The Jewish Ethicist: Evicting Indigent Tenants
How can I make a profit without turning into Snidely Whiplash?
Q. Is it all right to convert affordable housing into market price rentals, knowing the elderly and disabled cannot afford to remain living there? Would it be better to accept government funding and let the needy remain, or get top dollar for renting the property? MV, USA
A. The mention of evicting the needy conjures up visions of the dastardly Snidely Whiplash of cartoon fame, or alternatively of the hard-hearted creditors who wanted to enslave the sons of the poor widow who turned for help to the prophet Elisha. (I Kings 4:1.) Yet most landlords have no sadistic tendencies; they only want to get a fair return on their property.
While society definitely has an obligation to protect the needy and keep them from being cast into the street, it's neither fair nor practical to expect this obligation, which applies to us all, to be borne solely by the landlords.
At the same time, it won't do for landlords to stubbornly stand on their rights, insisting that the property is theirs and they have the right to decide on the tenants and on the rental. Our Sages, following the Prophets, attributed the destruction of Jerusalem two thousand years ago to the low ethical standards of the residents. In particular, they said, "Jerusalem was destroyed because people insisted on strict justice, and were not willing to compromise." Property owners have to recognize that even if the war against homelessness is not theirs to fight, they are the ones on the front lines of this battle.
Other groups find themselves in a situation similar to yours. Employers cannot be solely responsible for helping the unemployed and drug companies cannot be solely responsible for providing medication to the needy, but they are in the front line. I think that you can learn from some methods used by these groups. For instance, many downsizing employers invest in outplacement services, helping laid-off workers to find new jobs or to acquire new skills. Some drug companies have tried to form alliances with NGO's (non-governmental organizations) who are working to improve medical care for the needy. And so on.
Following this model, your company might want to set up some kind of service to help tenants find suitable new dwellings. Additionally, you might want to work with government or community organizations that would help provide them with housing. The solution that you suggest, of accepting government aid, could also be considered. In cases where you do need to evict you should show flexibility so as not to do so when it would cause unusual hardship, for instance during the winter months.
An example of this principle is found in a famous story in the Talmud. A wealthy and righteous man hired some porters to move a barrel of wine, but due to their carelessness the barrel broke and the wine spilled. The man seized their coats as security against their damage liability, and then took them to a rabbi for judgment. The rabbi told the wealthy man to return their coats and even to pay their wages! When the man protested that this is not what the law requires, the rabbi explained that sometimes, righteous people need to do more than the law demands.
SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 30b and 83a; Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 312.
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