By Fay Martin
You know the story about the blind men meeting an elephant. Each one had access to a different part. The one who had the tail described confidently that the elephant was thin, sinuous and sparsely hairy. The one who had the trunk said, “Sinuous, for sure, but thick and muscular and very inquisitive, almost like it had a life of its own.” And the one who had the leg said, “No, the elephant is a strong, solid column as big around as your arms can reach.”
They were all right in part, and they were all wrong overall.
I felt that way this week when, on one hand, I was acting on behalf of a not-for-profit housing group, selecting the one lucky tenant from among the myriad who applied for a market-rent apartment. And on the other hand, I was landlord of the secondary suite in my home, trying to part company with my tenants who probably want to go because they know I no longer want them in my home, but can find no other place. From the people seeking tenancy, we heard about substandard units and dodgy landlords. From the tenant in my secondary suite, I feel resentment and resistance, even though we had seven pretty good years together.
What both the seeking and the rejected tenants have in common is that there is not enough attainable housing (to use the Ford government’s new word for “affordable housing,” which now has a bad whiff about it), whether for purchase or rent. One of the reasons that there is not enough housing is that economic forces have pushed the cost of construction into the stratosphere. Another reason is that the rules that govern the landlord-tenant relationship are a quagmire of legalities that fail to touch the essential reciprocity at the basis of that partnership, and people shy away from becoming landlords.
In my wild younger days, our motto was, “Power is: use it or be used by it.” In my sober senescence, it could become, “The law is: use it or be used by it.”
Because the truth is that the law never made anyone good or bad. It merely provides a framework that can be used for good or evil. Desperation – like not having a roof over your head, or having your home invaded by aliens – brings out the fighting bad in any of us. So does maximizing wealth, which may also be a desperate desire. Housing is the Number One route to wealth – you can’t be properly rich in our society without owning at least one property.
So, that’s what’s gotten us where we are: decades of building laws and regulations that make housing the asset of choice, and papering over the cracks that develop among the individuals for whom housing is “home.” I can say, with feeling, that no one in their right minds should become a landlord because the legislation does not provide a level playing field – it is tipped toward protected the vulnerable, which is seen to be the tenant. The Residential Tenancy Act has 13 sections under Responsibility of Landlords and four under Responsibility of Tenants. The landlord cannot impinge on the right of the tenant to bring whomever they wish into their unit to live, or to add pets: they can only hold tenants responsible for the behaviour of those added. Smoking, even in a no-smoking unit, is not grounds for eviction. Non-payment of rent is the surest route to eviction, although very slow (the current wait period to get before the Landlord Tenant Tribunal, the only body that can order an eviction, is currently eight months), but the landlord is on their own to get reimbursement.
And yet, I am a landlord, in both my private and volunteer life. What, beyond poor judgement or momentary insanity, keeps me on that path? Because I believe that every human being requires a proper home to prosper, and every member of our community who doesn’t prosper costs us big, both financially and morally. So, it’s self-serving. Because I believe – although my confidence is severely dented – that if you treat people with respect, they will respond in kind (eventually, mostly, enough to make the investment worthwhile). And because I have more houses than I need, and others have less or none, so there is a moral imperative to share as best I can, and hope that it’s good enough to make a difference in how this little corner of the world turns.
The only true solution is for everyone to have a good-enough home in which they feel secure enough to get started on being the best person they can be. The System has been spectacularly unable to accomplish that, so I guess, if we want it to happen, we’ll have to do it ourselves. Even if it seems crazy.