Thursday, August 17, 2006

Landlords and smoking.

This notes a rather odd side effect of banning smoking, at least in Quebec. Apparently, Quebec has followed many jurisdictions in banning smoking in public areas (bars, restaurants, etc.). But, some landlords are taking this as opportunity to keep smokers from renting their properties.

On the face of it, it's surprising that landlords wouldn't do this already. The ban is on public smoking, after all, and rented property is private. Landlords already try to ban (or at least severely restrict) pets and children using their properties. (Incidentally, I've recently been house-hunting, and was surprised to find that even condos have no pets and adults-only policies. And you own a condo.) The grounds given, reasonably enough, is that pets and children are more likely to damage the landlord's property. The same could be extended to smokers (ever smelled carpet that's been in a smoker's house for over a decade?).

However, trying to ban smokers seems like a strategy that could only work in a tight rental market. If there's more than enough spaces for renters, then any given landlord can't afford to be terribly choosey. (But could insist on a damage deposit to cover the expected costs of removing any smoking damage, as well as charge rent to include at least part of the property's fire insurance.)

What's truly bizarre are the comments in the article about how it's a violation of "human rights" for landlords to refuse to rent to smokers. I might go along with the claim that it's a violation of something for smokers who can't afford to buy a place to have nowhere to live. But, at the end of the day, the landlord owns the property. Why can't they rent to whomever they want?


macadavy said...

If they're free to rent to whomever they like, they are also free to not rent to whomever they don't like (e.g. people of colour). I live in a Canadian city with a >1% rental vacancy rate, and nearly every rental ad has "NP,NS" (No Pets, No Smoking) in it.

ADHR said...

That's certainly the other side of it. I've lived in Vancouver, and the vacancy rate was ridiculously low. We lived in a place that was clearly substandard (electrical and plumbing problems), but didn't have much of a choice. And, I'll tell you, the landlord wouldn't rent to anyone of East Indian descent -- she considered them "dirty" and "bad tenants".

The problem isn't entirely, however, the landlords. Landlords own property that they choose, of their own free will, to rent out. They don't have to rent it. It's their property -- they can do what they like with it. The problem, really, is that something as fundamentally necessary as housing is left entirely to the dictates of the market. We give people access to healthcare, as long as they are residents of a Canadian province. We can't we give them access to housing?

undergroundman said...

Historically we've done that through price ceilings on housing, which is known as a famously bad policy in neoclassical economics (I'm a dual economics/philosophy major).

Simply putting up government housing is a much better policy. But why do it with the government? Why plan something that has been done so effectively by the marketplace? Is the discrimination really that bad? (I would argue that it's not.) The government doesn't have the profit motive. Its employees have less incentives to keep the house in good shape, keep the house rented consistently, and avoid bad leasers.

A better idea is housing vouchers.

undergroundman said...

I'll add that things are apparently different in the US (at least Oregon). Housing is surprisingly cheap and available.

ADHR said...

It doesn't necessarily have to be government housing, although government clearly has a role here in terms of guiding the market towards providing affordable housing. A voucher program might work. Really, the issue is that in a tight housing market, when there's only private rentals available, there's something morally distasteful about preventing smokers from renting homes. Then it starts to sound like a rights violation. Smokers, as much as anyone, should have fair opportunity to have a decent place to live.