In a conference room of a chain hotel in southeast England, a small group of landlords are trying to figure out how to convince their tenants that they’re actually super cool and super chill. Because they all have the same problem: “My tenants don’t respect me,” one tells the other 10 or so landlords present. They gently nod and respond with the same mmm tone of acknowledgement. A short, skinny landlord in a cream-colored collared shirt puts his hand up and says, in a soft tone, that his tenants have become especially hostile to him in the past year. “When I get emails from them asking if I can fix something like the boiler, they’re always so cold,” he says. “I just wish they were more friendly. I wish they knew I wasn’t like other, bad landlords.”
Most landlord conferences focus on things like regulation and new “revenue opportunities” (read: how they can squeeze more money out of tenants). Recently, though, a small but growing number of landlords have been meeting up about a very different concern: their reputations. That’s because, as my colleague Miles Klee has pointed out, “landlord” has become the ultimate insult — thanks to, for starters, exorbitant rents, a lack of regard for public safety, complicity in gentrification-related homelessness and their contribution to wealth inequality across the Western world.
But the real problem, according to most of the landlords in this British conference room, are people like me — journalists who “refuse to report the truth” about them. “Being a landlord is a really hard job, much harder than yours,” explains 65-year-old Graham, who lives in a wealthy suburban village in Reading, just outside of London. Graham owns around 10 properties in London, Birmingham and Liverpool.
Throughout our interview, Graham insists that his priority is doing “right” by his tenants. He has a handyman around for urgent repairs, gives “up to two weeks’ extension” for rent and helps former tenants (ones he presumably evicted) find new places to live, in properties owned by fellow landlord friends. “I get that there are a lot of landlords who do an awful, horrible job and are in it for the money,” Graham tells me. “But I’m not one of them. I want to help people.”
At the front of the room is Ellie, a twentysomething PR consultant who has been working with British landlords to improve their image. Standing next to a whiteboard, she begins sympathetically. “Landlords have a bad reputation that, in my view, is undeserved,” she tells the group, to light applause. “Because the media only tells stories about the bad landlords, the rogue landlords. But the truth is, most landlords in the U.K. are good, and they work hard to run their businesses and to treat their tenants with respect and dignity.”
Over the next 30 minutes, Ellie runs through the basics of what landlords who want to improve their reputations should be focusing on. “The key thing is to run your business ethically,” she says. “For example, if you have a tenant on housing benefits, give them some extra time if they’re short on cash. You can even add backdated bills and rent to future invoices when they’re in a better financial situation in their lives.”
This statement causes some of the landlords to shake their heads. Some of her other advice is received just as lukewarmly. “You might consider installing insulation, solar panels or even tracking meters that can help shave off the cost of heating and electricity,” she suggests. “Or make sure that you visit the property frequently for maintenance, and check that everything is working and that all possible problems are taken care of before they become safety hazards.”
When one landlord asks her how often that should be, Ellie responds once every two weeks — an answer that’s met with some scoffing, especially from Graham. “How am I supposed to spend time with my family?” he loudly remarks.
Such dismay remains heavy in the air afterward. The landlords I speak with believe that Ellie’s ideas would either cost them significantly more financially or put significant constraints on their time. “It’s not fair,” one tells me. “My wife and I worked hard all our lives and saved all our money to buy properties that would ensure that our kids would always have a stable future. We’ve been extremely good parents. And now we have to work even harder to look after other people, too?”
When I ask him why, if this seemingly basic form of care is too much, he doesn’t sell his properties, he pauses before answering. “I don’t think I’d trust anyone else to look after them properly,” he explains. “Besides, I need to know that, if I die suddenly or something happens to me and my wife, that my kids won’t have to struggle financially.”
Others give similar answers — namely, that they consider their real-estate portfolios their children’s birthright. And that, by building up these portfolios, they’re actually being caring and responsible parents, putting their children’s needs and future first, which surely makes them good people.
All of this, of course, makes “rebranding” their profession extraordinarily difficult. For a couple of other major reasons, too, says James Lockett, a London-based PR consultant who works with letting agencies and housing insurers: 1) Landlords don’t belong to a representative body or institution (or basically, a lobby that can do their bidding); and 2) the animosity toward landlords “has less to do with their personalities than it does about wider social and economic issues” (or in other words, the current anger around wealth inequality).
“At the moment, part of my job is to make sure that big property owners and developers have their messages communicated as clearly as possible,” Lockett tells me. “Usually that means putting messages in local newspapers and media about not evicting people from their homes, or ensuring that their bills and rent aren’t going up.” Mostly, then, Lockett is trying to present them as normal businesspeople following the law, just like everyone else.
The thing is, no matter how hard he might try to spin it, they aren’t. Landlords like Graham are afforded avenues to wealth, in perpetuity, that few others have, and even fewer will ever get. It’s a point that, when I put it to him, he finds it difficult to comprehend, let alone understand how this elevated status might be an obstacle to coming across as relatable. “I think that I’m already doing more than enough!” he shrugs. “Maybe it’s my tenants who need to give me a break!”