourselves.

I have a personal reason for rejecting the advice that our salvation as a political group lay in trying to make ourselves look good. When I first became a landlord, my “neighbors” immediately accused me of being an irresponsible landlord. In fact, ten days after I took title to my nine-unit apartment building in August 1993, I was summoned before a meeting of the “Mid-Glenwood block club” and taken to task for the drug dealing in my newly acquired property. It did not matter that I had already met with the tenants, individually and collectively, to determine a possible course of action. My City Council representative, present at the meeting, declared me unfit to manage an apartment building. The group pressed me to commit immediately to evicting everyone in the building. Ultimately, I agreed to evict those with arrest records.

Then, a year and a half later, two sets of Minneapolis inspectors condemned my building, imposing heavy financial costs on me as a condition of lifting the condemnation. The neighborhood group held a rally to denounce me. My apartment building was said to be a haven for crime. This group presented two demands, one of which might have resulted in allowing the city to confiscate my building. I later learned that persons associated with the neighborhood organization were making plans to buy my building from me at a sharply reduced price if I could not afford to make the city-imposed repairs. One man actually called me with a lowball offer.

I knew what I had done and not done as a landlord in that neighborhood. I certainly was not “condoning” crime. I was dealing with this problem as best I could in the context of heavy drug dealing and violent crime in Minneapolis’ inner city. Neither the police nor the neighborhood group offered much help. Instead, I learned, sometimes by accident, that the “good people” of the neighborhood and city were holding regular meetings to discuss what might be done about me.

I concluded that the “good” people were rotten to the core. They were dishonest. They were malevolent. And I was being advised to kow tow to these people to try to get back into their good graces. My “neighbors” were a self-appointed group of finger pointers, long on words and short on action. Why on earth would I want to cater to them? In purchasing the apartment building, I had wandered into a snake pit of neighborhood politics, motivated in part by the desire to acquire property without paying for it. This experience colored my attitude with respect to landlords trying to please our critics.

Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, a group of landlords whom I discovered within a month of the building condemnation, was founded on the principle of fighting back against the city and political groups that were trying to hurt us. The group started with a class-action lawsuit against the city. That got thrown out of court. We then became a protest group. We picketed city facilities and spoke out at public meetings. Where landlords had previously been encouraged to “walk on eggshells” around city officials, we hit them over the head with a 2-by-4. So now our organization became known as a group of fascists and thugs. Our reputation underwent a metamorphosis from one ugly shape to another.

I soon realized that, regardless of the moral rhetoric, the real issue was our place on the food chain. We, on a lower rung, were challenging those above us. The issue was clear: We had to scrape and claw to avoid being eaten. Any victory against the foe, however small, might bring a moment of relief to us in our fight for economic survival. The advice often given - keep a low profile and hope that city officials won’t notice us - was therefore misguided. We had to raise our profile with the city and put its officials on notice that any adverse action taken against landlords would meet with swift retaliation. They needed to be afraid of being eaten by us.

With respect to moral reputation, I’d say that “all is fair in love and war”, a.k.a. the struggle against politicians and neighborhood activists. Whoever wins gains grudging respect from the other. We are each guided by our own moral code. Truth telling would be high on my list of political virtues. Also, it would not have been ethical to continue the fight against city government after a new crop of officials came into office with the 2001 municipal elections. We had to give this group a chance to improve on the record of its predecessors. Fighting for its own sake is not a virtue.

With respect to being a good or bad landlord, I’m sure there were examples of both within our organization. A bad landlord does things such as the following: He (or she) charges too much rent in relation to what is rented. He neglects maintenance problems or responds slowly to tenant complaints. He ignores crime or tenant misbehavior in the building. He is personally rude to tenants or their guests. He is too quick to evict people who may be experiencing temporary financial difficulties.

Speaking for myself, I want to be a “good” landlord in those terms. Sometimes out of laziness, lack of motivation, or personal disorganization I fall short of the mark. Most other landlords, I feel, are in the same situation. But if a landlord fails in meeting his business obligations, the remedy, I think, is for the tenant to look for another apartment to rent. The rental market for housing is basically a business in which the buyer chooses the best product. Ideally, then, landlords who offer a consistently shoddy product will go out of business because no one will want to rent from them.

