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The Right to Housing: a Baha’i Perspective

Greg Hodges | Dec 13, 2019

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Greg Hodges | Dec 13, 2019

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

I became a Baha’i fifteen years ago, and have been a landlord now for five. Doing the first prepared me for doing the second. 

Meanwhile, the responsibilities of being a landlord pose questions for my spiritual and social practice that I will wrestle with for decades.

If someone asked me for a quotation from the Baha’i Faith that I felt spoke most to the responsibilities of a landlord, I would probably answer them with this:

Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute! This is the work of a true Baha’i, and this is what is expected of him. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 98.

It should take only a little reflection for any landlord to understand that the housing under their control is deeply precious, literally a matter of life and death. 

Not everyone has the chance to sleep under a roof. My wife and I would love it if we could house every fearful, oppressed, hopeless, destitute person in need of a home. But practically speaking, we can only house a few people, and not all of them are in such dire straits. As individuals we can do a lot. But we cannot bear the weight of an entire society on our shoulders. The community as a whole, and the institutions that lead it, must also play their part in ensuring that all people have adequate housing.

As in so many things, the Baha’i perspective on this issue begins with an acknowledgement of the oneness of humanity:

Thus, in reality, all mankind represents one family. God has not created any difference. He has created all as one that thus this family might live in perfect happiness and well-being …

Although the body politic is one family, yet, because of lack of harmonious relations some members are comfortable and some in direst misery; some members are satisfied and some are hungry; some members are clothed in most costly garments and some families are in need of food and shelter. Why? Because this family lacks the necessary reciprocity and symmetry. This household is not well arranged. This household is not living under a perfect law. All the laws which are legislated do not ensure happiness. They do not provide comfort. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 312.

if someone does not have proper housing, then that problem becomes greater than a simply personal one – it becomes a problem for the entire society. The body politic as a whole suffers, spiritually deprived until that person has been well-housed.

That’s the vision of housing I have in the back of my mind as my wife and I go about this landlord business. It can’t just be about making money. Building equity in our property is not the only thing. As landlords, our personal affairs interweave with the lives of those who live on our property. The law conceives of us unequally in terms of landlord and tenant, but spiritually, we cannot forget that we are on the same plane as children of one God.

With that in mind, our society needs to review certain aspects of what it means to be a landlord, and how as a society we conceive of and act on the issue of housing.

Renting out housing entails a diverse set of responsibilities. Landlords must ensure that they maintain their rental units well, that they are structurally sound, fully functional, climate-controlled, energy efficient, and looking good. Landlords need to pay all the bills covered by rent and hire professionals to take care of any projects they can’t do themselves. When units open up they need to find new tenants in a way that fairly treats all applicants, the people who already live on the property, and the tenants themselves.

Landlords also collect rent money, the only task that many landlords do with any passion or enthusiasm. This is unfortunate, because renting out housing is more than just an investment or a way to bring in some money on the side. It involves work of many kinds; work that is mechanical, administrative, and emotional in character. The landlord is a service provider, doing work in exchange for rent that facilitates a positive living experience for those who live there.

But this vision does not speak to many if not most people’s experience with rental housing. Oftentimes this is because of the greed or carelessness of the landlord. But in all cases, we live under a system that does not treat housing as a material component of a positive living experience. This system on the contrary, conceives of housing as real estate, as a commodity to be sold or rented out at the highest price the owner can profitably charge. As in so many areas of life, profits are put ahead of people. To be a landlord, in this sense, is to be a neo-feudal entrepreneur, accruing value to a financial portfolio, doing business with tenants who are nothing more than customers.

Even if someone goes into the rental business with altruistic intentions, the debt involved with acquiring property, the costs of maintenance, and the low wages of tenants combine to push some landlords to act shrewdly, with an attention towards self-interest that borders on cunning. To behave generously often requires a special outburst of spiritual determination. It shouldn’t be that hard to do right by people. Society should be structured in such a way that going with the flow results in justice and fairness. To address that crucial issue, the Baha’i teachings recommend making housing a basic human right, predicting a more just and equitable future state of society:

… the human world will adapt itself to a new social form, the justice of God will become manifest throughout human affairs, and human equality will be universally established. The poor will receive a great bestowal, and the rich attain eternal happiness. For although at the present time the rich enjoy the greatest luxury and comfort, they are nevertheless deprived of eternal happiness; for eternal happiness is contingent upon giving, and the poor are everywhere in the state of abject need. Through the manifestation of God’s great equity the poor of the world will be rewarded and assisted fully, and there will be a readjustment in the economic conditions of mankind so that in the future there will not be the abnormally rich nor the abject poor. The rich will enjoy the privilege of this new economic condition as well as the poor, for owing to certain provisions and restrictions they will not be able to accumulate so much as to be burdened by its management, while the poor will be relieved from the stress of want and misery. The rich will enjoy his palace, and the poor will have his comfortable cottage. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 131.

In between today’s speculative real estate bubbles, evictions, redevelopment schemes, flips, and foreclosures all around us, real people try to go about their lives in security and comfort. Our co-existence with them as human beings places moral responsibilities on us to ensure that our society takes care of everyone.

At a collective level we must work for a social order that abolishes the problem of homelessness and guarantees the dignity of all people. Based on my experience as a landlord and my aspirations as a Baha’i, I think this requires disentangling the service aspects of landlording from the profit-seeking aspects. Public housing of one sort or another probably needs to be a big part of that solution. But what interests me here is not housing policy, despite its extreme importance. That’s a topic covered more effectively elsewhere. What interests me here is spiritual affinity – the question of whether or not we see each person as a member of one human family, each one deserving of proper housing. If we don’t have that basic principle in mind, it’s easy to be led astray from the human dimension of the issue.

As a landlord, my chief concern typically focuses on all the tasks that ensure my tenants have a positive living experience. More often than not, it’s not just business. It gets tied up with a genuine personal connection to the particular people who rent from me. Many landlords would consider it dangerously naive to allow myself to do that. But spiritually, I feel if I didn’t, then it would lead to my own ruin. I find it abhorrent that economic necessity might push me to evict someone just because they can’t pay. That’s why we need to work toward a society in which that question need never come up.

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  • Jay Tyson
    Dec 24, 2019
    Ultimately the long term solution is simply to build more homes. A large part of the problem is all of the laws that effectively make home construction illegal for the average person. The right to housing should NOT be that the government is required to take action to build homes for people. Rather, it should be that the government is forbidden from preventing people from building their own homes. Every time government creates a zoning regulation, or standard requirement, it effectively blocks some people at the lower income levels from being able to buy or build their own home. ...A right to housing would require that regulations could only be approved if they provided the funding req'd to offset the added costs for lower income residents.
  • Dec 15, 2019
    Hi Greg, excellent article. Empathize as an ex-landlord myself, with my wife. It's a balance of protecting one's property and being understanding. We need more affordable rental units today, especially in the cities, that are clean and well-working.
  • Bertha Petruski
    Dec 13, 2019
    HI Greg, My family has a few apartments that they have rented here in MA for years. Most tenants are wonderful and honest people but there have been cases when tenant/s stop paying rent, some refuse to work out a solution and a few have had to be evicted after almost a year of not paying. A few have also stolen food from our family farm store, one caught in the act three times. Your point is well taken to help others but also make enough for the continued upkeep which is quite costly at times. For the last ...few years my family has hired a company which does a profile check beforehand which had solved that problem. I do long for the day when humanity had grasped the Baha'i virtues of honesty combined with compassion and genuine love.
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