Episode 145: How Real Estate-Curated ‘Mom & Pop Landlord’ Sob Stories Are Used to Gut Tenant Protections
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Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
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Nima: “The eviction moratorium is killing small landlords,’ says one, as ban is extended another month,” CNBC cautions. “‘No safety net’ and little sympathy. Some small landlords struggle under eviction moratoriums,” declares The Washington Post. “Economic Pressures Are Rising On Mom And Pop Rental Owners,” laments NPR. ”[Landlords] can’t hold on much longer,” cries an LA Times headline.
Adam: Throughout the course of the pandemic, we’ve seen a spate of media coverage highlighting the plight of the small or so-called “mom-and-pop landlord” struggling to make ends meet. The story usually goes something like this: A modest, down-on-their-luck owner of two or three properties — say a grandmother or a hardworking medical professional — hopes to keep them long enough to hand them down to their kids, but fears financial ruin in the face of radical tenant-protection laws.
Nima: But this doesn’t reflect the reality of rental housing ownership in the United States. Over the last roughly 20 years, corporate entities, from Wall Street firms to an opaque network of LLCs have increasingly seized ownership of the rental housing stock, intensifying the asymmetry of landlord-tenant power relations and rendering housing ever more precarious for renters. In the meantime, the character of the “mom-and-pop landlord” has been evoked nonstop — much like that of the romantic “small business owners” — in order to sanitize the image of property ownership and gin up opposition to legislation that would protect tenants from eviction moratoria to rent control.
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll explore the overrepresentation of the “mom-and-pop landlord” in media, contrasting it with the actual makeup of rental housing ownership. We’ll also examine how the media-burnished image of the beleaguered, barely-scraping-by landlord puts a human face on policies that further enrich a property-owning class while justifying the forceful removal of renters from their homes.
Nima: We will be joined later on the show by Alexander Ferrer, Policy & Research Analyst at SAJE, Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, a Los Angeles-based organization focused on tenant rights, healthy housing, and equitable development.
Alexander Ferrer: The thing that’s driving rising housing costs and homelessness is the creation of a system in which people are dependent on the owners of property for a place to live and landlords as a class have positioned themselves between absolute human necessity and people who need it to live, and then reinforced by the legal system in doing that, and of course, you know, eviction is a really big part of that, and the single largest contributor to houselessness has been repeatedly demonstrated in the literature.
Adam: From the onset, we want to be clear that this is, as we like to say all the time — to the point of annoyance to some — this is a spiritual successor to the episode on small businesses, which is to say, we’re discussing the degree to which these bleeding heart, very relatable, humanist stories are used as a PR Vanguard to push laws, legislation, policies and government handouts that benefit 90 percent not that thing, and this is very similar for the mom-and-pop landlord, which is to say that we are not making a doctrinaire argument necessarily that the one unit owning on the bottom floor who works night shifts at a diner, who inherited that property from her dear grandmother is necessarily the evil capitalist that we shouldn’t target our animosity towards. We’re not really litigating that we are making a more meta argument about why certain voices are lifted, why certain narratives are honed in on, and why all of a sudden, in the spring of 2021, just as we had a torrent of bleeding heart stories of small diners who couldn’t find enough waiters to front load this narrative about labor shortage, why all the stories that emerged around that time focused on similarly bleeding hearts stories about mom-and-pop landlords that did not reflect the actual forces at work, and a recent deadline on Labor Day weekend just came and went, that depending on what number you use, anywhere between 7.5 to 9.3 million people were thrown off unemployment insurance, and the media cover for that was cemented over months by anti-unemployment insurance, labor shortage narratives just as that same weekend, according to Goldman Sachs, 3.5 million Americans now face eviction because of the rent moratorium expired and the $45 billion the government allegedly set aside for states to give to renters to pay back rent has not been distributed. Less than 2 percent of it has been distributed. That narrative just the same was cemented by a similarly curated story about who the affected party was, from these eviction moratoriums, that was not representative of reality, which we’re going to get into, and this was magnified and amplified during the spring of 2021, when those business interests began planting and feeding the stories to the media, but they of course go back several decades.
Nima: So, the term “mom-and-pop landlord’’ actually began to appear in news media around the 1970s primarily in quotes from policymakers and business owners. One of the earliest examples of this is from a quote in a 1973 article from the Palm Beach Post about then new requirements for landlords, a few years after the label “mom and pop” to denote a small business owner, first began appearing in The New York Times and other outlets in the mid-to-late ’60s. So here’s an excerpt of this Palm Beach Post article from 1973 quoting Phil Phillips, a legal aide to the House Judiciary Committee, quote:
Phillips said the maintenance obligations won’t be much of a burden on most apartment landlords because they couldn’t rent units if they didn’t keep them in good repair. ‘Most affected will be slum lords, low-income landlords and the small mom-and-pop type landlord with only a few units to rent,’ Phillips said.
