Lords of land have power over serfs

Not long ago, I wrote a column about landlords and, though I was pretty extensive in voicing my discontent for the way young renters are suckered into bad deals, I still have at least one more column’s worth of thoughts on the subject. So bear with me.
I am shocked — SHOCKED! — and appalled that renters must listlessly hand over a lifetime’s worth of accumulated information to potential landlords, but landlords offer no such information to possible tenants. Before you even sign a lease, most landlords require a $25 application fee so they can dig into your past, unearthing your credit history and calling your former landlords.
They also want to know as much as possible about your current status, so they ring up your present employer and find out how long you’ve worked for them, blah, blah, blah. By the time you sign that lease, the landlord has done an extensive background check on you, exposed your soul and unfettered your secret little demons. And what do you know about them?
Most renters go into a new lease knowing very little, or nothing at all, about their new landlord. And that title! What the hell kind of a name is landlord, anyway? Lord of the land! Hmph! This name smacks of the old feudal lordship era where rich, fat quasi-dictators acquired massive land by means of sucking up to the king or seizing it by force from smaller landowners.
The feudal lords would then slum out little plots of land to poor families who toiled for a living, giving most of it up to the lord who controlled their land and their lives. Sound familiar? Indeed, the comparison is familiar to broke college students whose entire paycheck goes to pay the rent and the bills. Ahhh, but I digress.
Why is it that landlords — let’s call them proprietors — can guard all their dirty little secrets while renters must spill their guts out on paper? After talking to the Landlord and Tenant Information Helpline, it seems there is no good reason for this uneven balance in power. Proprietors dictate the rules of the game, and renters must follow along in order to play — in order to live somewhere, actually.
No agency or bureau exists in Minnesota to keep track of shifty property managers, so good luck finding information about a potentially bad situation before signing six months or a year of your life away. Renters have rights, but they’re about as buried as the body some whacked proprietor hid in the basement before renting it to you.
Think about it: Your next landlord could be an ex-convict, a child molester or a stalker! Obviously, there are ways to find out information like that at the county courthouses, but you have to know the system in order to dig up that kind of dirt.
I’m sure most proprietors are fine citizens who don’t lure little children into their basements, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they deserve your rent check. Some landlords won’t fix things when they break, they let themselves in your house to snoop around when you’re not home, they keep your entire security deposit because you didn’t clean under the refrigerator before you moved out. But you don’t know about these things because they don’t have to disclose to you the names of their former tenants.
And why would they? It’s not the law, and frankly, the prospect of disclosing such information probably scares them silly.
Somebody ought to do something about the inequity in this situation. Tenants need to demand information before signing a lease. Proprietors seem only too happy to whip out the ol’ application form for tenants to fill out. I say tenants ought to have their own application form handy for the landlord, too. A little equality would be nice in this case, wouldn’t it? I asked a guy from the helpline what he thought the chances were of a proprietor actually filling out a potential tenant’s application. He said the chances were slim to none. “They would just rent to somebody else,” he said.
But what if the next applicant produced their own application form, too? And the next one? And the one after that? The proprietor would have no choice but to accommodate the wise and cautious renters, those who know their rights and wish not to get screwed over by every scheister who rents a house.
Furthermore, there ought to exist a Web site of sorts where disgruntled renters can post complaints for others to see. It would be a safe place to unleash the pent-up fury that only a hellish living experience can create. Future renters could consult the Web site, punch in the address or owner’s name of their next potential housing situation and find out all the goods before they sign a lease.
Alas, these are only pipe dreams of mine. I probably won’t be the one to launch a new Web site — especially since I haven’t even figured out how to design my own Web page — and I probably won’t be the rebel renter with her own application form aimed to start a trend of savvy and sophisticated renters. But I sure hope this column inspires at least one future renegade renter who can pave the way for the rest of us. If you’re out there, renegade rebel, e-mail me. I have lots of other ideas for you to work on!
Emily Dalnodar’s column appears on alternate Thursdays. She welcomes comments at [email protected]