An Open Letter to the Somali Community

On June 27th (2002) , I attended a dramatic performance at the Pillsbury Neighborhood Center in south Minnneapolis. Its theme was cultural misunderstandings between Somali tenants and the area’s landlords. Project 504, a nonprofit group which specializes in filing lawsuits against landlords accused of discriminatory practices against Somalis, helped to put on the production.

I identified myself as a landlord during the audience participation segment following the performance. Since the audience seemed to appreciate this involvement, I later proposed to the co-producer that a meeting be set up between groups of Somalis and landlords to air issues of mutual concern. I said I would help to recruit landlords for this meeting. Such a meeting has not yet taken place. (Ultimately I received a letter from Project 504 to the effect that it did not have the resources to set up such a meeting.) In the interim, it may be helpful to put some comments and issues on the table to help get the discussion started.

First, let me say that the play did demonstrate some misunderstandings of landlords and what motivates them. My first comment, expressed at the event, was that I thought it unrealistic to suppose that a landlord, fielding inquiries about apartment vacancies on the telephone, would virtually promise a sexy-sounding white woman an apartment while discouraging Somalis from applying. No, landlords first solicit applications for vacant apartments. Then they screen the applicants, most often through a service bureau, and pick someone who meets the screening criteria. They do not make snap judgments based on impressions from telephone conversations.

Someone in the audience solicited my opinion about a second issue: How could Somalis, recently arrived from Africa, possibly qualify for an apartment if landlords required at least three years’ rental history? My response was that not all landlords have that requirement. The large corporate operations are more likely to require such things than the small, “mom-and-pop” operations where the building owner is apt to do the screening. It was in the interest of the Somali community, I suggested, to encourage a diversity of landlords in the city, not try to run the small operators out of town as previous city administrations have attempted to do.

I had the sense that people in the audience did wish to hear from landlords on these questions. It was also clear that the dramatic production was written from a standpoint quite different from mine as a landlord. Therefore, it seemed and does seem productive, from a landlord’s standpoint, to pursue a dialogue with the Somali community.

One source of misunderstanding may be the word “landlord”. A landlord would appear to be a lord of the land - in other words, someone who pretends to be high and mighty or better than other people. In the play, a woman representing a landlord, tells a Somali tenant point blank that she is more important than the tenant is. She is “lording” it over the Somali.

Is that how most landlords behave? No, I think such behavior has little to do with the business of being a landlord. In the cases where it exists, the expression of landlord “superiority” is more apt to reflect an insecure personality. Unlike some other landlords, I am comfortable with the term “landlord” as denoting my particular occupation and do not seek to replace it with a euphemism. But if such things bother the Somali community, then it indicates all the more a need for cultural dialogue.

How do landlords think? Let’s first consider who a landlord is and what he or she does. A landlord is someone who makes a living by renting out housing units to other people.

The basic discipline of this or any other business is that, over the long term, revenues must exceed expenses. The revenues come from rents paid by tenants. Expenses include various things.

First, the landlord needs to pay for the building that is rented. He may have a mortgage on the building. Each month, he would pay the bank a fixed sum of money representing a combination of principal and interest.

Second, the landlord has to pay real-estate taxes to local government in May and October. The level of taxation reflects both the tax rate and the assessed value. Though the state legislature reduced the tax rate for apartments, the city of Minneapolis has hiked the assessed value even faster, so that taxes on apartments continue to rise. Another annual expense is the cost of business insurance.

Third, the landlord has to pay for various utilities - water and sewer to the city of Minneapolis, trash removal to the city or a private contractor, electricity to Xcel Energy, natural gas (for heating the building and providing hot water) to Reliant Energy. All these expenses are large and have been rising rapidly.

Fourth, and most importantly, the landlord has to pay for maintenance expenses. This includes everything from a new boiler or new roof to simple plumbing repairs or cleaning the carpet. Either the landlord does the work himself, or he hires an inhouse caretaker or, most expensively, a professional repairman who charges both a service-call charge and an hourly rate. Besides the cost of labor, he has to pay for materials used in the maintenance work, of course.

Landlords also must bear other costs such as for pest control, rental license, advertising for tenants, application screening, etc., but the above-mentioned categories are the most important.


Articles written about housing            Back to: MAIN PAGE