You Need a License to Drive. Why Not a License to Rent?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if you want to collect rent from someone, you should have to know your rights … and theirs.
By Ned Colin and Fiona Zublin
Can your landlord drop by unannounced or let themselves into your apartment? Can they evict you if your rent check is a few days late? How long after moving out does your landlord have to give you back your security deposit?
If you live in the U.S., the answer depends on your state of residence. Maybe you don’t know the answers to these questions — and worse, maybe your landlord doesn’t know if it’s their responsibility to fix your broken oven or give you a month’s notice before evicting you. But they should.
Landlords everywhere should have to certify that they’ve been educated about tenant laws before they’re allowed to rent to anyone. Just because you own a car doesn’t mean you can drive without a license, and just because you inherited an apartment from your uncle doesn’t mean you’re qualified to rent it out and claim ignorance when you don’t know the first thing about your responsibilities as a provider of housing.
The education could take the form of an exam, preceded by a handbook or free one-day class. In Takoma Park, Maryland, landlords must pass a certification exam every three years to ensure they’re educated about the area’s laws. Even a plain-language primer, explains Seton Hall property law professor Paula Franzese, would empower tenants and landlords as long as everyone had to certify that they’d read it and understood their rights. The state already uses such basic methods to educate potential jurors, she explains: “There ought to be a readily accessible plain-language primer on the fundamentals of landlord and tenant rights and duties. Without that, the playing field is often quite uneven.”
Even today there’s a large number of landlords who do not know that you can’t just lock your tenants out.
Michigan State University law professor Brian Gilmore
So why should the onus be on landlords, rather than tenants, to be educated? First of all, landlords are more likely to have the time and resources to devote to such a class than their tenants are — they own a property, after all, while many tenants will be low-income and perhaps not have access to transportation or even the internet. Second, while tenants may have no choice but to rent — many can’t afford to buy — landlords don’t have to rent empty properties they own, and that choice should come with an acknowledgment of their responsibilities. “I don’t know if education is the answer by itself, to get a larger number of affordable housing units that are safe, sanitary and affordable,” says Michigan State University law professor Brian Gilmore. “I don’t know if the education of landlords would guarantee that by itself, but I think it’s a component that should be required.”
This approach has worked elsewhere. Since 2015, Wales has had a licensing and training requirement for landlords who manage their own properties, involving a one-day course that can be completed online. As of late 2018, 87,000 of an estimated 90,000 Welsh landlords had signed up and undergone the training. Meanwhile, London’s Hackney borough requires licenses for landlords — and offers a discount to those who have undertaken a $114 accreditation course. Stateside, an analysis by real estate website RentCafé found that Vermont has the nation’s most tenant-friendly laws and Arkansas the least … but, to start your landlord education right here, shutting off utilities or locking tenants out is not allowed in any of the 50 U.S. states.
To be sure, while this is a simple proposition, it’s perhaps not as simple as it sounds. Housing regulations and tenant rights are determined largely at a municipal level, so cash-strapped cities and towns would have to prepare their own manuals and oversee certification themselves, and landlords with properties in multiple municipalities would have the burden of doing different classes. And for some, explains Gilmore, even a one-day free class is seen as an undue burden on housing providers, one that could potentially put a damper on the affordable housing market.
It’s unclear that it would really have such a chilling effect, but the fear of it has been enough to quash attempts at landlord education in some municipalities, Gilmore says. This is true even though the threat to move to other, less regulated markets can be an empty one. After all, how many landlords would sell over such a thing, or move the properties?
The other problem is, of course, that just knowing something is illegal may not keep landlords from doing it if there’s enough profit at stake. But Gilmore says you’d be surprised at what doesn’t seem obvious: “Even today there’s a large number of landlords who do not know that you can’t just lock your tenants out.”