The difficulty more and more students are experiencing in finding affordable housing (or in many cases, any housing at all) is bad enough. Unfortunately, the situation can be aggravated by the traditionally difficult relationships between some student tenants and local landlords or property managers.
It is worth noting in passing that a difficult landlord-tenant relationship harms both the landlord and the tenant. The landlord or property owner can experience property damage, difficulty in collecting rents, and unprofitable downtime when a property is vacant.
The problems a tenant can face – assuming they have been able to acquire a rental in the first place – can be equally frustrating and can interfere with their goals. A common complaint, for example, is the difficulty some tenants experience in getting needed repairs done to their rental. And when the relationship becomes especially difficult, the tenant is likely to face the ultimate “housing insecurity” known as eviction.
Turning “lose-lose” into “win-win”
Why not create relationships where everybody comes out ahead? At Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, graduate student Chant’e Catt is leading a program designed to do just that. The goal of the Humboldt Tenant Landlord Collaboration, or HTLC, program is to “Create positive working relationships between student tenants and landlord/property managers as a way to mitigate barriers to housing.”
The exercise: walking a mile in each other’s shoes
I was invited to lead a workshop as part of this program. The emphasis in this part of the program is on mediation, resolving difficulties between students and landlords. While I recognize the importance of this, my emphasis is on creating as strong and mutually beneficial a relationship as possible to minimize the need for mediation. In addition, a healthy relationship will make a satisfactory resolution of problems that do arise much more likely.
One thing that can frequently improve interactions is a greater understanding and appreciation of each other’s situation and challenges. I suggested an exercise in which tenants and landlords would pair up and discuss a few key issues – but they would “trade places” with each other first. The person who was in fact a landlord (or property manager) would pretend to be a tenant during the exercise, and vice versa.
The issues – from the other side
With the roles reversed, the participants began to “explain” some important issues to each other. For example, the tenant – pretending to be the landlord – explained the importance of paying the rent on time. This required the (actual) tenant to stop and think about being on the other side of the equation when the rent was not paid on time – including some of the possible consequences.
Continuing with the all-important issue of rent, but this time from the other side, the (actual) landlord – temporarily in the role of a tenant – explained why arbitrary and excessive increases in the rent can be a serious problem for a struggling student. This required the landlord to realize what it would be like to be on the receiving end of significant rent increases.
The exercise continued with several more typical landlord-tenant issues “explained” to each other – each time with the roles reversed. All the individuals participating were required to consider the issue at hand from the perspective of what would normally be the other side of the discussion.
The results: How well did it work?
I was immediately impressed with the willingness of all the participants to really give the exercise a try, to “get into” it. I didn’t know whether this would be something they would be willing to do, so it was gratifying to see this happen. In many cases, they seemed to be enjoying the opportunity to be on the other side of the metaphorical table.
One theme that surfaced immediately, on both sides of the discussions, was the power the landlords appear to have over the tenants. A tenant, speaking as a landlord, became very convincing while explaining to the “tenant” that withholding the rent would simply not be tolerated. The “tenant” on the other side of this exchange – in reality a local landlord – described experiencing real fear within the exercise at the thought of being evicted!
It is difficult to draw general conclusions from one brief exercise. It did seem, however, that most of the participants did begin getting an understanding of some of the issues faced by those on the other side of their situation. Thinking about the other side of your position can lead to a greater understanding of how your behavior can influence the other person’s ability – and motivation – to do what you want them to do.
An even broader conclusion to be drawn from this type exercise is the amazing power of mutual self-interest. It is in the property owner’s best interest for the tenants to be satisfied with their situation. Likewise, the tenants are more likely to get what they want out of the situation when the landlords are able to meet their obligations. This is generally true of parties on both sides of a transaction: they need each other.
This isn’t to say that everyone involved is suddenly going to become an ideal version of a landlord or a tenant. But a greater understanding of the bigger picture, including the potential power of helping to keep the relationship working well, can lead to some big improvements in this essential part of our lives.
Bottom line: Does this help the housing crunch?
If the goal is to improve relations between student tenants and local landlords and property managers, this kind of exercise does seem like it could help. Most of the participants, did come away with a bit more understanding of what it is like to be on the other side of the “tenant / landlord divide.” This in turn can lead, at least in some cases, to increased consideration for the other party. This is undoubtedly a good thing.
But the bigger question, especially for those struggling to find a suitable place to live while pursuing their studies, is: can this actually help improve the difficult housing situation?
One indication of the larger issues involved surfaced during one of the role play sessions. A “landlord” – actually a tenant – was explaining to the “tenant” that there was a long list of others who would be happy to move into the apartment if the current tenant was really dissatisfied with the situation. This highlighted the power the landlords were seen to have over the students in many cases. With plenty of demand for available units, the motivation to be as flexible and cooperative as possible tends to be lower than it might otherwise be.
Conclusion: It won’t fix the bigger housing issues, but improving landlord-tenant interactions might yield some surprising benefits.
At affordablehousingtips.com, we are watching the housing shortage / crisis spread throughout the world, with plenty of pain and suffering to go around. The supply of housing, and especially affordable housing, is falling farther and farther behind the demand. This is clearly beyond the scope of an entirely laudable program aimed at improving landlord / tenant relations. But this by no means diminishes the value of this kind of a program!
Beyond landlords and tenants: learning to interact successfully with others in mutually beneficial relationships can help in a number of ways. Students moving to a big expensive city might choose to live in a co-living facility, for example. Seeing the other person’s perspective, as the “role-play” exercise shows, can help roommate relationships as well as landlord-tenant interactions.
And employers frequently mention the ability to work in a team environment as something they wish more recent graduates were able to do successfully in the workplace. The same exercise, understanding each other’s perspective, can help here as well.
In our complex society, accomplishing just about anything involves interacting with others in some capacity. It doesn’t require an oracle to recognize that this is an area that could stand some improvement in our world.
The Humboldt Tenant Landlord Collaboration is doing important work – and it might turn out to be some of the most important work of all! Thanks to Chant’e Catt and others for creating such an important program. Thanks to Lynette Nutter and her crew for organizing — and videotaping — the workshop. And thanks to all who took part in the “role reversal” exercise described here. I enjoyed it, and I hope you did as well!
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