The 5 Stages of Housing Insecurity Grief and How Your Landlord Exploits Them

By Harrison Lees

Housing insecurity is a very real health risk and much of the stress involved works to the landlord’s favor. Anything that makes it easier to remove lower rent tenants and replace them with higher income ones is a worthwhile investment; this includes exploiting their emotional state.

My 8-unit rent controlled apartment building was sold earlier this year. Almost immediately, the new landlord began gutting the vacant units for renovations and, towards the remaining tenants, behave as landlords often do: reckless, petty, and cruel.

Photo by Julian Hochgesang on Unsplash

I was totally unprepared for the atmosphere of crushing paranoia and despair he cultivated. Now, with the building nearly emptied, my partner and I are looking into moving. In essence, my landlord commodified my emotional labor, with the aim of turning the mental abuse into profit.

Although the Kubler-Ross model of the Five Stages of Grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance) may be considered anachronistic today, it helped me to categorize the wide range of emotional states I experienced into more easily identifiable brackets. I didn’t move from one stage to another but found that, depending on the situation, I would cruise through in varying orders. Here’s what happened to me :

DENIAL

My partner and I both work from home, so we were sort of ground zero for the landlord’s intimidation. We received notices on the door previously, informing us of an inspection the next day to perform needed repairs. Later, as he increased pressure on us, we found notes such as an illegal rent increase, another telling us the laundry in the basement was being taken away, and lastly that our bird feeder in the garden must be removed or be considered “abandoned property”.

We began to dread hearing footsteps in the hallway, straining our ears for the slightest noise or watching for the cat’s reaction as she stared alert at the doorway. I’d creep to the door, careful not to strain the creaky floor boards and give away my presence, and hold my breath as I watched through the peephole. Seeing that 8.5x11 white slip with blue painter’s tape on the door would set me off and I’d often end up unable to work up an appetite because of my stomach cramping in panic.

All of this was designed to shrink our world down, to constrict the comfortable boundaries we had established over a decade of tenancy, to make our home not feel like home. Basically, we fell for it.

So we stayed home. Alot. As long as we didn’t open the door we wouldn’t have to confront the reality we were faced with, anything to steal a few hours more in blissful ignorance.

ANGER

Definitely the evergreen emotional response to dealing with the landlord. On April 1st, the he visited to drop off a new carbon monoxide detector (which took him two weeks to procure). While I was installing it, he said to me:

“Hey, so I was looking through the lease and it only mentions allowing you to have one cat. I notice that you have a second one. Have you ever thought about giving one of them up? Because otherwise I’ll be forced to start eviction proceedings…”

Panic shot down my spine, my palms began to sweat; all I could think to do in the moment was to mention that both cats were noted in our estoppel certificate and that, if necessary, we’d take it to court.

He then smiled and said “April Fool!” The awkward silence that followed felt interminable.

My partner and I were livid. She was particularly wrathful, saying this absolutely could be considered harassment. We found out later he had tried a similarly sadistic joke on our pregnant neighbor across the hall. He was quick to offer apologetic bromides, saying he valued our friendship and would never think to casually evict us or behave so cruelly.

Then, a few months later, we received the notice stating our garden furniture and decorations were a violation of the lease and so must be removed within three days.

Were we right to be infurated? Without question. Should we have been surprised to find our landlord was a sneaky, lying asshole? No, but we were and that’s where he won that battle.

The thing is, our outrage was rooted in the notion that the landlord, as a class, ever tells the truth when their profit margin is threatened. Just as with the landed gentry and boyars centuries before, an ignorant peasant is more easily manipulated; it’s far more cost-effective for him to portray himself as a trustworthy and straightforward person and snatch the rug out from under his tenants than it would be to simply tell the truth. The end result is a climate in which the tenants can’t trust the person at the end of their rent check and, say, vacate the apartment in indignation. Overall, a great return on very little investment.

BARGAINING

I was particularly naive in this stage, if I do say so myself.

I began to look for ways to placate the landlord, perhaps to get on his good side so as to take ourselves off his radar. I edited emails to him multiple times before I sent them, careful to police my tone so as not to draw his annoyance or wrath. I talked about the weather or the upcoming presidential election. Since he was from Canada, I told him about the time my high school marching band took a trip to Toronto.

I felt that I had to remind him that we were human beings and that if we treated him kindly, he would reciprocate it.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it presupposes that you as the tenant need to offer something palatable to the landlord, as though you have done something wrong or inconvenient by simply occupying an apartment. The landlord, I can assure you, holds no similar sentiments and in fact will only offer, for example, to perform repairs on the apartment if ordered to do so by the municipality.

