A State of Normal Emergency
The current task of rolling back lockdown laws proves that we must renew our commitment to land ownership.
On February 28, 2023, the state of California finally declared the end of its Covid-19 emergency orders. In 2020, the imposition of the shelter-in-place regime made headlines across the nation, but its end has been barely noticed. By now, even in the deep-blue California cities, most people have given up on living in a state of emergency. Instead, we’ve settled on a new normal.
One seldom discussed feature of the coronavirus “emergency” architecture was the passage of laws governing the relationship between tenants and landlords. Eviction moratoriums prohibited removal of tenants for any reason, including non-payment of rent. Without the ability to evict, housing providers were unable to decide how to manage what once were their properties. Effectively, the lease became the new deed and ownership, transferred to squatters.
Moreover, eviction bans incentivized tenants to stop writing their monthly checks. The financial burden of the shutdown was transferred to landlords, who were still obligated to pay mortgage, insurance, and all operational costs.
While large corporations may have the resources to cope with these regulations, small landlords almost certainly do not. In 2020, Roger Valdez, director of the Center for Housing Economics, suggested a better policy would “take a broader approach, and ask banks and financial institutions to partner with residents, providers, and others to bridge the gap until this crisis subsides.”
That’s not the path California and other states took during the lockdown. Instead, as our cities burned and wokeness swallowed every institution, landlords were demonized. Marxist rhetoric was regularly hurled at property owners, who were deemed idle speculators unworthy of the windfall profit they allegedly collected. Private property rights, a foundational principle of the American way of life, were under attack.
Some anti-property activists have been organizing for decades and saw the pandemic as an opportunity to advance their agenda. In 2020, I wrote about the effort of some San Francisco Bay Area non-profit organizations to coordinate tenant strikes to force small landlords to sell to the non-profits at an attractive price. Socialist community organizers would then scoop up real estate, forming trusts, and putting themself in charge. One community organizer contended that the real change would come when the federal government commits billions to put rental property in the hands of local non-profits.
That objective was not realized thanks to, in no small part, the United States Supreme Court striking down the Centers for Disease Control’s nationwide eviction moratorium in 2021. Nonetheless, similar local and state measures remained in place after the Court's ruling. California’s ban on evictions ended the following fall, but, for instance, in Alameda County, similar laws are still in place.
On February 27, the day before the state of emergency was lifted in California, I attended a small landlords rally at the Alameda County Building in Oakland. The attendees demanded the government “stop the theft” of their private property and lift the eviction moratorium immediately. The rally drew between fifty and 100 people—not bad for a non-far-left cause in the San Francisco Bay Area.
All sorts of people participated in the event, but the crowd looked like a black-Asian alliance for the American dream. Speakers, most of them landlords, talked about their values and the toll anti-property laws took on their lives.
It shouldn’t be surprising that even without the ideologically motivated community organizers trying to stir up tenants, some stopped paying rent just because they could. When that happened, small housing providers who often lived next to their tenants and communicated with them directly found themselves in life-altering situations, with nowhere to look for help.
Hannah Kirk, a single mother of a teenage girl, spoke about the eviction moratorium “exploit[ing] her goodwill” when her friend and roommate refused to pay rent. When her relationship with the unevictable tenant spiraled out of control, Kirk ended up packing her bags and leaving her own home to the squatter. She contended that “money is important, but it’s not just about money.” She wants privacy for her daughter and the freedom to do what she wants with her own property. She said that after being put in a situation where she had to seek food assistance, she believes that the anti-landlord policies are “putting the burden on the shoulders of single mothers, retirees, immigrants.”
Another speaker, Deborah Johnson, talked about the heavy toll her non-paying tenant took on her health—she suffered two strokes that she attributes to stress caused by her inability to collect rent or reclaim her property. She testified to the virtual impossibility, under the current legal regime, of collecting the funds through small claims court. Seated in a wheelchair, Johnson laid the blame solely on the county: “Stop the steal, government!”
Jinyu Wu was into his fourth day of a hunger strike, also in a wheelchair, and spoke through an interpreter. “My American dream turned American nightmare,” his statement read. Wu is owed $120,000 in rent for his San Leandro property and is on the verge of bankruptcy. The tenant himself, Wu explained, rented the unit to a subletter. Wu ended his hunger strike when, later that day, the County Board of Supervisors voted to let the ban expire in April, a month after the State ended the “emergency”.
To be sure, this is an important victory, but here in Alameda County, as well as across the country, these confiscatory laws remain in place. Such laws might prohibit background checks of prospective tenants or make evictions possible only with a buyout.
For instance, a recent article in the Alameda Sun described a housing provider who was fined $70,000 for “harassing” rent-delinquent occupants. The article noted:
Landlords do have a lawful way to persuade their tenant to vacate. It is called a “buyout.” This is where the landlord pays the tenant money in exchange for giving up their tenancy. However, buyouts must be voluntary, and must follow detailed rules — including special notices, everything in writing, and filed with the City’s Rent Program.
In other words, once an occupant moves into an apartment, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to move him out. Eviction becomes a war of attrition requiring resources. It also becomes a war of nerves — landlords who can’t afford to give up their investments have scarce means to reclaim them, and are thrust into close proximity to the individuals stealing their homes.
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It is no wonder that, even with rents as high as they are in the Bay Area, being a landlord is an unappealing proposition. In my neighborhood, for instance, despite the local government’s focus on growing housing inventory, home owners are converting duplexes into single family residences and taking in-law units off the market. Socialists like to complain about corporate landlords, but the policies they support squeeze out small housing providers.
Going into the closures, smart people warned that the “quarantine” would be long-lasting, and that our country would never be the same again. Three years later, we are tasked with undoing the coronavirus panic laws, one by one.
To go back to normal, we need to renew our commitment to property ownership. There is nothing more normal—and more American—than the ability to hold a plot of land.