Where were you when you found out comedian Hannibal Burress was a landlord? I was sitting in my apartment in the room with the heater that still didn’t work, scrolling through Twitter peacefully until I found out my favorite comic was actually the enemy. In a series of tweets, Burress managed to oppose rent control, advocate for donating to a landlord coalition, and argue in favor of tipping your landlord—all in one day. Neither I nor anyone else can be sure if he’s joking, but if he is, it’s not a very good joke, especially since he once bragged about evicting tenants to turn apartments into Airbnbs. It’s extra-disheartening when you live in a city desperately in need of stronger protections for renters and more affordable housing.
Both Karl Marx and Adam Smith agreed, landlords love to reap where they never sowed. Meaning, they expect more money year after year for access to the same property, which never improves in quality to match. All that raises is an artificial value the property is said to hold, constantly squeezing tenants who can’t possibly expect to keep up. In Reno, housing demand puts tenants at the mercy of landlords. As Washoe Legal Services executive director James Conway said in a Reno Gazette Journal interview: “The high demand for housing is creating a situation where some landlords can abuse the rights of tenants.”
When Reno Gazette Journal investigated housing in Reno they discovered a situation in dire need of reform. Rent is rising in sharp spikes, with an average increase of 62 percent over the last six years. Tenants are being evicted without cause at record highs, leaving them scrambling to find new housing. People in need of affordable housing are placed into a market where only 21 affordable units exist per 100 tenants in need—one of the worst rates in a nation full of terrible housing situations. Students are not immune to these conditions, and in addition to struggling to find affordable housing often need places close to campus and fully furnished. This limits the potential places they can look at and lowers their leverage when negotiating with landlords and rental companies. Often, the only choice students have is to get gouged by expensive “student-housing” complexes with holes in the ceiling or settle for living in a literal clown-themed hotel.
When I couldn’t afford my apartment in a cold-war era former-motel that was missing the glass panels on the doors, I was forced to seek housing in a town with few options. At one point, I couldn’t find any affordable places to stay before school started. I spent one and a half months on a friend’s couch and took an hour-long bus commute each way to get to school and work. When I did find a somewhat-affordable place near campus, I was forced to leave after the end of my lease because my rent increased 10% and I’d also have to start paying the processing fees for the privilege to give them rent money. I’m still trying to get my security deposit back from them, as it stands. Now I live with my friend in a basement-apartment where I don’t have a mailbox. In many ways I’m lucky, as at least I never ended up on the streets or sleeping in my car.
Lots of things can be done to help tenants in times like these, but most vital are forms of rent control. Rent control can take two forms, either rent ceilings preventing landlords from raising rent above specified levels or tenancy rent control where limits are placed on the actions landlords can take against their current tenants. Landlords and development companies hate these actions because they cut into their bottom-lines, and will gladly lobby and organize to prevent these things from being enacted. The Nevada legislature was able to pass some good reforms in the latest cycle, but it’s not clear if these measures are going to go far enough. Until then, tenants need to know their rights and keep organizing for affordable rent and landlord accountability.
Vincent Rendon can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @VinceSagebrush.