Before I wrap up this post series on the subject of accountability, I want to make sure I’ve communicated a key point: the importance of having your priorities in the correct order. Your course of action, if your tenant is doing something annoying but not immediately dangerous, is to try to correct the behavior while keeping the landlord/tenant relationship. If the behavior is intractable and it creates a problem you cannot live with, you must wrap up the landlord/tenant relationship by terminating the agreement from your end. What you should absolutely never try to do is to take the passive-aggressive approach and try to make your tenant miserable enough to move out. Not only does the strategy undermine your power and authority as a landlord, but it can get you in trouble with the law.
I’ve included a picture of an old Northwest Mounted Police station for a reason. It’s located on the border between the Yukon Territory and Alaska, in a pass that was heavily used during the Klondike Gold Rush. One of the most important things the NWMP did at the time was enforcing standards for people who wished to live or do business in the area. Besides enforcing criminal law, the NWMP inspected boats and required hopeful prospectors and traders to prove that they had a year’s supply of food and the ton of camping equipment necessary to survive in a very hostile region where “living off the land” was not an effective option for most. The enforcement of the policy, which was oddly specific and which contained a list of details right down to the minimum number of pairs of socks, prevented large-scale famine and significant disorder during the Klondike Gold Rush. Yet they accomplished this with a force of only about 20 Mounties.
Picture that: twenty officers of the law, divided between the two passes and the Yukon river. No more than a handful of officers were available at a time, and they were outnumbered (and outgunned) by easily a hundred to one miners any given day. Yet they had everything their way. They enforced criminal law, and they enforced an extremely rigorous set of standards for goods and supplies on people who were known for their independence and hard-headedness. How exactly did they do this? Well, it wasn’t just the red uniforms. The NWMP had the respect of the people they served. They didn’t sweat the small stuff by trying to prevent victimless crimes like gambling, voluntary prostitution, or the sale of alcohol. Instead, they put their effort into enforcing the specific standards that mattered: the ones that literally made the difference between life and death. They also maintained their authority at all times.
As a landlord, you have to be like the NWMP. You have to set the standards, limit the rules to what you’re willing and able to enforce, and then enforce them. You must communicate the standards often especially if there’s some kind of misunderstanding (deliberate or otherwise). You must also be the one who makes most of the decisions.
One frequent mistake among landlords is to try to “make” the tenant decide to leave. That’s based on a concept from the education and economics communities, both of which have noticed that the easiest way to make someone do something is to make him want to do it. People respond to incentives and punishments very well, provided they are consistent and well communicated. I’ve met landlords who provide “rent discounts” if the rent is paid on or before the fist of the month, and I’ve given “rent holidays” or periods of free rent to people who have paid on time for a year. Both are ways to reward people who pay their rent on time. However when it comes to negative reinforcement or bad consequences for bad behavior, many landlords don’t want to be the bad guy.
That’s a mistake.
Your tenant isn’t there to be your buddy, so it really doesn’t matter whether he likes you. If your tenant is consistently pushing boundaries or “misunderstanding” or “forgetting” basic rules, it’s already a safe bet that he doesn’t like you. That’s OK, because all he has to do is respect your authority.
The absolute last thing you need to be doing, if your tenant won’t shape up or if you can’t quite bring yourself to use the correct words, is sulking around like a grumpy little bitch finding ways to make his life miserable. Be a leader, communicate the rules, and enforce the consequences. Nit-picking, nagging, pleading, interrupting the tenant’s sleep, or doing not-so-subtle things to make him uncomfortable are not NWMP tactics. Nor are sarcastic comments, Post-It notes, or deliberate attempts to avoid communicating. The stereotypical female strategy (although I’ve seen men use it too) of stomping around in a grumpy mood but refusing to say what’s bothering you will get you nowhere. The stereotypical male strategy (although I’ve seen women use it too) of simply withdrawing and giving the tenant the silent treatment for a few days is simply ineffective.
Your tenant isn’t there to play guessing games. Did the NWMP play guessing games when deciding how many pairs of socks each person needed in order to cross the White Pass or the Chilkoot pass? Heck, no. They had a precise written list that was distributed to everyone. Did the NWMP let a few people through without meeting the standards simply because it was Friday and they wanted to kick back and rest a bit? Heck, no. The standards were enforced every day. Also, the NWMP didn’t beat around the bush. When someone needed to be arrested, locked up, or run out of town, that’s what happened. The NWMP displayed all the subtlety of an avalanche: they didn’t rely on hints, suggestions, or malicious pranks. They didn’t make themselves obnoxious by strutting around and acting arrogant, but they were secure enough in their power to tell other people, when necessary, what to do to stay within the law. They also made sure their own actions were measured and within the acceptable standards for law enforcement: they didn’t tolerate vigilante justice or creative policing.
The worst possible end result, for a landlord who decides to “make” a tenant leave by causing him to become uncomfortable, is that he himself will exceed the limits of the law. So long as your tenant is renting from you, he’s entitled to the safe and comfortable use of the property. If you disturb his sleep, change the locks, “accidentally” trip the breaker on the circuit that supplies his bedroom, or disconnect the water in his bathroom, you’re interfering with his rights under the law. If you make the room or the house uninhabitable by failing to pay your own utility bill so that the utilities are cut off, you’re the one who’s in violation of the law. In many states you can be made to pay your tenant’s damages plus a hefty fine. So, instead of trying to subtly manipulate your tenant into leaving, own your rules and take responsibility for enforcing them. Begin by asking for change, follow through using the legal process, and if you decide to terminate the business relationship, do it cleanly by following the appropriate legal process wherever you live.