In 1977, Vermont’s Republican Lieutenant Governor T. Garry Buckley told a landlords’ organization this, quote:
‘Mom and Pop landlords should be able to choose a tenant regardless of race or religion. If a whole bunch of little old Methodist ladies want to have a Methodist ladies’ home together and they choose not to have people of any other religion live there, they have a right to do that,’ he said. ‘That’s what makes America beautiful.’
Adam: The use of mom-and-pop landlords to explicitly argue against rent control dates back to the late ’70s. One example can be found in the Los Angeles Times, shortly before the passage of Los Angeles’s 1979 rent stabilization ordinance. The ordinance applied rent-control regulations to nearly all multi-family rental units built before October 1, 1978, including apartments, duplexes, mobile homes, and long-term boarding houses and hotels. The piece, which was a glowing profile of Wes Wellman, an accountant who’d founded a realty and property management firm, relays Wellman’s thoughts on the rent-control legislation before it passed. This is from September 1978 in anticipation of the new regulations. The headline said, quote, “Accountant Doesn’t Forget His Principles. Continuity, Professionalism Stressed by West Side Broker.” One excerpt reads, quote:
Rent control will result in fewer ‘mom and pop’ landlords and more ownership by big concerns, he believes. Needless to say, he is opposed to rent control in any form.
The adverse reaction to the ordinance has continued, as did the mom and pop anti-rent-control pieces.” LA Times Real Estate section, October 19, 1980 that said, quote, “Mom and Pop Landlords Trapped by Rent Control.” That would go on to detail various small landlords in LA whose livelihoods were upended by the rent control laws.
Nima: They’re trapped. They’re trapped, Adam.
Adam: No choice. Let’s just say that. I think the McNamara brothers did everyone a service in 1910. You can look that one up. A 1983 city council election in Iowa City, Iowa had rent control on the ballot, and candidate Larry Baker used small landlords as a tool of opposition. The Iowa City Press-Citizen, this is 1983, quote:
Next Tuesday voters will cast their ballots on the proposed ‘Fair Rent Ordinance,’ which the current council has rejected. The ordinance would freeze rents until a council-appointed board set a ‘fair rate of return,’ which would be determined by rental income, mortgage payments and other factors.
LARRY BAKER: ‘The (rent control) ordinance is unworkable,’ Baker says.
One basic flaw, he says, is that it would exact more control over small landlords than large property owners such as limited partnerships.
‘Mom and Pop’ landlords bought their buildings longer ago, when interest rates were lower. So most have more equity built up. The ordinance would thus take a greater share of their profits, Baker says.
We saw this again in the New York Daily News under similar rent control ordinances, from June 1985, headline reads, quote, “‘Mom & pop’ landlords. Even the tenants like them.” And it was a story about the landlords who get along with their tenants. It read, quote:
Winifred Dozier owns the Dorrence Brooks apartment house in Harlem. Tenants say the 56-year-old building, named after the first black soldier killed in World War I, is well-maintained and a pleasant place to live.
But Dozier has a problem: she can’t make a living on the building because of the city’s rent regulations. Seventeen of her tenants are rent controlled and the rest are stabilized.
It would go on to say, quote:
The New York State Tenant and Neighborhood Coalition, using the same report, estimates that 12% of landlords in the city own 71% of the apartments.
So therefore they’re not.
Nima: Right. So, you know, all of these articles are basically doing the same thing, right? They’re doing this thing where they’re using the mom-and-pop as the stand-in for who is going to be hurt by new pro-tenant regulations and policies, right? But the vast majority of those who will benefit without these protections are not going to be the mom-and-pops who make up, again, a tiny, tiny percentage of who actually owns properties, but the larger corporate owners of property, and at the same time, it sets up — just like the small business owner line that is used all the time — at the same time, the mom-and-pop landlords, even the definition of what that means is so skewed, right, Adam? So, you’re talking about people who can own sometimes up to 10 properties with multiple apartment units in each, right? So, when does a mom-and-pop ownership become something other than just the kind of thing you have on the side and become a major vector of income, where actually your interest in not having tenant protections is then incumbent on you making more income, which then kind of blurs the line there between the trusts and the corporations and the so called mom-and-pop.
Adam: Well, that’s the idea. It’s, again, it’s the small business thing. You blur the classic lines of — it’s like middle class, you know, we did a whole episode on that — these concepts exist to blur the lines of class conflict. Because on some level, people can be like, yeah, an older black woman in Harlem who inherited her house from her dad who lived there back when it was ghetto, can they rent to some hipster white asshole? And you’re like, yeah, fuck it, gouge him who cares, right? That seems fine to me. But that is so very much the exception, and the fact that those narratives, again, become prominent is such an obvious bait-and-switch because the actual policies, for the most part, aren’t going to benefit people who meet that profile.
