History & Concept


Famous poem: “Ballad of the Landlord”

The moral virtues of landlords
The concept of “landlord”:
A short history from medieval times to the present


Ballad of the Landlord
By Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Landlord, landlord,
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don’t you ’member I told you about it
Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’ll pay you
Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?

Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
Talk on—till you get through.
You ain’t gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.

Police! Police!
Come and get this man!
He’s trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land!

Copper’s whistle!
Patrol bell!

Precinct Station.
Iron cell.
Headlines in press:





The moral virtues of landlords

By Howard Husock
Director of Case Studies,
Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

The following is a condensed version of Husock’s speech at SPOA’s 10th  Anniversary Celebration of Question 9 last December.

This organization calls its members “small property owners,” not “landlords.”  But we know that tenants and the general public, whether we like it or not, call us “the landlord.”  And we know that “landlord” is a term that carries no small amount of baggage.

My goal is to suggest new connotations for the term “landlord,” to urge you not to be defensive about what you do but, rather, to celebrate it – not just as a good small business that sometimes turns a profit, but as a sort of profession of moral virtues and, as a result, a profession that yields public benefits.

Let’s start, however,  with the bad connotations. The very term “landlord” takes us back to medieval times – a time of static, subsistence economies. To be lord of the land was to live, by some views, unjustly off the labor of others. To be a landlord even in the modern era, however, is to be a cartoon figure, one who ties maidens to railroad tracks, screaming “You must pay the rent!” when they cry “I can’t pay the rent!” It’s Bob Dylan singing, “Dear Landlord, please don’t put a price on my soul,” assuming that a landlord would do exactly that.

We see all these stereotypes and more in a poem by the great African-American poet Langston Hughes in his famous “Ballad of a Landlord.” (See the complete poem above.)

Here we see all the evils of the landlord class conveniently grouped together in one short literary work.  Landlords are those who can charge high rents while at the same time they keep their buildings in poor condition.  Landlords may, and will, do anything – turn off the heat on the old and infirm, throw a tenant’s furniture out onto the street – in order to get rental payments that are owed. Landlords have the government on their side; they are part of a power structure stacked against the workingman. 

And landlords, of course, are from privileged groups; it makes sense for the tenant to be revealed as a Negro. When Hughes was writing, minorities could not, by definition, be part of the landlord class themselves. One can say this much for Hughes – in the days of legal segregation, black tenants, to be sure, were in a weak bargaining position with property owners, if only because many housing markets were closed to them and it was hard to pick up and move.

But no one familiar with urban real estate markets today would find Hughes’ landlord stereotype to be realistic.  We know how laws have changed to make it far easier for tenants to stay without paying rent and much harder to evict them.  We know that if any tenant’s furniture were put out on the street, television cameras would quickly be on the scene, alerted by legal aid lawyers. And we know, especially here in Boston, that small property owners so often include members of all sorts of minority groups—African-American, Asian, Latino and immigrants of almost every background.

Indeed, there is good reason to believe that owners of rental property are, in fact, themselves people of modest means. In its report State of the Nation’s Housing 2002, the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University found that there were more than twice as many small and resident owners of rental housing—some 9.3 million—as there were large owners, some 3.7 million. And it found that for the largest group of both resident and small owners, annual income fell into the lowest category in the center’s survey – less than $30,000 per year. Indeed, almost as many small owners – 2.5 million of them – reported losing money as the 2.9 million who reported a profit. And a majority of resident owners reported that they either broke even or operated at a loss. So much for the easy money that comes with being a landlord.

Still, it’s not enough to reply to Hughes by saying that his poem is outdated or inaccurate. It’s not enough to say that the anti-social, anti-people traits of the landlord class have been reined in, or that the Small Property Owners Association is now inclusive and diverse. No, what must be rebutted is his central, underlying point – that private rental property ownership, enforced by the government, harms the common man. This is simply not true.

Let’s turn, then, to what I’m calling the moral virtues of landlords.

Let’s take something as commonplace as checking a prospective tenant’s credit and references. To be sure, this checking is meant as protection for the property owner, a guard against deadbeats. But it also serves as a way to sort the good apples from the bad – a protection for other tenants and, indeed, for the community as a whole, not just the owner.

The same is obviously true when owners monitor their tenants for bad behavior, which is why eviction is not a means of oppression but a form of community improvement, with the landlord maintaining a stable community and serving as the agent of social order.

