TENANTS AREN'T ALL ANGELS
Wartime landlords feel that they are today’s Forgotten Men, squeezed between rigid rental regulations and careless destructive renters
MARY LOWREY ROSS
In its March 15 issue Maclean’s told how some crooked landlords take advantage of house hunters by getting around the rental control laws. But some tenants, too, are taking advantage of the same laws to make life miserable for their .landlords, this article claims.
SINCE the housing crisis began the case of the tenant has been under consideration by housing committees, rental control boards, emergency shelter commissions and even court judges. The case of the landlord is different—so different in fact that many landlords feel that they have received no consideration at all.
Even in the days when tenants had space to move and landlords freedom to evict, the tenant-landlord relationship was never easy. And now that tenant and landlord are frozen together—often in a state of awful incompatibility—the situation has, in many cases, deteriorated almost to the point of open warfare. If the tenant is in an unhappy position, so, admittedly, is the landlord. Warworkers have flooded into the cities, and under wartime conditions it is more important to the Government that workers should be housed than that landlords should make a profit by housing them. As an average patriotic citizen the landlord can’t evade wartime controls; and as a private individual he has very little chance of appealing against them.
As a result he has come to regard himself as society’s Forgotten Man, whose existence is recognized only when the Government raises new strictures against him, or when someone writes passionately protesting letters about him to the papers. (It is always the bad landlord, never the good one, who figures in letters to the editor.)
The truth is that under the present system of rental controls the Government does the planning, and too often the landlord pays off. Take, for instance, the problem of subletting, the landlord’s most painful headache in wartime. To be sure he is allowed a 10% rent increase where two rooms or more are sublet en suite, but this doesn’t begin to pay the cost of deterioration, particularly when a house is sublet from basement to attic. His tenant is now both tenant and
landlord, which means in most cases that he regards himself as landlord when rents fall due and tenant whenever repairs have to be made. Recently, for instance, a tenant complained bitterly to the renting agent because the landlord refused to replace the paper torn from the wall by the subtenant’s four-yearold child. The argument that under these circumstances he himself was the landlord didn’t interest him. When the repair bill had to be met there was only one landlord, true and indivisible.
When the question of “sharing” turns up the landlord is in an even unhappier position. In this case the tenant doesn’t sublet. He simply opens his doors, usually under pressure of desperate necessity, to relatives and friends. This may mean that an apartment house designed for 75 people at fairly close quarters now contains 150-—a crowded and often frantic situation, in which the landlord figures as the individual at the bottom of the heap. For it is the landlord who must meet, this time without compensation, the added cost of wear and tear on property, who must buy new cans to handle the overflowing garbage, provide extra hot water, drying space and clothesline accommodation for the inevitable extra babies, and meet the whole cost of the augmented strain on all services. He must also pay the equivalent of a cost-of-living bonus to the janitor, out of rental assets frozen at the pre-cost-of-livingbonus level. And while there are plenty of conscientious tenants who would gladly raise their own rent to help the landlord out of his predicament, this act of charity is denied them under the rental control laws.
Whether or not tenants are inclined to take advantage of the new controls, landlords are agreed that governmental regulations are all slanted in the tenant’s favor. The authorities, they claim, will always go out of their way to assist the tenant, regardless of the feelings of the landlord or even, in some cases, of the tenant himself.
An outraged landlord in a large Canadian city has the following story to tell of his unhappy relations with the rental board: He had converted and equipped, at a cost of $2,000, a small modern duplex, consisting of two bedrooms, bathroom, kitchenette and hall-dinette. An electric refrigerator, hardwood floors, storage space, light, heat, laundry facilities, a separate ent ranee and the use of the telephone were all included, at a modest rent of $-10 a month. Four women tenants had agreed to occupy the apartment, and everyone was satisfied with the arrangement. Then, the correspondent states, an investigator from the Rental Board stepped into this bright little picture, and without even examining the premises arbitrarily reduced the rent to $33 a month, to the embarrassment of the tenants and the natural fury of the landlord. He states that he has appealed the case but that his appeal so far has not been heard by the Rental Board.
Owners claim that even when they have the law on their side they have little chance against the overwhelming sympathy in favor of the tenant. One angry landlord relates that his tenant turned the house into a convalescent home, an enterprise that flourished so well that the tenant was soon driving about in a splendid car. Unfortunately for the owner the tenant declines to pay his rent except under pressure from the bailiff. Under these circumstances the owner is legally entitled to take his tenant into court and demand eviction. This, however, would mean turning a houseful of sick and ailing people into the street in the midst of a housing crisis, a situation which any judge, or indeed any landlord, would be unwilling to face. So the tenant continues to drive his car and waive his rent.