Nima: Exactly, and so this continued in the press throughout the ’80s. For example, back to the Los Angeles Times, this is from July 1988, the headline, “Rent Control Is Missing Its Target, Helping Neither the Needy Nor Housing.” The article says this, quote:
The first major review of Los Angeles rent-control ordinances in four years was submitted to the City Council on June 24, in preparation for the first of a number of scheduled hearings on Friday. While the basic premise of the study — ‘It ain’t broke… don’t fix it… ‘ — was not unexpected, facts and figures drawn from the study raise disturbing questions regarding rent control as an effective means of subsidizing affordable housing for low-income groups.
A careful reading of the review indicates what most landlords have known for some time: Rent control does not per se benefit the needy for whom it was intended. The ordinances have instead created a class of unintended beneficiaries, whereby one segment of the private sector (landlords) has been singled out to subsidize another (renters who are not truly needy).
Should small-building owners, the ‘mom and pop’ landlords who make up the bulk of the ownership of rent-controlled units, according to the survey, be asked to continue to shoulder this burden alone?
Adam: Yeah, and of course, the thing is that there’s no value creation. Now, of course, a lot of real estate owners, especially individuals, have mortgages, they, you know, in some senses, they don’t even own the property, the bank owns the property, right? Of course, they build up equity, and then they eventually own it, but I guess they’re parasites, they don’t really do anything, I mean, maybe they fix a dishwasher. That’s something, you know, there’s some initial investment of upkeep, I guess, but ultimately, it’s not like you’re building a faster bullet train or a longer lasting light bulb or curing cancer. It’s something that is commodified, that has no inherent reason to be commodified.
Nima: Now, incidentally, the author of that particular LA Times piece was Michael Koss, the then president of the board of the Apartment Association of Greater Los Angeles. So clearly, there are certain interests. Now what’s interesting about that article, which again, is from 1988, is that you think about what that was saying, right? Who is really affected by certain regulations, by certain government policies, and you can draw a straight line between that article in 1988 and an article from February 15, 2021 in Forbes, and part of the Forbes article says this, quote, “Mom-and-pop Landlords Earn Less Than Owners of Large Buildings and Single-family Homes.”
Goes on to say this:
Mom-and-pop landlords own approximately 77% of small building units, which are often more affordable than single-family rental homes or large apartment complexes. These small investors and their tenants are likely to be more vulnerable to economic downturns, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute.
Many of these small investors (around 34%) are retired, and their rental units are their only source of income, which imperils them if they can’t collect rent or receive federal aid.
Mom-and-pop landlords also earn around 17% less than owners of single-family homes or large complexes and have the largest share of Black (15%) and Hispanic (13%) owners.
‘Covid-19 has disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic households, and their greater representation both as tenants and landlords in two-to-four-unit buildings may further exacerbate wealth inequality if no action is taken to protect two-to-four-unit landlords from losing their property because of the decline in rental income,’ a report by the Urban Institute states.
So you can see that it’s not just using the mom-and-pop as a stand-in for real estate interests that we need to protect over tenant interests, but statistics are then used, right, Adam, to say these mom-and-pop landlords are more often landlords of color, are often providing houses to lower-income people in smaller rental properties, two to four unit houses. So you kind of add on all of these layers of ‘Oh, we’re supposed to sympathize with the landlord because they’re providing a service to the neediest and therefore we need to provide for them.’
Adam: Right. But again, this whole thing shouldn’t be commodified in the first place. I mean, slumlords provide to the neediest. That’s always been true. That was true during the tenements in the Lower East Side, okay, well, what does that exactly mean? They’re not running a fucking charity operation.
Nima: Exactly. And so again, in that 1988 LA Times article, it talks about one group, the landlords, subsidizing housing for another group, those who are not truly needy. And again, fast forward to this article in Forbes, and you have a quote:
Stephanie Friese, attorney at law firm Chamberlain Hrdlicka in Atlanta, is representing a landlord whose rental property is his sole source of income and has not been paid in six months.
Friese says… ‘Some counties have just willy nilly decided not to schedule evictions. What these orders are doing is taking property without compensation. I don’t think it’s constitutional… It’s indentured servitude to have to uphold your responsibilities as a landlord while people can live there for free.’
Adam: So let’s talk about the definition of small landlord because there’s an actual legal concept, what a small landlord is, albeit one the media routinely ignores for the purposes of whatever narrative they need. Because again, when you start with one, maybe even two, I think most people can think ‘Okay, well, this is not necessarily a huge cash generator,’ although it can be a little bit. Again, these aren’t these are not charities, these are not nonprofits people are running. But the definition gets a little slippery. So in New York, there’s a legal definition, which is 10 units or fewer. The City of Los Angeles, the mom-and-pop landlord definition is anyone who has fewer than five. Washington D.C. it’s, quote, “Typically defined as owners with less than 20 units.” So that’s obviously much different. Politico in a recent bleeding heart article from last month, with the headline, quote, “suffering landlords are Washington’s new eviction problem,” had this rather slippery definition sort of more broadly for the whole country saying, quote: “The distress is acute for so-called mom-and-pop landlords — those who own fewer than 10 properties, which typically have between one and four units.” So in Politico’s reasoning, you can own 36 units, you can manage 36 units over 10 properties, and that qualifies you as a quote-unquote “small landlord.” I mean, Nima, correct me if I’m wrong here, but 36 units, that’s a lot of units.