Another moral virtue of landlords is that, in all but the weakest housing markets, they themselves operate under pressure to maintain their properties, lest they suffer vacancies and lose rents. In so doing, however, they also maintain the physical quality of the local neighborhood.

Landlords, then, are agents who help to organize and maintain community and to protect residents against those who would misbehave.

By the way, the need for good behavior works in both directions, for landlords as well as tenants.  When I was writing an article on the history of the New England three-family house, I interviewed a major Boston-area real estate developer who told me that as a kid living in a Dorchester triple-decker, he had always been told by his parents to keep quiet and be courteous, so as not to drive away good, rent-paying tenants. It seems that the moral virtues of small property ownership exceed those of Dr. Spock!

So it is that private virtues become public ones, or, I suppose one might say if one must, greed can be good. We have found our way to Adam Smith’s famous dictum:  “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” The landlord’s dinner, however, includes not only the rental unit itself, in this case, but the good neighborhoods that private property ownership serves to undergird.

We can see the impact of these moral virtues of the landlord by looking at housing subsidized by the government, where the private landlord is taken out of the picture and the moral virtues I’ve enumerated are undermined. Why should we be surprised that public housing falls apart?  No one has a personal incentive to maintain it. The managers keep getting their government paychecks. The same disincentive, I believe, will be true, as time goes on, of the new subsidized housing managed by not-for-profit so-called community development corporations. Nor do subsidized tenants who pay little or no rent have a stake in good upkeep. What public or subsidized housing tenant is going to say: “If you buy the paint, I’ll do the work” – ? But we know that, in the world of small property owners, that happens all the time. 

Even the Section 8 voucher program, trumpeted by political conservatives as the antidote to public housing, brings similar problems. Private property owners lose the incentive to maintain their buildings, secure in the knowledge that Uncle Sam will send the rent-subsidy check on the first of every month. The tenants, who normally keep the landlord honest, themselves lose leverage because they are not paying most of the rent, if any.

In other words, in the world of public and subsidized housing, what has been severed is the normal business relationship between landlord and tenant, which not only serves the interests of the property owner, but the interests of the tenant and the whole community as well. Where this relationship has been lost, the consequences are bad for everything – from public safety and property upkeep to the sense of status and accomplishment which those who work hard and play by the rules, as someone once put it, deserve to have.

Let’s hope for a broader understanding of how wrong the stereotype of “landlord” is, and of the significant contribution of small property owners to the community.


The concept of “landlord”:
A short history from medieval times to the present

Written in 1951, Langston Hughes’s “Ballad of the Landlord” (see poem at top) depicts a stereotype – the slumlord – which exaggerates the reality of landlords even for its own time half a century ago. Nevertheless, the poem refers to what was undoubtedly a far more common practice 50 years ago, so-called “self-help” evictions where landlords evict nonpaying or unwanted tenants by turning off their heat or throwing all their belongings in the street. Today no landlord could take such actions without serious legal consequences at least in most states.

If such change can occur in 50 years, imagine how much change has occurred since medieval times in Europe – some 10 to 12 centuries ago – when the role of landlord first developed.

In medieval Europe, roughly from 800 until 1200 A.D., the centralized power of the Roman Empire had disappeared, and Europe consisted of small farming villages scattered all over the place, with only a few small cities here and there. The roads connecting villages were crude and unprotected. Not only could robbers attack travelers, but from time to time nomadic warriors from Northern Europe – the Vikings – would invade and rape, pillage and plunder the villages.

In this situation, landlords came to the rescue all across Europe. In principle, each landlord “owned” all the farming land in a village and the forest around it. But their primary job was to be warriors – sometimes we call them “knights” – to protect their villagers. The villagers’ primary job was to farm the land and produce food.

In this medieval farming economy, a form of barter became established between the landlord and his serfs, the name for village farmers. In exchange for protection, each serf owed his landlord a fixed portion of the crop yield from the farmland that he occupied usually for his lifetime. That fixed portion (food, not money) was the serf’s “rent,” and the rent literally fed the lord and his household. We now see the historical origin of the term “landlord.”

Originally, then, rent was actual produce from the land and linked entirely to the land, not to a building or a part of a building. At the same time, the serfs were also bound to the land for life. They were not “free men.” They could not be evicted. But they had the security of a permanent food source.