As matters stood until recently, no tenant who paid
his rent could be evicted on less than six months’ notice, unless the landlord could prove to the court of Rental Appeal that he was an objectionable neighbor. But “objectionable” is a hazy and dangerous word;
and even when the Continued on page 28
Continued from page 13
suffering neighbors were willing to testify against a community nuisance, landlords felt that the judge, always conscious of the awful housing shortage, would usually lean backward to give the decision to the tenant. The landlord has come to think that the tenant is officialdom’s spoiled darling, while he is its neglected stepchild.
To reduce the dilemma to its simplest terms, the rental and housing authorities seem chiefly concerned with one fundamental problem: how to prevent inflationary rent raising in Canada. The advantage of the deferred eviction ruling is that it ensures the tenant his four walls and a roof usually for six months at a time. The disadvantage is that what freezes the demand also tends to freeze the supply. People with rooms to rent are beginning to hold back, fearful of entangling themselves for six months with a tenant who might turn out to be intolerable by the end of a week. This is particularly true of the householder who has an available bedroom or bedsitting room but hesitates to add to the uncertainties of taking a stranger into his home the awful certainty of being literally stuck with him. To get around this difficulty a recent ruling changes the word “objectionable” to “incompatible.” Thus a roomer may be incompatible if he introduces beer drinking into a prohibition household or inflicts boogie-woogie music during church hours on a sabbath-observing landlord. The situation may be even more complicated—the two (to quote Oscar Levant) may not be incompatible; they may just hate each other.
The solution under these circumstances is to take the case to the Court of Rental Appeal, which will hear both sides and decide whether the tenant is entitled to stay on for the remainder of his six months.
While the Government can deal with problems of tenure it can’t control, directly, ordinary human behavior. And the truth is that crowded wartime conditions tend to reveal human behavior at its most “ordinary” level. The tenant class is a large and increasing one, as varied as human nature itself. But for a microscopic analysis of at least one section of it we recommend the rooming house of which Mrs. Bates is landlady.
Mrs. Bates (the name is fictitious but the character is real) sat in her bedliving room discussing rooming house life, a continuous drama in which the landlady plays the role of persecuted heroine doubling as villain. As we talked a continuous procession of roomers drifted through to the kitchen, stockings trailing from their arms, cigarettes drooping • from their lips. Mrs. Bates seemed undisturbed by their passage. The roomers themselves were apparently oblivious to the fact that they themselves were under discussion.
“It Goes With the Rent”
The icebox and the washing machine were in the kitchen, she explained, and the roomers made use of both, though neither was included under the terms of rent with housekeeping privileges. When they first started using the washing machine Mrs. Bates suggested that they pay 25 cents a month for the privilege. The roomers were outraged by this suggestion, claiming that
it was an obvious infringement of the rent-ceiling ruling, and refused to pay it. And since the Bates rooming house is a pocket democracy with everyone insisting on his rights (including the right to infringe on other people’s), they went on using the washing machine till it broke down from overwork. She then made a rule that each roomer have a separate washday and keep to it. By standing guard over her washing machine she has been able to make this rule stick.
She wasn’t so fortunate with the refrigerator. When Mrs. Batas suggested a flat rate for its use, roomer A protested that while she merely used it for milk, roomer B used it for milk, fruit and vegetables. Roomer B came back with the argument that roomer lt;C filled up the shelves with milk, fruit, vegetables and the Sunday roast. Roomer C retorted that anyway the use of the refrigerator went with the rent. Mrs. Bates gave up at this point, and now tucks her own food away wherever she can manage to find space for it.
“It goes with the rent.” This is the slogan Mrs. Bates’ roomers uphold as fiercely as an article of religious faith. When Mrs. Bates started taking in roomers she assumed that what went with the rent was a single room, lighted and heated, with housekeeping privileges. She has since discovered that practically everything goes, from the use of the wallpaper for scribbling telephone messages, to lengthy (and untraceable) long-distance chats.
“As long as it doesn’t belong to them nobody seems to care,” Mrs. Bates says.
