In the “Renter From Hell” Narrative, Landlords Are the Real Victims

The COVID-19 era eviction moratorium has given rise to a new journalistic genre: the “renter from hell” narrative, portraying landlords as the real victims of the crisis.

An apartment in the West Village, New York. (Unsplash)

If you’re following the news, you could easily get the impression that being a landlord is like being trapped in a horror movie, with the tenant in the role of that terrifying psycho who thrives by inflicting suffering.

Last summer, the tabloid New York Post was abuzz with stories of tenants — some of them Instagram influencers — partying decadently in the Hamptons while refusing to pay rent or leave their homes, while their middle-class landlords struggled with college tuition and medical bills. In one Miami homeowner’s nearly yearlong “nightmare,” a tenant owing more than $6,000 in rent won’t pay and won’t leave, the Miami Herald reported late last month. In the San Francisco Bay Area, landlords made similar complaints to the Mercury News including, in one case, even a subtenant who changed the locks and refused to leave. In New York, the Albany Times Union quoted landlords complaining of tenants who take their kids on Las Vegas vacations to playoff football games while skipping rent. A Staten Island couple told CBS New York they couldn’t get rid of tenants who hadn’t paid rent since May 2019, despite Instagram evidence of “lavish” parties. Albany’s WRGB-TV featured landlords frustrated that they couldn’t get rid of badly behaving tenants, with one renter even “smearing feces all over the walls in common areas.”

The eviction moratorium is explicitly the policy villain in these stories. During the pandemic, the federal government and many states have paused evictions since so many are struggling to make rent, a victory for organized tenants’ groups and affordable housing advocates. While some small homeowners are indeed struggling, “it’s too hard to evict people during a pandemic” is an unconscionable emphasis in the midst of a massive crisis of potential displacement and homelessness.

The federal eviction moratorium, which has been extended through March, has protected tens of millions of renters who can’t pay rent from losing their homes, in freezing temperatures and a raging pandemic. In December, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive Washington, DC–based think tank, found that 9.2 million adult renters who had lost employment due to COVID-19 were behind on rent. At that time, the CBPP also found that an estimated 15.5 million adult renters felt “no” or only “slight” confidence that they would be able to pay the next month’s rent. Homelessness and housing insecurity were already on the rise before the pandemic, with nearly a quarter of renter households spending more than half their income on rent; without the federal eviction moratoriums, COVID-19 would have made matters far worse. Similar measures at the local and state level have also helped.

At their crudest, the “tenants from hell” stories are blatant propaganda for landlords fighting renter protections. The better-crafted ones, with the most sympathetic characters, are beginning to constitute a literature of reaction.

The trials of West Village everywoman Heidi Russell, first documented in the New York Post under the headline “Resident Evil,” and more recently in New York magazine’s the Cut, have achieved that status. A photographer laid off from her day job and one half of an impoverished lesbian couple (her partner, Valentina Bajada, is unable to work because of a chronic pain condition), Russell tried to make ends meet by renting a room in their condo but was victimized by Kate Gladstone, a “serial grifter” and single mom of a ten-year-old who attended PS 3, a desirable neighborhood public school. Gladstone didn’t pay rent and, when Russell tried to kick her out, allegedly demanded $24,000 to leave.

Court documents allege that Russell and Bajada aren’t even her first victims: Gladstone has apparently repeatedly squatted in New York apartments and refused to leave. The Post devoted an editorial to the story as well as news coverage, arguing that it showed the state’s protections for renters have a “serious dark side” and are “hurting innocents.” Early this month, the Cut went much deeper, giving Russell’s story full literary journalism treatment, weaving it into an epic (titled “The Nightmare Share”).

Stylistically, the Cut’s version excels; with compelling characters and dramatic storytelling, it is a riveting read. Gladstone is a creepy villain, weaving a knotty tapestry of lies, and Russell and Bajada sympathetic protagonists. We feel their distress as this grifter takes over their living room, eventually driving them from their own apartment, leaving them even poorer and, eventually, effectively homeless. Bajada, a Soviet immigrant, meanwhile, is back in her home country sorting out an even worse property crisis: her elderly mother was murdered by another family trying to take possession of her apartment! While in Kiev, she works in a relative’s market in exchange for food.

Paradoxically, in highbrow journalism, a story is only newsworthy if we have not heard it before, yet it must also represent a broader phenomenon. Thus, since we have not heard or read a story exactly like Russell’s, her experience is deemed more newsworthy than those of the huge numbers of tenants saved from homelessness by the eviction moratorium, or from the excruciating choice between feeding their kids and paying rent.

To justify focusing on Russell’s story, the Cut had to give it significance and did so by blaming the eviction moratorium for this bizarre situation, just as all such stories do, ignoring a host of solutions that might have helped all the women involved. The reporting probably is all “true” in its specific details, but, as a window on the current housing woes of New Yorkers, it’s also false.

Though good data is hard to find, Russell’s and Bajada’s poverty is unusual among New York City landlords. But some working-class homeowners do depend on rent to survive, and they need relief when renters, who make up a third of US households, can’t (or, in these cases, won’t) pay. New York’s eviction moratorium offers small landlords some protection against foreclosure, as does the federal government’s, but these measures don’t protect people depending on rent collection for survival.

What’s rarely mentioned in these stories is that rent relief — which the affordable housing movement and progressive legislators have been demanding and strongly argue is much better than an eviction moratorium — would benefit small homeowners like Russell and Bajada, though, granted, it wouldn’t help them (or any landlords) get rid of “tenants from hell.”

In the midst of a massive crisis of housing affordability, at a time when a vision of housing for all — evocative of Red Vienna — has real political traction, the media are taking exactly the wrong political lesson from the tenant horror stories. The problem isn’t that a single mother like Kate Gladstone enjoys excessive rights. What would have been a fair and just outcome in New York magazine’s eyes — a successful eviction, so that a (possibly mentally ill) woman and her ten-year-old sleep on the street?

If permanent shelter were a right and social housing were provided for all, then Gladstone wouldn’t have to screw over other working-class people in order to find an apartment with a good school for her daughter nearby. Russell and Bajada would have been spared this ordeal. Imagine a society that didn’t force people to become ruthless grifters in order to survive, house, and educate their children.

The Cut describes Kate Gladstone as an abuser throughout its story, not just victimizing Heidi Russell, but New York City, “the city in which she has an absolute fixation on living for free.” The phrasing is diagnostic, as if that “fixation” is in itself a symptom of her sociopathy. Under current economic arrangements, it unfortunately is, since she can’t live for free without hurting, or at least massively inconveniencing, others. But wouldn’t it be much better for everyone if she could?