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How Small-Scale Landlords Work with Tenants to Avoid Evictions

Working with Them: Small-Scale Landlord Strategies for Avoiding Evictions
John Balzarini, Melody L. Boyd
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As the nation grapples with affordability pressures and an eviction crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, understanding small-scale landlords’ role in maintaining affordability and navigating evictions is critical. Landlords serve as gatekeepers to the country’s limited supply of affordable rental housing—making key decisions about who to rent to, rental prices, eviction procedures, and the maintenance and preservation of their properties. In this study, researchers explore the strategies and motivations of small-scale landlords and property managers who work with tenants delinquent on their rent or otherwise violating the terms of their lease.

Researchers conducted 71 semistructured, in-depth interviews with landlords and property managers in Philadelphia between 2017 and 2019 to examine the strategies landlords use to avoid evictions. They recruited 59 respondents through a local landlord organization and 12 through referrals. The landlords and property managers included in the study managed a wide range of units that varied by neighborhood type, portfolio size, and tenant demographics including students, voucher holders, and families.  Almost all of property managers interviewed worked exclusively for landlords with fewer than 20 properties.

The interviews revealed most landlords try to avoid evicting their tenants by forgiving back rent, setting up payment plans, accepting services like cleaning and maintenance in lieu of rent, and offering assistance and referrals to social services. When these strategies failed, some landlords incentivized tenants to vacate by forgiving back rent without penalty if tenants vacated voluntarily or by directly paying tenants to leave. Although this study is not representative of landlords and property managers across Philadelphia, it suggests landlords, especially small-scale landlords, try to work with tenants to avoid evictions. 

Key findings
  • Eviction should not be understood as an event, but rather as a multistep process. Similarly, avoiding evictions entails a series of negotiations between landlords and tenants.
  • Landlords were more willing to work with the tenants if they were up front and communicative about their inability to pay rent. The authors noted how important it was for tenants to communicate about issues such as unemployment or medical expenses.
  • Landlords were more motivated to work with long-term tenants, those who consistently paid rent, or those perceived as reliable because landlords benefited from this stability.
  • To avoid evictions, some landlords negotiated agreements with tenants to pay back rent through payment plans or by performing a service in exchange for rent (e.g., odd jobs such as painting or minor repairs). Tenants mostly performed these services under the table without legal protections.
  • Some landlords attempted to connect tenants to social support services based on their needs, such as helping a tenant apply for a housing choice voucher or calling a tenant’s social worker to help with mental health issues that disrupted other tenants.
  • When other strategies failed, many landlords resorted to strategies to entice tenants to vacate without filing a formal eviction, including forgiving back rent or engaging in “cash for keys.” Both strategies often employed the threat of eviction as a final recourse.
  • Ultimately, landlords worked in their best interest and were motivated to avoid spending the time and money on filing a formal eviction and to maximize profits by keeping tenants in their homes. The landlords that did not negotiate with tenants felt they had too many negative experiences.
  • Because they are more economically vulnerable than large-scale landlords, small-scale landlords are more likely to negotiate with tenants.
Policy implications
  • Given the human nature of tenant-landlord interactions, effective communication matters and can affect the outcomes of eviction processes. Therefore, policy efforts to encourage best practices around communication would be mutually beneficial for landlords and tenants.
  • If landlords view courts or city policies as being tenant friendly, this might increase landlords’ willingness to employ alternative strategies to filing evictions. Policies and programs like right to counsel and eviction diversion programs might change perceptions and make landlords more willing to work with tenants before filing formal evictions.
  • Small-scale landlords are critical sources of affordable housing and provide more flexibility to tenants than their commercial counterparts. But in cities grappling with increased market investment and gentrification, small-scale landlords face increased pressure to sell their stock. To protect the value and role of small-scale landlords in affordable housing, policymakers could consider the economic pressures facing small-scale landlords and identify ways to support and preserve their role in urban housing markets.