The wartime maintenance of property is a fantastically difficult
problem. Household linens, for
instance, are practically irreplaceable, but this doesn’t trouble Mrs. Bates’ tenants. “I hope you’ll be careful with these sheets, Lillian,” she said once as she laid out fresh linen for one of her tenants, “they’re getting pretty thin.” “Oh, I like putting my feet through sheets,” Lillian answered dreamily.
As for walls and woodwork, Mrs. Bates has just about given up their decent maintenance in despair. She led me into a downstairs housekeeping room occupied by a tenant and her little boy. The room was in a fearful state of disorder, and the walls, which had been decorated in the fall, were now redecorated, up to three-year-old height, with fierce childish drawings. “When I went in there one day Freddie showed me them and said, ‘Me dood it,’ ” Mrs. Bates said, “1 guess his mother thought it was cute.” The hallway was also finger-marked and scribbled by Freddie. “And look at the stairs!” Mrs. Bates said.
Every day Mrs. Bates carefully cleans down her two flights of stairs. Now, at four in the afternoon, the steps were littered with cigarette butts, empty cartons, orange peel and tin foil. “How about litter cans?” I asked. “They’d never use them,” Mrs. Bates said hopelessly. There are times when she would like to put some of her roomers into litter cans and have them
carted away. Unfortunately this easy disposal scheme isn’t open to her. If she wants to get rid of a particularly incompatible tenant she must either wait six months or take her case to the Court of Rental Appeal. And since the latter course involves hearings, debate, and the testimony of witnesses, she would rather just put up with it, bearing what she can and suffering what she must.
Rules Made to Be Broken
Then there is the bathroom. There are perhaps 20 people in Mrs. Bates’ rooming house, with one bathroom to serve them all, which means that every morning sees a wildly competitive game of I’m the King of the Castle and you’re the Dirty Rascal on the secondfloor landing. Yet however long the roomers may linger in the bathroom they can never spare time to clean it up for the next occupant. Once Mrs. Bates typed out a neat set of rules and hung them up over the bath: “Please Clean Out the Bath,” “Please Remove the Stopper from the Washbasin,” “Do Not Hold up the Line, Others Are Waiting,” etc. But when she went in, after the roomers had left, she found the bathtub ringed as usual, the basin filled with soapy water. And as a final flourish of independence someone had scrawled “NUTS” right across her set of rules.
Mrs. Bates is not a querulous woman. She knows that she is doing business with the human race and that you have to take the human race as you find it. She has had tenants who were models of orderliness and consideration, and other tenants who got drunk on Saturday nights and beat their wives; in fact, all kinds. She knows that if some accident were to befall heremdash;if, for instance, she were to break an arm, leg or rib -her roomers would rush to supply her with comfort, aid and cups of tea. She also knows that while she keeps her health they will continue to follow the unwritten law that exists between tenant and landlady and take every advantage of her that they possibly can.
It is possible that Mrs. Bates’ clientele are an unusually ruthless group. At the same time the situation in the Bates rooming house has a certain wartime significance. “After all, what can you expect?” Mrs. Bates says. “The tenants have the Government behind them.”
There are, of course, tenants and tenants. There are tenants who respect property, pay their rent on the first of the month, curb their radios at 11 and teach their children at all times to consider the rights and privacy of other people. But landlords everywhere will testify that there is a growing group of tenants who are reckless, irresponsible and sometimes wilfully destructive. It may be that in a world that has seen whole cities demolished and whole nations deprived of their rights and privileges the respect for both property and human rights has deteriorated everywhere. Whatever the reason, it is the landlord who pays off. There are no new laws for landlords, they point out. There are only new and increasing strictures designed for the benefit of tenants at the landlords’ expense.
As a result, the housing situation, which was bad enough to begin with, is tightening still further. Some landlords are selling the houses they used to rent. Others are holding back nervously, waiting for the right tenant to come along. Behind the housing shortage a landlord shortage is already beginning to loom.
If you have received notice that your subscription period is nearly completed, this is to remind you of the necessity of sending your renewal order at once.
Paper rationing restricts the number of copies of MACLEAN’S that we can print, and with literally thousands of new buyers and new subscribers for MACLEAN’S each month, there are seldom enough copies left over for subscribers who have neglected to renew.
To make certain of every copy of MACLEAN’S, your renewal order should be mailed to us promptly upon receipt of the expiration notice.
The expiration date of your subscription is shown on the last line of the address label on your magazine.