Solomon observed that every story sounds good — until you hear the other side.
I consider this a life principle.
Beware of getting too torqued up about the latest social outrage, I frequently warn myself, because it might not be as outrageous as it sounds.
This came to mind after I read a Herald-Leader story online about evictions of renters in Fayette County, headlined “In 12 years, 43,000 renters were evicted from Lexington homes. Why that matters.”
The article said there were 68,260 filings for evictions in the county from 2005 to 2016. It implied that the scales of justice are weighted in favor of landlords.
“In 43,725 of those cases, or 65 percent, the judge sided with the landlord and the tenant was evicted,” reporter Beth Musgrave wrote. “Tenants won only three cases. A little more than a third of the cases were dismissed before the court date, which likely means the tenants left on their own or paid back rent.”
The story said evictions make life harder for the evicted. Once an eviction appears on someone’s record, for instance, few other landlords will take a chance on him.
True, I’m sure.
The Herald-Leader article stemmed from a report by the Lexington Fair Housing Council. Among other things, the council documented that a small sliver of landlords are responsible for a disproportionately large share of evictions, especially among poorer and minority tenants.
In a similar vein, a recent national bestseller — Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond — won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.
I haven’t read it yet, but its subtitle implies that somebody makes a handsome profit from evicting tenants. Probably landlords, you’d suppose.
Of course, the evil, mustache-twisting landlord (“You must pay the rent!” “I can’t pay the rent!”) is a trope of pop culture dating back at least to the silent movie era.
I don’t dispute that such landlords exist.
My counter-argument is that they’re a small exception, not the rule, and even the bad ones might sometimes be more justified in their actions than we’d prefer to think.
By coincidence, I was a landlord for about the same period mentioned in the Herald-Leader’s story and the fair housing council’s report. From 2005 until earlier this year, I owned 20 apartments. For a while, I co-owned six other apartments with two partners.
My properties were in Mount Sterling, not in Lexington. I can’t imagine there’s much difference between my experiences and a landlord’s 35 miles away, though.
I’m no mustache-twisting exploiter of the poor. I don’t even have a mustache.
I’m a soft-hearted, soft-headed, progressive minister. A lot of renters openly praised me for my kindness and patience. Some claimed that I was the best landlord they’d ever had.
During my sojourn through the rental business, I got to know other owners. None was a conscienceless slumlord.
Most were middle-class people who’d long lived beneath their means so they could save money, so they could invest in real estate toward their eventual retirement.
But many were also, like me, eager to escape the very rental business they’d gotten themselves into.
Why? In large part because of the tenants they’d had to evict.
See, hardly any landlord with half a brain or half a heart wants to evict anybody. Eviction is a last resort, used only when every other remedy has failed.
It’s stressful. It’s painful for all concerned.
Inevitably, the landlord loses money. You have the time and expense of the eviction itself. Then, afterward, you spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars repairing the shambles left by the people you evicted. Plus, you’ve got an empty unit. It’s a lose-lose-lose.
You evict renters who’ve threatened you or their neighbors with violence. Or they’re using the living room’s brand-new carpet as a repair pit for their oily motorcycle, just because.
You evict people because they haven’t paid you in months. You evict people because they’re dealing cocaine from their kitchen, which technically is your kitchen.
You evict people for kicking holes in the walls (which you, not they, will repair) every time they get irritated with their mama. You evict people for sneaking five big, howling, drywall-clawing dogs into their unit, then leaving them unattended.
You evict people for going so psychotic on bath salts they start screaming in the parking lot at 2 a.m. and beat their drug buddy to a pulp and require six cops to haul them away.
I kept up my properties and screened prospective tenants carefully. The mass of the renters I dealt with were terrific. Some became my friends. A few even joined my church.
But those I evicted? Don’t even ask. My blood pressure still rises 50 points.
Almost every landlord I’ve met has his or her own bagful of horror stories. Unless you’ve been there, don’t judge.
And all you’re trying to do is create a quiet, steady stream of income for your old age.
So, yes, I’m certain there are exploitative landlords.
But most landlords are just hardworking, regular folks praying to meet their mortgages each month. They put up with inconceivable headaches. If they evict somebody, it’s for darned good reasons — which might be why they prevail in court.
This is my plea: The next time you read a heartrending account about the plight of the evicted, keep part of your heart open for their stressed-out, struggling landlords, too.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.