Now, of course, we are not living in a perfect “free market” world. Sometimes, for example, a shortage of rental housing does not make it possible for dissatisfied tenants to switch housing locations easily. On the whole, however, the free market does work. It’s a better approach than the litigation favored by Legal Aid or the political confrontation favored by neighborhood groups.

My basic point, however, is that whether or not I am a good landlord is of concern mainly to me and my tenants. The neighborhood busybodies who want to be the judge of my business performance lack standing in this matter. They may also lack knowledge and good will. City officials have more sophisticated reasons having to do with their own political advancement. The question is whether an organization such as Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee should be overly concerned with what “the community” thinks about us or our performance as landlords. I say not. Within the confines of law, we ourselves will be the judge of our actions.

There was a landlord group in St. Paul called SPARL (St. Paul Association of Responsible Landlords) which was founded on the principle of representing good landlords rather than bad ones. The City of St. Paul funded this captive organization. The moment of truth came when the St. Paul mayor, Randy Kelly, attended one of its meeting and verbally abused the members for a reason which now escapes me. Several of the SPARL members who came to MPRAC’s meetings let us know what was happening. We agreed that the Minneapolis approach to relations with city government should be applied to Mayor Kelly.

As a result, a group of landlords and other people from St. Paul and Minneapolis twice picketed St. Paul City Hall during the period of the mayoral campaign. Mayor Kelly was defeated by the widest margin of any incumbent in the history of St. Paul. Our protest demonstrations were not the only reason for Mayor Kelly’s defeat, of course, but they did contribute to that end.

There is a philosophical issue here which transcends our experience with landlord politics. It is whether a group which has an issue with government or with organized society should try to advance its interests by presenting itself in a favorable moral light . Is saying “I’m the good guy here” an effective political strategy? We must draw a distinction between saying “I am good” and exhibiting action which makes others say, “He (or she) is good.” If we are known for our good deeds, then clearly this kind of goodness is worth pursuing. On the other hand, if we are continually telling others that we are good or trying to convince them of our goodness by Madison Avenue techniques, then the reality of this reputation that we are trying to create is very much in question. In the long run, it may not even be effective.

This principle is validated by the life of Jesus and the history of the Christian church. While we may think of Jesus as a perfect human being or godlike entity, his reputation among the religious elite of his day was quite different. Jesus was often accused of violating Mosaic law. For example, his disciples were accused of not washing their hands before taking meals. Jesus responded that “a man is not defiled by what goes into his mouth, but by what comes out of it.” (Matthew 15: 11) Again, the Pharisees saw his Disciples pluck and eat corn on the Sabbath in violation of law. Jesus pointed out that “the Son of Man (the Messiah) is sovereign over the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12: 8) The Disciples were accused of not fasting when others did. (Matthew 12: 24) Jesus himself was accused of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, prince of demons. (Matthew 12: 24)

Elsewhere, Jesus was accused of keeping bad company. “When Jesus was at the table in the house, many bad characters - tax-collectors and others - were seated with him and his disciples. The Pharisees noticed this, and said to his disciples, ‘Why is it that your master eats with tax-collectors and sinners?’ Jesus heard it and said, ‘It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick. Go and learn what that text means, ‘I require mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to invite virtuous people, but sinners.’” (Matthew 9: 10-13) Jesus noted how his own reputation differed from that of John the Baptist. “For John came, neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! a glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!’ And yet God’s wisdom is proved right by its results.’” (Matthew 11: 18-19)

The purpose here is not to associate our landlord group with Jesus and the early Christians or claim God’s particular favor but to suggest that a bad reputation among the powerful and prestigious members of Judeo-Roman society was no obstacle to the spread of the Gospels. “Can it be that you have never read this text,” asked Jesus: “’The stone which the builders rejected has become the main corner-stone.’” (Mark 12: 11) In other words, Jesus did not recruit followers from the society’s elite classes but from among its poor and rejected persons; they were the strength of this movement. Jesus advised specifically against judging or criticizing others on moral grounds. (Matthew 7:1-5) He advised against making “a show of your religion before men” (Matthew 6:1), which could also be interpreted as making a public claim to being good or responsible landlords.

In short, there may be a place for slumlords in the heaven of moral hindsight. Human knowledge is finite; its judgment, quite fallible. Just be who you are and let God take care of the rest.

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