Nima: That’s a lot of monthly rent checks that you’re trying to pull in, right?
Adam: Yeah, and again, this slippery definition is kind of the point, right?
Nima: But the perception if you were to, kind of, you know, just hear about landlords through media stories, media profiles, the perception would be that the vast majority of those who rent homes, apartments, spaces to live and thrive, to other human beings are these small mom-and pop-landlords, yet a significant share of rental housing in big cities, and more generally, nationwide isn’t owned, of course, by down-on-their-luck grandmothers just trying to make ends meet, but rather by massive corporate entities. In 2019, for example, New York State’s tenant organizing groups and tenant advocates fought to establish stronger tenant protections within New York’s rent laws resulting in the Statewide Housing Security and Tenant Protection Act of 2019. The opposition’s response was to focus on the predicament of — who else? — the small landlord. The Real Estate Board of New York claimed that, quote:
Within 5 years, approximately 414,000 units could be financially distressed and won’t be able to afford any investment beyond basic maintenance, taxes, and utilities. Many of these buildings are owned by small landlords. This will create a burden for tenants of smaller landlords who will not be able to reinvest to maintain the quality of their properties. Without a mechanism to recoup capital improvements, owners will undertake less work and housing quality will deteriorate.
Yet those most affected, of course, by tenant protections, including rent control, for example, wouldn’t be these cash strapped individuals or mom-and-pop landlords. The organization JustFixNYC published a piece on the myth of the mom-and-pop landlord in New York in May 2020. Data engineer Sam Rabiyah found that, quote:
An average apartment registered with the city of New York belonged to a 21-property, 893-unit portfolio.
Landlords associated with over 20 buildings were responsible for more than half of all executed evictions in 2018.
Roughly half of all rent-controlled buildings were owned by landlords with 21 or more buildings in their portfolio.
Adam: And a similar structure exists in Los Angeles as researcher Alexander Ferrer, our guest on this episode, at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, otherwise known as SAJE, has reported: speculative investment vehicles own 67 percent of rental housing across the city. He wrote, quote:
… corporate vehicles own over 43% of all rental units in the City of Los Angeles today. Corporate landlords own, on average, over twelve times as many units as individual owners do, buildings that are over five times larger, and ten years newer on average than individual landlord’s buildings are.
Ferrer and SAJE also found that mom-and-pops own only about one-third of rental properties, and individual owners, as opposed to small companies, own less than a quarter. 75 percent of tenants, meanwhile, live in buildings owned by investment vehicles or large landlords.
Nima: Now looking nationwide, according to the 2015 Rental Housing Finance Survey conducted by the US Census Bureau, there were nearly 48.5 million rental units in the United States, 43.9 million of which were occupied, as of 2015. The report found this, quote:
About 22.7 million units in 16.7 million properties were owned by individual investors who owned single-family and duplex rental homes, or ‘mom and pop’ landlords.
The remaining 25.8 million units — that is, 53%, a majority — were owned by businesses, primarily limited partnerships, limited liability companies, and limited liability partnerships.
The report also estimated that individual owners controlled less than 30% of units in buildings with five to 49 units.
Now, according to Pew Research, large “multi-family” units are predominantly owned by companies; about 70 percent of properties with 25 or more units are owned by for-profit businesses.
Now, again, according to the Census Bureau, back in the year in 2000, individuals owned about 55 percent of the country’s rental stock, but by 2018, that share had fallen to 40 percent, and a plurality was owned by corporate vehicles for the first time in history. Now, to examine why, we can start with the proliferation of Real Estate Investment Trusts, otherwise known as REITs — essentially mutual funds for real estate investment — and Limited Liability Companies, again, LLCs.
Now, between 1990 and mid-1997, 114 new REITs were created. By the end of 1997, the equity REIT market valuation topped $135 billion, up from $5.6 billion just seven years earlier. This happened after the IRS issued loosened REIT tax policies to exempt these REITs from corporate taxation.
Similarly, in 1988, the IRS issued a ruling that exempted LLCs from corporate taxation, allowing them to “pass through” gains and losses to be taxed as regular income for their owners. These looser regulations resulted in the proliferation of LLCs throughout the country, as more and more states permitted their formation; by 1996, all 50 states in the US recognized LLCs.
Adam: According to University of Alabama law professor Susan Pace Hamill, quote:
Starting in 1991, the number of LLC filings substantially increased each year, with the number of LLCs well into six figures by 1995. By the close of the twentieth century and throughout the early years of the twenty-first century, it became obvious that the LLC had taken its place in the mainstream alongside the corporation and the various types of partnership forms, typically in the business areas of finance, insurance, real estate, rental and leasing as well as the professional and business service sectors.
