Until a recent online debate, I hadn’t known about Kevin Nye, who has almost 15,000 followers on Twitter and a “housing first” plan to end homelessness. The man is clearly a deeply sincere, theologically progressive Christian, personally invested in working with the homeless in Minneapolis. When it comes to understanding the lives of homeless individuals, I certainly have much to learn from such a practitioner. But that’s also why I was so surprised to learn that he doesn’t think “Christians have any business being in housing for profit.” This was a response to questions he received after declaring that “eviction is unchristian. Period.” Instead, he suggests that Christian landlords employ some sort of mediation process that helps them to find alternative housing for problem renters. An interlocutor asked him the obvious question: What if the rent is that Christian landlord’s income? Is it fair to ask the landlord to let someone live in his property for free? And this is where Nye’s response was most surprising: He replied that, if someone is relying on renters to make a living, they’d made a “poor investment,” because their renters are really the ones housing them!
I have a real soft spot for people who put their money where their mouth is and do the hard work of helping people whose issues can be incredibly hard to face. At the same time, sincerity and effort don’t make up for ignorance. In fact, as we’ve seen in cases like Prohibition, sincere, God-fearing, hardworking people who believe in radical action for the marginalized can create outcomes that are far, far worse than if they’d done nothing at all. So, with real respect to Mr. Nye for his personal intervention in the lives of the homeless, we’ve got to review what’s wrong with his views on landlords, rent, and eviction—not to “own the libs” but for the sake of the homeless themselves.
First, Nye isn’t really wrong that the renters are housing the landlords. In fact, all consumers are really the ones paying the salaries of those who provide goods and services. None of us would have the ability to house, clothe, and feed ourselves without those we work for. I’m not referring to our employers here, but to the group for whom employers and employees both work: the consumer. In this case, the renter is the consumer for whom the landlord is providing both a good and a service. In that sense, the job of being a landlord is no different from any other job. Use the capital you have to provide what your customer needs so that you can make a living for yourself. This just highlights part of what’s wrong with a bosses vs. workers approach to the economy. The real bosses of any business are the customers themselves.
Is there more talk of “bad landlords” than there is of bad people in other professions? Perhaps. Why is this? Is there something unique about landlording that encourages vice? I don’t think so. Instead, the landlord-renter relationship is a bit unique in that it’s long term and deeply personal (having to do with where one lives), as opposed to a point-of-sale type of relationship like that between customers and, say, restauranteurs or retailers. While it’s pretty unlikely that I’m going to walk into The GAP and start smashing up the place, it’s not that unusual for landlords to deal with terrible property damage, unsanitary hoarding, bug infestations, failure to pay, and criminal activity on the property. The ability to evict a renter who’s harming one’s own property and causing negative externalities for your other tenants is paramount. In turn, renters aren’t buying a sweater or a café latte from a landlord; they’re securing a place to live. That means that a landlord’s failure to respond to maintenance and security needs, or rent becoming unaffordable, hits home—literally.
Because of the deeply personal nature of housing, we’ve seen this debate over Christians evicting people before. I responded to a dustup over Dave Ramsey justifying rises in rental costs just last year (and discussed it with Anthony Bradley here). Unassailably, Christian landlords ought to be as thoughtful as possible about how to handle evictions. Wherever possible, they should refer those in financial distress to helpful resources and work with those who are only temporarily unable to pay due to unforeseen circumstances. Like all work done by Christians, Christian landlords should do all that they do “as unto the Lord,” meaning that they respond to tenant needs swiftly, reliably, and appropriately.
So what could Nye possibly mean by suggesting that Christians shouldn’t be in the business of “landlording for profit”? Sometimes the way we word things around “profit” can be very misleading. For instance, we talk about the “profit motive” when we really mean “profit signal.” That also means that we associate capitalism with profit when we should associate capitalism with profit and loss (trust me, profit signals wouldn’t be very useful at all if no one was allowed to fail!). Most people didn’t choose their profession merely to make money but because it aligns with their personal skills and gifts. Nevertheless, any business has to make more money than it costs to run (i.e., profit) to survive. Losses are a signal either to bow out or to change one’s business model to make it sustainable. Even nonprofits have to bring in at least as much as they spend! If Christians aren’t in the business of renting “for profit,” then most won’t be able to be in that business at all. Furthermore, about 75% of renting does not involve low-income tenants, so it’s not clear even from Nye’s own assumptions why landlords, Christians or not, shouldn’t treat the vast majority of their work the way they’d treat any other profit-bearing endeavor. If Nye wants to encourage Christian landlords to be thoughtful, kind, and merciful with their tenants (and I agree), then we want to advance the circumstances under which more Christians will actually become landlords. If we begin giving up the profession because we don’t want to make a profit from it, we leave only landlords without our particularly Christian concerns.
