Law professor Richard Stith sees an analogy between tenancy law and another pressing social issue. Ahead of Super Tuesday, he imagines a hardball interview about “eviction rights”.
Reporter: “I am so grateful for your willingness to answer a few questions about the eviction controversy. As I’m sure you know, in response to the “My Building, My Choice!” campaign, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development has proposed rules to make it easier for landlords to evict tenants. What’s your position on eviction rights?
Candidate: “I think you’ll like the consistently deferential approach I take on this sort of issue. As I said at a recent Town Hall, I’m for trusting decisionmakers to draw their own lines. So here I say, ‘Trust landlords.’ I’m not personally pro-eviction or anti-eviction. But landlords’ eviction decisions are not going to improve just because the government dictates how they should be made. “
Reporter: “What do you tell people who believe that God wants them to protect tenants from unjust eviction?”
Candidate: “I respect and support those with pro-tenant religious beliefs, even though I don’t think that’s what the Bible says. But they may not use their private beliefs as a political weapon against the legal rights of landlords. “
Reporter: “Here’s a tough one: Suppose a landlord has clearly agreed to shelter a tenant for nine months, but later he changes his mind. Can he just kick the tenant out in the sixth month, even though she has no other place to go? Suppose it’s winter, even. “
Candidate: “I would trust that landlord to make the right decision. “
Reporter: “Wow. That’s so profound. But what if this landlord has a discriminatory motive? What if he has discovered in the sixth month of occupancy that the tenant has Down Syndrome, for example? Can she just be put out on the street, where she’s really not capable of surviving until the weather gets warmer in a few months?”
Candidate: “I’m against all discrimination, but we have to trust the landlord on this. The building is their private property. We can’t interfere with total control of one’s own building, even if the owner chooses to draw a line with which we may disagree. “
Reporter: “In late 2019, there was an article entitled “Reconsidering tenant pain” in the Journal of Medical Ethics. The article concluded that a tenant may have settled in and feel quite pained by an eviction after just 12 weeks of occupancy. The authors’ research showed, in their own words, “Overall, the evidence, and a balanced reading of that evidence, points towards an immediate and unreflective pain experience . . . from as early as 12 weeks.“ Do you think that, after she’s been living there 12 weeks, landlords should hire a doctor to give the tenant some sort of pain killer before evicting her? One of the two co-authors of the article is strongly pro-eviction, by the way, but he still supports their joint conclusion about tenant pain. “
Candidate: “The provision of a pre-eviction pain killer is something that landlords might want to consider, if they wish. But it’s up to them, not me, to draw that line. It’s all a matter of trust, you see. I trust landlords to do what’s right. “
Reporter: “I know you and your opponents in the Democratic primaries are against tenants’ rights at any stage of occupancy, but what if it’s the second to last day of the ninth month of the occupancy, so the tenant is going to move out tomorrow. Can the landlord refuse to wait and just hire a tough guy to grab her and toss her out today? What if she holds on, and the tough guy has to pull her out piece by piece?”
Candidate: “Your questions are outrageous. Let me ask you one. Do you own a building with a room available for occupancy? If not, I don’t see how you even have a right to speak on this issue. It’s a basic American legal principle that we only trust the testimony, and then the decision, of somebody with a personal interest in a case. At least if he’s also the stronger party. That’s why I say we should trust the landlord. “
Reporter: “Sorry. I’m not very up on our law. I thought I had heard that neither party should be the sole judge of a case — and that when rights are in conflict, that’s exactly when we need to find an outside perspective to mediate between them. Thanks for straightening me out on that.“
Richard Stith is now a research professor after 41 years as a member of the teaching faculty at Valparaiso University Law School. Most of his writings can be found at http://works.bepress.com/richard_stith/