Corporate ownership of rental housing continued to metastasize in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. From 2007 to 2011, 4.7 million households lost homes to foreclosure, and a million more to short sale. Private-equity firms, notoriously, capitalized on the crisis and took ownership of an astonishing number of homes.
So basically, you have the increased instrumentalization and financialization of homeownership — which I know a lot of people who lived through the housing crisis know this all too well, we don’t need to re-litigate that — and this by and large is the face of real estate, for the most part, because even if you accept the very generous and very slippery definition of small landlords, the number is roughly 70, 75 percent of actual units, your rent check goes to either some faceless LLC, some investment instrument or a real estate developer. But if you lower that number to actual small landlords, let’s say those with more than two, the number is much greater. And so all the people we just read, we’ll get into a little more later, all the large faceless real estate developers, all the large apartment complexes, you’ll be surprised are not the people who are shoved in front of a camera at CNN to represent those who are being affected by eviction moratoriums.
Nima: Exactly, and therefore this overrepresentation of the so-called “mom-and-pop landlord,” is a clear effort on the part of business interests, real estate and anti-regulation activists to dismantle tenant protections. This, of course, in our media certainly continues unabated. So during the pandemic, or at least the apex of when it was taken seriously, news media published a rash of articles about the so-called precarious state that these renter protections like eviction moratorium would leave these so-called “mom-and-pop landlords” in. Many of the articles featured landlords of color who were teetering on the edge of financial ruin. For instance, in February 2021, an article in The City was headlined, “NYC’s Small Landlords of Color Among Those Battling for Survival Amid Rent Moratorium.”
Adam: Yeah, in April of 2021, the LA Times ran the headline, “Landlords are waiting for rent payments — and some can’t hold on much longer.” It focused, again, on a Black Los Angeles landlord named Beverly Rowe to paint the picture of small suffering landlords as being disproportionately people of color. Here’s an excerpt, quote:
For some, losing business properties risks a backslide from the economic mobility that getting into the housing market once promised — a particularly painful development for Black Americans whom the government once barred from access to homeownership.
Pretty cynical framing there.
Nima: Right. So basically, if you don’t allow people to get evicted, you’re racist now.
Adam: Basically, yeah. Time magazine in June of 2020, “How Eviction Moratoriums Are Hurting Small Landlords — and Why That’s Bad for the Future of Affordable Housing.” This article presents small landlords as being abandoned by the government unlike tenants, who I guess are living high on the hog of rent eviction moratorium, or back pay money that never actually went out anywhere. And in fact, in Los Angeles, none has gone out. It features multiple landlords focusing primarily on Black landlords in Los Angeles. One excerpt wrote, quote:
‘I don’t understand how they can come up with all of this financial aid for the homeless, for renters, for agriculture, for big business, for airplanes,’ says Arceneaux, who is a black member of the Coalition of Small Rental Property Owners, a California-based advocacy group that mostly represents black and Latinx landlords. ‘And they’re forgetting about the small mom-and-pop people that have two units or four units and serve such a great need in the community.’
The article would go on to say:
The mom-and-pop landlords who are able to draw on their own savings to make it through the eviction moratoriums imposed by their local governments may struggle to recoup their losses when it’s all over.
The article obscures the fact that, again, two-thirds of housing in Los Angeles is owned by speculative investment vehicles, which of course is not mentioned in the article. So a more egregious example of this, again, was a CNN video that talked about suffering landlords, that found an African American woman to focus on for their face of what the landlord was put upon by their greedy tenants looks like.
[Begin CNN Clip]
Patricia Bowman: This has been the biggest trial of my life.
Natasha Chen: Patricia Bowman says she hasn’t received rent from her tenant in nearly a year.
Patricia Bowman: I saw my savings dwindle down, you know, month by month by month.
Natasha Chen: Small independent investors like Bowman own about 16.5 million single family rental properties in the US, and a rough estimate from HUD suggests some 1.3 million of those mom-and-pop owners are now struggling to pay their mortgages due to missed rental payments. With the CDC moratorium on evictions during the pandemic, Bowman was stuck, unable to evict the tenant but she finally got a court hearing in early February.
Judge: Ms. Bowman judgment is in your favor for $7,650 plus court costs.
Natasha Chen: A judge in DeKalb County, Georgia did order the tenant out in seven days with one catch.
Patricia Bowman: After the writ has been filed, will the marshals still come out to actually do the eviction?
Judge: They will once the moratorium has been lifted by the CDC.
Natasha Chen: Biden’s American Rescue Plan, now passed by the House, would extend the moratorium until the end of September. Her tenant hasn’t left since the judge ordered him out, and this means he could stay in her house for another six months even if he continues to not pay rent.
Patricia Bowman: This has been like a perfect storm of events that have happened, you know, and where I feel like now that, you know, I am in jeopardy of losing my own residence.
