There's a reason they call them land 'lords' 

Longtime readers of this column know that my political views are utterly incoherent. What understanding of American history I possess has been cobbled together from Bazooka Joe comics. I know the Constitution only insofar as fellow patrons at Flippers have explained it. Until last year, I thought jurisprudence was a sex act.

But I don't need such highfalutin concepts, because I judge the workings of government by one simple rule: Would this law make life easier for people who are doing well already? Would it make life harder for people who aren't? And in the last two months, state legislators have introduced a spate of bills that run afoul of my rule.

In February, Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, introduced a bill that would charge with theft tenants of rental properties who leave before their leases are up. If your lease runs through August and you move out in May, SB 239 would hold you liable for criminal theft of those last three months' rent. On Valentine's Day, Sen. Webb also introduced SB 255, which would make courts responsible for collecting judgments against tenants for nonpayment of rent. Under current law, landlords are responsible for collecting that money, as with other civil judgments.

The month before, Rep. Peggy Webb—Sen. Roger Webb's wife, also a Republican from Billings—introduced HB 231, which would charge with criminal trespass tenants who remain in a rental property after their landlords order them to leave. Under current law, eviction is a civil process, and tenants are legally entitled to remain in their homes until that process is resolved. Its wording is somewhat vague, but HB 231 seems to make eviction an act of the landlord's sole discretion. If your lease is up and you haven't signed a new one, the bill would let your landlord order you to move out that day, and send you to jail if you refused.

Both HB 231 and SB 239 introduce the possibility of going to prison for not paying rent. The latter would make it a felony to break a lease, and SB 255 would shift the burden of collecting back rent from landlords to the state. Together, these three proposals dramatically alter the balance of power in landlord-tenant relationships, giving landlords authority comparable to that of criminal courts.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder

It may shock you to learn that the Webbs own rental property. They are not alone. In the Montana Legislature, they are surrounded by fellow landlords. As Alex Sakariassen reported in the Indy last month, when members of the Montana House were asked during consideration of HB 231 whether they own rental property, at least a quarter of those present raised their hands.

Despite the near-total equality of our democratic system, certain kinds of people tend to become state legislators. Those people do not generally rent their homes. This observation brings us back to my iron rule of politics.

People who own not just their own homes, but also additional homes that they charge other people to live in, are doing pretty well. I sure wish I got a few hundred dollars every month just for owning stuff. On the other hand, people who have to pay several hundred dollars each month for the privilege of living indoors might be doing well, but they can hardly be said to be doing as well as the people to whom they are writing checks.

Why, then, should we change our laws to make life easier for landlords and harder for renters? This does not seem to be a balance of power we need to correct. By definition, people who own multiple homes and properties are getting along just fine. The college students, single moms, working families and handsome but commitment-averse columnists who don't even own one home are not exactly cutting a fat hog. When a renter moves out before her lease is up, she does not often take the money she didn't pay her landlord and use it to buy a house to live in and another one to rent out to somebody else.

Can the existing system be frustrating to landlords? Certainly, although plenty of them manage to find new tenants for those broken leases while they collect from the old ones, sometimes getting double rent out of the deal. Still, it's a hassle and a headache. But is it an injustice?

Must we rewrite the law so that people who own so much enjoy a few more advantages over people who own so little? I don't imagine that's the legacy the Webbs hope to leave Montana, and I know it's not what we need a legislature for. The government is there to protect people who would be in trouble without it. The landlords have a way of taking care of themselves.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture, and the kind of pinko reasoning your landlord warned you against at combatblog.net.

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