In the last few weeks, the Montana legislature has heard a series of bills designed to strengthen the position of landlords. Roger Webb (R-Billings) introduced Senate Bill 239, which would charge with criminal theft tenants who vacate rental properties before their leases are up, as though they had stolen cash in the amount of the remaining months’ rent. Webb’s Senate Bill 255 would make state courts responsible for collecting judgments against tenants for unpaid rent—a duty which currently falls to the landlords themselves, as in other civil matters. Both of these bills introduce the possibility of going to prison for not paying rent.
Webb’s wife, Rep. Peggy Webb (R-Billings), has introduced her own bill to charge with criminal trespass tenants who do not vacate rental properties at the landlord’s request. Its wording is vague, but it seems to withdraw the longstanding right of renters to remain in their homes until eviction proceedings are resolved. Taken together, these bills give landlords authority comparable to that of state courts.
It may shock you to learn that the Webbs own rental property themselves. During an informal poll of the state house, approximately one quarter of their fellow representatives did, too. Nobody asked how many rent their homes, but one suspects the number is small. The kind of people who become state legislators are more likely to be landlords than tenants. And if you’ve ever talked to a landlord, you know they see tenants as a horde of conscienceless freeloaders bent on exploiting the landowning classes. All this is to say that the legislature has a warped perspective on the landlord/tenant relationship, and it makes sense that they would overestimate the degree to which it is unfair to people like, well, them.
But is this the kind of injustice government should right? The conflict between landlord and tenant is, for the most part, a conflict between people who own multiple homes and people who own none. By definition, society is working pretty well for landlords already. Must we add the force of law to the force of economics? You can read such pinko reasoning in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent. We won’t be back tomorrow with Friday links, because I’ll be driving all day. Likewise Monday, but Combat! blog will return Tuesday, clothed in righteous fire. Or my truck will explode. Only time will tell.