[End CNN Clip]
Adam: So yeah, but of course there’s also mortgage moratoriums as well for people who own mortgages, and there are rent supplements being handed out by states, they’ve done a poor job doing that, but this is a great example. The Washington Post from August 10, 2021 headline, “With tenants who won’t pay or leave, small landlords face struggles of their own.” The image they used had a Hispanic woman representing the landlord, CNN sought an African American woman as the landlord. Now, again, much like the mysterious torrent of minority-owned businesses that were the face of cutting unemployment insurance, here we have a torrent of minority landlords, who again, are a small percentage of actual landlords, it’s faceless, white, 90-year-olds on life support who have five houses in Colorado, those people aren’t the ones we center, of course, and the reason is because these reporters are not going door to door knocking on people’s doors asking ‘Are you a landlord? We’re doing stories on landlords.’ How do they get in contact with these landlords, Nima?
Nima: I think they’re pitched. I think they’re pitched to them.
Adam: They are pitched to them by real estate lobbying groups — I believe some people call them landlord advocacy, that’s my favorite, advocacy, they’re advocating for landlords — these are pitched to them because they’re sympathetic characters, and the reporters want a sympathetic character. Nobody wants Mr. Burns, you know, you don’t want some crusty, old, greedy capitalist you have to find the most sympathetic.
Nima: Right, because then you might actually support eviction moratoriums and rent control.
Adam: Yeah, that’s not really a story. So how do you sort of frame them? Here you have a story and I’m watching this with my jaws on the floor where we are, they are priming the audience to root for the eviction of someone during a pandemic, where we just cut unemployment insurance for 9.3 million people. I mean, the sort of moral juggling network that’s required to get you to care, I mean they literally get you sitting there going, ‘Yeah, fuck this degenerate, get them out of there.’ But, you know, the fundamental problem here is that these are not representative of the broader problem, and when you have story after story over the spring and summer of this year, where the average media consumer comes away thinking that the average landlord is a mom-and-pop who owns two units, and they’re minorities, and they’re women, and that’s just not the case, and so this builds up the political cover for what we ended up seeing, which is Democrats, the White House specifically, and of course, Republicans have been trying to get rid of this for months, basically rolling over and saying, ‘We’re gonna let the eviction moratorium expire, it’s sort of time has come, it’s over,’ just like with unemployment insurance, and that politically would not be as feasible if we didn’t have this constant stream of bleeding heart, totally misrepresentative, totally cherry-picked, totally non-representative depictions of the so-called mom-and-pop landlords.
Nima: Well, yeah, and also you can see, especially in that CNN clip, the close connection, as we’ve discussed before on Citations Needed, with the real estate industry and policing, right? Who’s going to enforce the evictions? And so you kind of get this perfect storm, especially during this pandemic, and in the wake of the largest civil rights and racial justice uprisings in half a century, you have this media focus not just on real estate interests, on owners of property, rather than renters, rather than people who need housing, as well as positive views of the enforcers of evictions, right, to protect the mom-and-pop.
Adam: Yeah, and if you oppose evicting these deadbeats, you’re racist, basically. I mean, that’s effectively what they’re saying.
Nima: Which is why, you know, every mom-and-pop landlord is a person of color in these stories when of course the actual demographics nationwide do not bear that out.
Adam: No. They look like me. Look like me, they do not look, they do not look like minorities, they look like guys named Adam Johnson.
Nima: (Laughs.) To discuss this more, we’re going to be joined by Alexander Ferrer, Policy & Research Analyst at SAJE, Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, a Los Angeles-based organization focused on tenant rights, healthy housing, and equitable development. He’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Alexander Ferrer, Policy & Research Analyst for Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, or SAFE. Alex, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Alexander Ferrer: Super glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Adam: So, we want to sort of start off by doing what we frequently do in the show, which is kind of lay out the terms of the debate because similar to how US media centers the small business when pushing for pro-business legislation that disproportionately benefits Fortune 500 companies, the mom-and-pop landlord has been the face of media campaigns of late either deliberately, or not, to end eviction moratoriums, and to oppose other rent control policy initiatives and other pro-tenant political movements. But as your research documents so adequately, this romantic vision of the small landlord doesn’t really align with the data, and the disproportionate coverage of the mom-and-pop landlords, such that it is, is not really representative of reality in terms of how real estate actually works. So let’s sort of define what a mom-and-pop landlord is, we discussed earlier in the show that there are varying definitions — New York has 10 units, LA sometimes, I think, five, other places have as high as 20 — again, I’m trying to imagine someone running 20 buildings, calling themselves mom-and-pop — but lay out the sort of term, the definition of the term. You can start with where you are in Los Angeles, and then kind of talk about the ways in which this distinction gets kind of slippery when you talk about the public relations efforts to make it look like the totality of landlords are first generation, immigrant, full time nurses who just gave their kidney to an orphan. Let’s start off talking about what the definition is and what the reality is.