Perhaps what Nye is picturing are nonprofit housing efforts. But of course, these are quite common! All kinds of shelters, halfway houses, and rehabs already exist and serve the worst off the best we know how. These are not (generally) self-sustaining efforts, however. Instead, they rely on donations out of the profit people make doing other things. If Nye wants us to consider new nonprofit efforts, I’m all ears. But we also have a major shortage of affordable housing, to the tune of about 7 million units according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. What is causing this shortage? It’s actually pretty easy to figure out: Attend a few municipal meetings that discuss approval for any kind of dense development. Many of those with “You Are Welcome Here” signs in their yard will be the ones arguing against the proposed new apartment building. These are the NIMBYs (Not in My Back Yard). They love to talk about care for the poor, as long as the poor live somewhere far away from their manicured lawns and the businesses where we need them to fill service jobs. As the old saying goes, “Everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to help mom do the dishes.” A solution is right in front of our faces; we just don’t want “those people” to ruin the view out of our bay windows.
In many places—California being one of the greatest offenders—excessive regulation and zoning makes almost any new development extremely difficult and costly. Remember, even upper- and middle-income development can drive prices down by driving up supply. The problem is so bad in Cali that, in spite of it being one of the richest places on the planet, it also has the highest poverty rate of any U.S. state, taking cost of living into account. In other words, if we would just allow people to make a profit on building and renting out more housing units, we’d have solved a huge part of the problem!
But let’s be fair to Nye, who follows up on his “eviction is unchristian” tweet by mentioning that he is currently trying to help several people who are being evicted in subzero temperatures. This sounds ghoulish, almost like this landlord must be Ebenezer Scrooge! However, anyone who’s rented out property knows that, because of legal protections called “renters’ rights,” it takes months to evict a tenant. This is true even if the renters aren’t paying or are actively destroying one’s property. If someone has reached the point where he or she has to leave the unit, the tenant has known it was coming for a long time. This person may very well need our help, whether with a job, personal issues like addiction, or just immediate material needs. But it’s actually quite foolish to place this responsibility solely on the landlord. Just as there is a division of labor in the economy, there is a division of labor in the body of Christ. Some are toes, some are hands, some are eyes, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12. Some of us have the gift of running a business, others of ministering to those with deep trauma, others of creating pipelines of healing and provision for the marginalized. There is simply no reason for us to assume that eviction is not the appropriate action for landlords, especially if they do their best to refer tenants to others who could serve them. Boundaries are not unloving, and maintaining an unsustainable status quo is rarely the solution someone needs.
When pressed, Nye went so far as to say that Christians shouldn’t own more than they need. This isn’t the first time in the Christian conversation that this suggestion has arisen, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. While such a suggestion comes across as pious, productive economies that thrive on the creation of new wealth must allow some who are more skilled with property ownership to pile up far more than they can use personally. That’s because the more efficient forms of production, such as a factory, require such big up-front costs as planning, building, buying machinery, etc. However, once built, a factory will churn out more affordable consumer goods, just one item of which might have taken weeks of backbreaking labor for a single individual in the past. This inequality of property ownership is inescapably necessary for these large projects, but quality of life goes up for all because the investment of capital into a long-term project actually creates new wealth, particularly for the poor. Similarly, not every single person buys, renovates, and maintains a home, either because they don’t want to or they’re unable to. But some people can specialize in doing this so that others can benefit by renting from them. It’s true that a Christian should not pursue ownership of useless personal excess. But Christians who are properly gifted for it should pursue ownership of capital that can be invested in useful ways. If our business produces goods and services that contribute to human flourishing, then this is one way of benefitting our neighbors.
Chronic homelessness is often a deeply complicated situation. Approximately half our homeless population are traumatized veterans, the mentally ill, and active addicts, not just people who can’t afford rent. Pointing this out doesn’t mean we have to be victim-blamers. It just means that we understand the depth of the kind of help some of these neighbors need. I’m very open to learning from Mr. Nye how best to minister to such people. In the meantime, I hope he’s open to learning from us at the Acton Institute, too. The ability to make a profit in the housing business leads to more abundant housing. Christians can operate according to normal business practices while bringing a level of thoughtfulness and care to their business relationships that others might not. Rather than discouraging Christians from being in the business of renting, let’s remove the needless regulations, zoning laws, and NIMBY attitudes that obstruct building and managing dense housing units. At the same time, we can equip landlords with information on charitable resources for renters whose issues stretch beyond the landlord’s capacities.