THE CASE FOR
SMALL TIME DISCRIMINATION
© Copyright 2014 Landlord.com
On Monday, June 5, 2000, Vadim Miesagaes, a native
Swiss and student at San Francisco State University, stood before
Superior Court Judge Mary Morgan in San Francisco and was adjudged
incompetent to stand trial. You
see, Mr. Miesagaes was found to be too crazy even to understand the
nature of the proceedings being brought against him or to assist in his
own defense. As of this
writing he is lodged in the medical wing of the San Francisco County
Ella Wong is, or was, no one is yet quite sure
which, a property owner in San Francisco.
She rented a spare room to Miesagaes in the house in which she
lived. She has gone
missing. Miesagaes, police
reportedly say, was arrested on May 1 after he confessed that he killed
his landlady, skinned her, cut her body up, and disposed of the pieces
in several places about the city. The
police also reportedly say that Miesagaes led them to what they think is
her torso (they are still working on positive identification), which he
dumped in a garbage bin in Golden Gate Park.
Allegedly, Miesagaes told police he killed Wong because she was
giving off “evil vibes” and he feared he would be “sucked into the
matrix.” No one, of
course, knows exactly what this means.
The United States, both through the efforts of its
Federal government, and through the efforts of the state and local
governments, is in the process of trying to stamp out by law the last
vestiges of invidious discrimination based on several factors such as
race, sex, sexual preference, religious belief, and so on.
So tenuous have American prejudices in this regard become, as
compared to other countries and despite the clamor of the entrenched
civil rights industry, that government at all levels has begun to do
things that would have been unheard of even a decade ago, such as to
compel individuals who have no impact on the economy at large to do
business with people they do not wish to do business with.
But the government does not wield its tools with the precision
with which the surgeon wields his lancet.
No, the government wields its tools with all the delicacy of a
ham-fisted gandy dancer swinging a 16-pound sledgehammer.
Enlightened persons would like to see all vestiges of invidious
discrimination eliminated, there is a compelling case for exemptions,
both for the continuation of those that now exist, and perhaps even the
creation of some where they do not now exist.
We come to the case of the small time, the
amateur, landlord. All
cities and towns have them. They
are the widow ladies that rent out the basement room, or the family that
rents the other half of the duplex they live in or the cottage in the
back. Not only do they help themselves by gaining that small
increment of income from their extra space, they are a valuable asset to
the community. They offer a
type of housing that is usually of relatively low cost, and ideal for
students, the elderly, and others living alone.
Multi housing complexes and owners of 50 free standing homes,
say, who rent out their units also offer a value to the community, but
their role is very different. While
they deal with their housing as a retailer deals with his merchandise,
the small time landlord is very often literally sharing his or her
abode. The big time
landlord can deal with his tenants with the safety distance provides.
The small time landlord deals with his tenants from a position of
extreme vulnerability, always within striking distance of the tenant in
the in-law downstairs, who just may be an axe murderer.
It may be that in the circumstance of the old
church-going widow lady with a basement unit, she should be allowed to
insist that her tenant be an old church-going widow lady.
Perhaps she should be permitted to refuse to rent to the punk
rocker with green dyed hair and a ring in his eyelid, and for no other
reason than that she is uncomfortable about it.
The relationship between the big time landlord and
his tenants is a commercial one. The
government and the law can, within limits, deal fairly effectively with
commercial relationships. The
relationship between the small time landlord and his tenants is much
more a social one. The
government and the law are notoriously bad at dealing with these.
It is impossible to quantify or regulate the thousands of subtle
decisions that go into the formation of a social relationship.
The atrocity that befell Ella Wong is a powerful
urge to thought. We do not
contend that she was forced to rent to Mr. Miesagaes by any civil rights
law, or to continue to rent to him because of any other law.
Her fate does illustrate the risks small time landlords take, and
suggests they might be allowed to guard against them in any way they see
fit, even if these ways do not comport with our views of ideal equality.
Although many fair housing and similar laws have
qualifications related to the size of the operation in question, most
civil rights laws do not. There
is a growing body of common law in which prospects have sued small time
landlords for invidious discrimination on general tort theory that has
grown out of such statutes. One
case in California, which is now on appeal, pitted a landlady who
refused to rent to an unmarried couple because their relationship was
contrary to the landlady’s religious beliefs.
Maybe it is time to weigh the social utility of our
antidiscrimination laws and carve out permanent exceptions, as, for
example, for landlords with three or fewer rental units who live in the
same building. After all
that unmarried couple did not end up living in their car, they just got
another rental unit. Ella
Wong will not be concerned with housing, or anything else, any more.