Alexander Ferrer: All right. So I think there is more or less no consensus at all as to what the definition of a mom-and-pop landlord is.
Adam: That’s always good when a term has no definition. It worked out on the War on Terror, too. So go ahead.
Alexander Ferrer: Yeah, exactly. So, local regulators are kind of writing different definitions into policy when they usually carve out exemptions for mom-and-pop landlords from various tenant protections. So in Los Angeles, for example, the definition of a mom-and-pop landlord is a landlord with four or less rental units, and a single family house that is presumably owner occupied, and that’s in Los Angeles municipal code, and that is used for kind of a variety of exemptions from tenant protections, subsidized rates for paying tenants relocation, a couple things of that nature, and so in our research, because of course, we’re Los Angeles based, that’s the definition that we tend to use. I mean, even in California, at the statewide level, there have been different definitions that have been proposed in legislation. Again, mostly in terms of exemptions, carving smaller landlords out of protections, and certainly nationally, there’s not a lot of consensus at all. So it is super political, and very subjective determination of what a mom-and-pop is, and so we try to at least fix it in our work to the definition that the city uses.
Adam: So just as a point of reference, when the Los Angeles Times does a profile, as they did on April 5, 2021, about mom-and-pop landlords, and they feature someone who owns two 20 unit buildings, that would not in any way be a mom-and-pop landlord by any objective definition.
Alexander Ferrer: Well, certainly not by the definition that the City of Los Angeles has put into law.
Adam: Okay, so I’m gonna clarify because it seems like when they’re sort of fishing for a sympathetic story, it goes from two units, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that makes sense,’ to like, what is basically 40 units, which I don’t know, that sounds like a landlord.
Nima: Right. But at the same time, it actually makes me think about how the term “mom-and-pop” is really used in that way, and even if that term isn’t employed in that way, having a sympathetic central character to your news report, to your personal profile of a local landlord, you know, it tends to be a singular person, right? It’s not like, ‘Oh, we spoke to the answering machine of a building manager,’ right? So, Alex, in your research, what have you found in terms of how this term is used, misused, sometimes I would say, by the press weaponized, to really kind of push the ownership side, the landlord side of debates on say, public policy, like extending eviction moratorium during a global pandemic and a economic crisis to kind of push the landlords line as opposed to a pro-tenant line.
Alexander Ferrer: Yeah, I think one of the ways that it’s accomplished is through alighting various categories of landlord into each other. So there’s individual landlords versus landlords who are using a form of investment vehicle, say like an LLC, or something of that kind. There’s also landlords who are going to use other things like a family trust, and within each of these categories, there is massive variation in the sizes of the landlords, for example, some of the largest landlords in the city of Los Angeles are actually these family trusts. Donald Sterling Family Trust, for example, is one of the largest landlords in Los Angeles.
Adam: A noted civil rights activist.
Alexander Ferrer: Exactly, and so, you know, sometimes people will talk about, ‘We’re only interested in corporate landlords or LLC landlords,’ but those landlords sometimes own fewer buildings, then the landlord that is just an individual, dentist or doctor or somebody who owns, you know, hundreds of properties and thousands of units, and so, it’s kind of, I think, hard for people to wrap their head around the fact that an individual can be a big landlord also, is one point. So, in looking at somebody with two buildings and 40 units, yeah, that’s just a person, but also that’s tens of thousands of dollars of monthly rental revenue that they’re earning on that.
Nima: Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s like 80 monthly rent checks coming in.
Alexander Ferrer: Yeah.
Adam: The question is sort of where is that line? I think some people even if they have a kind of doctrinaire Maoist view of the world and view anyone who owns property as being petty, bourgeois, in urgent need of liquidation, that they could look at someone who’s, again, maybe a nurse or a doctor or something who rents their bottom apartment, think, ‘Okay, well, that person doesn’t seem like a mustache-twirling villain,’ but then somewhere along that spectrum, things get blurred, which, of course, is the whole point of the episode, and much like “small business” is used as a kind of rhetorical bludgeon to promote legislation that the Koch brothers want, we have a similar feature with real estate. So, I want to sort of back up here because your study does a good job doing this and talk about, to the extent to which pro tenant legislation is gutted in cities like Los Angeles, and obviously, this applies to other cities, what are the actual forces that benefit here? You mentioned LLCs, you mentioned these corporate investment vehicles, let’s talk about this for a second, obviously, large real estate developers, which have tremendous incentive to make sure that we can get rid of inconvenient tenants, right, because sometimes they want to flip buildings, which is obviously its own problem. Talk about who actually benefits from anti-tenant legislation.
