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Landlords and The Rent Conundrum in a COVID-19 World

Let me start by doing what is often required in traditional academic spaces but oft ignored by the social media guardians and purveyors of academic knowledge; I’ll own my bias in this argument. My mother is a landlady – a landlord. She has three sons, two of which are still minors, and she has essentially had the same salary for at least a decade. It was through renting the upstairs flat to her home that she built herself that she was able to meet the additional expenses that come with having children with high ambition.

Because of my closeness to my mother, I am immediately guarded by the “Fuck Landlords” narrative because, as is often the case with heated online discourse, there is a singular, dichotomous and oversimplified narrative of heroes and villains, oppressors and oppressed, that would seek to turn a poor black woman – who was born in the country, came to Kingston and never finished high school, had her first child at 18 and through a combination of determination and sheer luck was able to eke out a respectable existence even though the system is set against her – into an oppressor.

What about the Landlord’s finances?

As I understand it, and I am open to meaningful dialogue if I am misrepresenting here, the issue stems from the reality that COVID-19 restrictions have left many persons unemployed and therefore unable to pay their rent, which has meant that relief was needed for those persons to not end up homeless. In the context of some states in the United States of America, this has meant an enforced moratorium on rental payments which has meant that many a landlord and landlady are not receiving the payments they need to meet their obligations which could mean the mortgage of the very property that is being rented.

First of all, a move like this from any Government should be celebrated. It would be beyond cruel to have persons dispossessed in a pandemic. Landlords who expect to still receive rental payment from tenants who are affected by a global pandemic in the same manner that they had been before, are unconscionable. For those landlords who are threatening eviction, there’s a special place in the hell I don’t believe in for you, especially if you can meet your own needs and obligations without this stream of income.

 

That being said, there’s a danger in not recognizing that in the same way many tenants needed rental relief, that there ought to be associated relief for landlords for mortgage payments (particularly if the mortgage is for the very property being rented) and any other reasonable needs that the stream of income may have been providing for. It is actually quite counterintuitive to provide relief to tenants but not to the landlords who are paying a mortgage on the property being rented, since in the long run, this may risk foreclosure and the very tenant being dispossessed. Any scheme of relief must taken into account these realities if it is to be effective and meet its goal.

In a pandemomium?!

While many landlords are abusive, exploitative and cruel – this I know from many of the experiences of my queer friends who have to deal with invasive landlords, Adichie’s warning of the danger of a single story is always forefront in my mind. The simple “get a job” refrain is a lazy and callous response. Get a job? In a pandemic? Because your tenant lost their job in that pandemic? 

There are grandmothers who are using incomes from renting rooms or a section in their homes just to supplement the inadequate pension they receive monthly. There are poor and lower middle class people who inherit property and are using this opportunity to just stay above water and fund the dreams and aspirations of their children. Not all proprietors are big, impersonal, and cold real estate companies.

In defending and raising the issues of those that are poor, we cannot only reduce our vision who is poor (or susceptible to poverty) to just tenants. Not all tenants are poor, in the same way that not all landlords are rich. While there’s always an irresistible urge to fully swing the pendulum in the opposite direction when we are confronted with longstanding forms of oppression, we have to be mindful of whom we are marginalizing when frame dialogue in absolute forms, especially given the realities in Jamaica that many who are one bounced cheque away from poverty face.