It also assumes that the landlord can be persuaded to view you as anything other than a resource to be exploited or disposed of.

This was the case for us. The landlord delayed completing the repairs required of him by the city because to him, we were little more than a nuisance. When we offered concessions by engaging in small talk or offering open days in our schedule, we were admitting to being “in the way” rather than “owed what we pay for.”

DEPRESSION

Photo by Alex Ivashenko on Unsplash

Naturally, in a situation like this your mind grasps at straws for stability, even at the expense of your own self esteem. Subconsciously you look to collapse your universe down to an easily understandable series of events that were, at one point anyway, completely within your control.

“If only I made more money I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

“I don’t make enough money because what I do isn’t worth paying for.”

“This is all my fault because I’m a loser who can’t provide.”

This was my thought process in a desperate attempt to understand my circumstance. It felt easier to blame myself for not being wealthy and secure, and therefore beyond the reach of predatory agents, than it was to simply blame the landlord for what he was doing.

Nothing prepared me for the profound loneliness that comes with living in an unoccupied building. As the months wore on, the other tenants all vacated or took “cash for keys settlements”. Wandering the abandoned halls coated in dust from demolition, there was a tangible lack of the clanking of dishes, muffled arguments between couples, music from stereos or TVs, of life in general. I felt forgotten and small, left behind in the oppressive and surreal silence.

ACCEPTANCE

Photo by DDP on Unsplash

The final stage in the traditional model, this is where I turned into the skid, so to speak. Acceptance, when confronting death, is about embracing the facts regarding the situation and dealing with them as they come; if you ask me, being gentrified out of an affordable apartment and into the market-rate sphere in this economy is like a type of death. This stage is where you take your life back from out of the landlord’s pocket.

Los Angeles is working to institute a right to legal counsel for all renters, although Mayor Garcetti is currently throttling its funding at a paltry $936K, enough for roughly 195 tenants to get help protecting their homes. So, my partner and I attended meetings put on by the Coalition for Economic Survival, a volunteer group of tenant lawyers with forty years of experience, including successfully incorporating West Hollywood away from the City of Los Angeles in order to enact stricter rent control ordinances in 1984.

In the end, we left those meetings empowered and determined.

What the CES lawyers taught me was this:

Know your rights!

Read your local rent control ordinance, if you have one (it is currently illegal in 27 states nationwide), and familiarize yourself with what you are owed as a tenant. The last thing you want is to be caught off guard by your landlord’s flippant disregard for the law.

Catalogue all documentation!

Any texts you receive, any emails, or notices taped to the front door — keep them all filed, digitized, and easily accessible; this includes your lease. Everything becomes relevant when you decide to present them to a tenant attorney.

STOP TALKING TO YOUR LANDLORD!

This is the most important bit of advice. If you have an emergency or repair that needs to be taken care of let them know, but that’s it. Your landlord doesn’t want anything on the record, and certainly not done through official or municipal channels; verbal communication means less accountability on their part.

We took the clinic’s guidance to heart. We called in to the Department of Building and Safety to check on the status of permits, we contacted the Housing and Community Investment Department when we received an illegal rent increase, and we requested that all communication be done through paper mail.

The result was a visit from the landlord, his eyes welled with tears, in which he begged us to simply come to him with any concerns instead of involving the city. If that doesn’t convince you of the efficacy of CES’ advice, I don’t know what will!

My own personal addendum is this: don’t let your guard down, but try and remain calm. No one can blame you for feeling panicked at the thought of being thrown to the capitalist wolves in the increasingly unaffordable apartment market as the stock of rent controlled units continue to dwindle, but only one person benefits from that, and it isn’t you!

This article may be anecdotal, but with the next recession practically guaranteed and with the brunt of it predicted to land on the shoulders of millennials, I can say with certainty that this kind of housing insecurity will only get worse. The vast majority of millennials are renters with a home ownership rate at roughly 8% and the dream of exiting the predatory rental market is prioritized higher than having a family or traveling. Gentrification and sky-high rents have only gotten worse in urban areas since the last recession in 2008, so the kind of call and response between greedy landlords and victimized tenants I’m afraid will continue to remain relevant in the coming years.

In the end, my partner and I may still be moving to a new place and losing our home of the last decade. However, if we leave, we leave knowing we did everything we could to protect the apartment and our livelihoods, determined not to allow ourselves to spiral like this again.

The ultimate goal of the landlord is to make you feel as though your apartment is not your home, that you are on borrowed time living in that unit; don’t give them the victory of living rent-free in your head.

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