In this ancient landlord-tenant exchange that endured for centuries, the landlord had nothing to do with the serfs’ homes. He did not build them; the serfs did. And he had no obligation to maintain or repair the serfs’ homes. That was their responsibility, and serfs were fully skilled in every aspect of the home structure. If the home was destroyed, the rent was still owed because the land was all-important.

So we should not be totally surprised that many centuries later, in 1863, just a century and a half ago, the common law in the State of New York, which descended directly from English common law in the Middle Ages, still required a tenant in an upper story apartment to continue to pay the rent – even after the apartment building burned down! By the old logic, the rent was for the use of land, not the attached building. In 1863, however, a New York appeals court struck down the old law, saying the urban tenant had an interest only in the attached building.

Obviously, in the huge transformation from a farming economy to modern industrial society, from tenants as serfs to tenants in apartments, the relationship between landlord and tenant changed dramatically – even though the name “landlord” persisted. Not only did the rent shift from the land to the building or part of the building, but the obligation to repair the building and the dwelling unit shifted from tenant to landlord.

In industrial society, all workers have specialized skills and jobs, unlike the multi-skilled medieval farmers. Urban tenants living in multiple-unit buildings do not construct those buildings, nor do they have the skills to deal with major problems in the heating, plumbing and electrical systems, nor with structural defects. Moreover, urban tenants are generally mobile, free to move to new locations and free to enter into new contracts. So they have no long-term interest to make major repairs.

Over time, over centuries, the obligation to repair shifted to the landlord. By 1970, just a few decades ago, a United States appeals court finally clarified and affirmed the emerging doctrine of an “implied warranty of habitability” and the growth of building codes and habitability standards – the latter called the State Sanitary Code in Massachusetts. In the same way that today’s manufacturers have warranties that go with automobiles, toasters, televisions and other consumer products, landlords are expected by law to provide dwelling units that are fit for their intended purpose – habitation.

This obligation starts at the beginning of the rental contract, and since tenants continue to pay the same rent, landlords are expected to maintain the unit in its beginning condition during the term of the tenancy. Even though tenants might wisely choose an apartment with a “buyers beware” attitude, and even though landlords and leases might say that an apartment is being rented in “as is” condition, the warranty of habitability overrides any such agreements and is implied into all landlord-tenant contracts, oral and written.

The legal logic then follows that if the landlord fails to provide a “fit” apartment at the start or to keep it “fit” during the tenancy, the landlord-tenant contract has been broken, and the tenant is no longer obligated to pay rent.

The implied warranty of habitability is current legal theory. But many questions remain unresolved. If the tenant stops paying rent, must the tenant also move out of the unfit apartment? What if the tenant causes damage or fails to report conditions as they arise? Is there allowance in the law for the fact that apartments (unlike autos, toasters televisions) are used and sometimes quite old “products”? Or must the landlord, as Langston Hughes’s poem suggests, provide a “new” apartment for the same low rent agreed upon at the start – or while the tenant pays no rent at all?

These unresolved questions inevitably lead to conflict and even violence, as Hughes’ poem also suggests. Can the landlord throw out the non-paying tenant by a self-help eviction? Can the tenant, besides not paying rent, threaten to “land his fist” on the landlord so that he “ain’t gonna be able to say a word”?

To avoid these potentially violent conflicts, laws were enacted during the 20th century to provide for a peaceful resolution through the courts, a quick (or supposedly quick) eviction procedure that we call “summary process.” Trials, judges, inspectors, constables, and moving companies replace direct face-to-face confrontation between landlords and tenants.

Small landlords are especially happy not to have to deal alone with hostile or non-paying tenants.

But at the same time, whatever greater power the landlord may once have had – whether the power of warrior weapons or the power of self-help evictions – that power is now gone. Landlord and tenant stand equal before a judge, assuming, that is, that the rules and laws applied by the judge are fair.

In fact, the rent withholding law in Massachusetts – which allows tenants to live rent-free without escrowing the unpaid rent while code violation complaints are addressed – tips the scale of justice in favor of tenants, often putting landlords in a vulnerable, hostile and financially distressful position. While the name “landlord” and its power connotations endure, the factual and legal situation is that landlords are now often weaker than their tenants. Yet through this long history, the landlord remains the protector of the land, the buildings, and the tenants.