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

Written in 1951, Langston Hughes’s “Ballad of the Landlord” 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.

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