Skoog: Does anyone know my landlord?

At a time when 31% of tenants are unable to make rent, it may be time for organizing.

by Caroline Skoog

Every month, my five roommates and I send our rent as a single check to a man in Wayzata. Two weeks after sending the check, he cashes it. Two weeks! Presumably, he’s our landlord, though none of us have ever met him (fingers crossed it’s Hannibal Burress). Our property does not offer an online payment option or any real online infrastructure intended to promote convenience or transparency between tenants and owners. 

We take our maintenance and leasing concerns up with Tabby, the property manager and co-owner, who responds to emergency situations — such as a periodic leak from a deep bulge in our kitchen ceiling, which has honestly defied all expectations by not outright collapsing from extensive water damage. In the same way I respond to annual dentist appointment reminders, I’ll get to it when I get to it. 

Tabby, if you’re reading this, I had to change your name to avoid conflict. I’m sorry I picked a weird one. Also, please text me back.

With little knowledge of the man who cashes our check and no property firm to associate our house with, we have no idea to whom else this pair rents. Our lovely next-door neighbors own. The cryptic arrangement leads me to believe we’re breaking a rule. Suffice to say, Tabby and Wayzata-guy have nurtured a living situation in which it is increasingly difficult to negotiate lease concerns and organize with other renters. As this is one of my last columns for the Minnesota Daily, I’d like to use this space to formally challenge my anonymous landlord to a duel. Nonviolent, of course.

Gov. Tim Walz has put a moratorium on evictions and late fees for the duration of Minnesota’s declared peacetime emergency, which will end May 13 but is expected to be extended. In concert with the temporary freeze on evictions, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party (DFL) advocates for a “$100 million fund that would cover rent, mortgage and utility payments for residents at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level. The money would go to public, private and non-profit landlords as well as banks and utilities,” according to a MinnPost article

While this action thwarts an instantaneous rise in homelessness, the root problem that has forced thousands of people behind in rent payments will not disappear in a few weeks’ time, and the question of past-due payment accrual persists. Most of us aren’t expecting a visit from the employment fairy in this market.

When the coronavirus shrapnel started to perforate the workforce — and college students felt the consequences of it all the while not receiving a stimulus check — we reached out to Tabby, wondering if any arrangements could be made to alleviate the load of rent while most of our house dealt with reduced or terminated income. Unsurprisingly, we had no such luck. We graduate next week, with the lot of us carrying a decent load of student debt, and much of our house’s income is sent to Wayzata. 

Facing inadequate, slap-and-go safeguards at the federal and state level, 31% of tenants were unable to pay rent on time in April. As for May 1, International Workers Day, renters across the country formed coalitions and organized rent strikes. TakeAction Minnesota, the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en La Lucha and the Service Employees International Union are among the labor organizations supporting the rent cancellation and the Minneapolis rent strike. Alignment aside, organized or not, millions of Americans are stressed about rent right now. 

And while I’ve openly challenged Tabby and my landlord, who may or may not be Hannibal Burress, to a duel of sorts, I don’t want either of them to be forced into a financial situation that threatens their safety. Rebuttals to rent cancellation advocates prominently center around the lack of means it would leave property owners to pay taxes, pay mortgages and maintain buildings.

U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar addressed this criticism in her proposed Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act, which would apply nationally to anyone with a lease or mortgage. The bill also specifies that accrued late payments would not have to be made up. Imagine, a nonmeans tested measure just intended to help people. No dodgy fine print, no digging up last year’s taxes and a landlord can even worry less about paying their mortgage (and focus more on texting me back). 

The very thought of anything free of cost infuriates a portion of the U.S. population, while another fraction might say, “That’s a nice idea but it’ll never work,” or, even more dejected, “It’s simply not possible.” With reopen protests shining a jaded light on societal discontent and circulating a false pretense that human lives and market interests are even on the same plane, it’s easy to forget that we can ask for more, and we should — not just for ourselves but for our neighbors. 

If the market can’t withstand our population not making rent for a month or two during this crisis, then maybe it’s not worth bailing out. It certainly isn’t with the looming climate crisis on the horizon. Now is the time to build coalitions and act proactively. The rent strike is a coordinated demand for more, emphasizing restoring power to tenants. Come May 17, it’s up to the legislature.