Alexander Ferrer: Sure. I think a lot of the time, the way in which the mom-and-pop discourse is mobilized is kind of to suggest that if you do anything to constrain the profit-making ability or legal capacity of landlords to evict or make any effort to hold landlords accountable for poor conditions or harassing their tenants, that those regulations will fall harder on mom-and-pop landlords, and then what that will lead to is these landlords selling out to bigger landlords, and we don’t want bigger landlords, the kind of rationale of that line of argument. In the report for SAJE, we talk about large landlords and their misbehavior, but certainly small landlords can absolutely be just as bad. So, I think on its face, this is not our very helpful line of argumentation for tenants, certainly and all landlords share in the spoils of these gutted protections, and I don’t think that there’s really a lot of compelling reason to believe that small landlords would be more burdened by sort of basic tenants rights.
Adam: Your study does show, while that’s true, your study does show that eviction rates are higher with corporate landlords. Is that correct?
Alexander Ferrer: Yeah.
Adam: But it’s not a lot. It’s like 8 percent or something.
Alexander Ferrer: Right. In our research, we kind of review the scholarly literature on large landlords and corporate landlords and eviction filings, and so there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests that the largest landlords, and particularly landlords who are both large and corporate, are engaging in the strategies of, particularly one strategy of interest called serial filing, where landlords will basically use eviction as a tool of debt collection, kind of enroll the courts into collecting on their rent by filing for eviction at the first possible opportunity, and that is a strategy that is much more common, it seems, in the literature with large landlords than small landlords.
Nima: So, something that we talk about a lot on the show, of course, is who was presented as sympathetic in the press, you know, and also, of course, political speech, but this kind of storytelling aspect, and the mom-and-pop is a central tenet of this kind of real estate story, and especially of late during more recent housing crisis, and of course, during the past year and a half, during COVID. Now, molding these kind of sympathetic narratives around working class and poor landlords barely hanging on and just trying to collect rent from the tenants that they take such good care of, this kind of thing is essential to effectively muddy the waters of class conflict, and so we see this too with anti-homeless measures. So instead of Chambers of Commerce and billionaire funders backing anti-homeless laws, you know, we don’t hear about that, we get interviews with small shop owners, soccer moms trying to bring their kids to practice, and bus drivers who are having a hard time dealing with the unhoused in their neighborhood. So Alex, can you talk to us about how the housing crisis more broadly erases really the true forces behind and driving homelessness and consistently rising housing costs?
Alexander Ferrer: Yeah, I think absolutely the thing that’s driving rising housing costs and homelessness is the creation of a system in which people are dependent on the owners of property for a place to live, and landlords, as a class, have positioned themselves between an absolute human necessity and people who need it to live, and then reinforced by the legal system in doing that, and of course, you know, eviction is a really big part of that, and the single largest contributor to houselessness has been repeatedly demonstrated in the literature. There’s also just a step one issue, which is that even if every single unit was owned by a separate individual, yeah, there’d still be 10 times as many renters as landlords and why are we engaging in kind of revanchist and punitive policies that affect a huge number of people to the benefit of relatively small number of people who are already privileged by the ownership of property, certainly, they already own or rent another home, which, you know, tenants don’t, typically, and, of course, that’s also not the reality at all that every unit is owned by a separate landlord. In fact, the mom-and-pop landlord in Los Angeles only owns about, at the time of the report, we estimated 35 percent in terms of the size having four or less rental units, and then if you were an individual, on top of that, we estimated it’s only 20 percent of landlords, and so that’s a pretty small amount of landlords to be sacrificing the interests of tenants to protect.
Nima: What’s so kind of amazing here is when you put those numbers in that context, you then realize, the large majority of landlord focused stories in the media focus on what is clearly a minority by a lot, right? Max 35 percent, sometimes 20 percent, of who’s actually owning property, and yet, they are always centered in the stories and not the corporate ones, not the family trusts, et cetera.
Adam: I want to talk a bit about Prop 10, specifically, who sort of funds the campaign against it. I know they raised $77 million, I think a conservative estimate to various organizations that work to stop this rent control measure, funded primarily by Essex Properties, George Marcus, California Association of Realtors, Blackstone, Michael Hyde, Prometheus Real Estate Group, Geoffrey Palmer, et cetera. Not a lot of mom-and-pops there. I want to talk about the propositions to have some kind of rent control, those efforts that were behind them, the forces that are opposed to them, and where they sort of currently stand in LA, and I know that this is specific, just LA, but obviously there are lessons that can be extrapolated from that. So talk about those propositions and what happened with that.
Alexander Ferrer: Yeah, so I think the entities that you listed are kind of the usual suspects in killing California tenant protections. Interestingly, mom-and-pop landlords actually do kind of mobilize both political donations and their active participation to defeat these types of protections, particularly rent control, of course, usually through the landlord associations, like in Los Angeles, it’s called the Apartment Owners of Greater LA, is the landlord association here, so obviously, the outspending was massive, it was, I think, a three to one ratio of spending against a four on Prop 10. I also think that it’s interesting, because for both Prop 10 and Prop 21, the types of arguments that were advanced were not necessarily, ‘This is going to hurt landlords,’ because I think I think it’s pretty clear that that’s not the most politically winning strategy to take given, obviously, that there’s a huge amount of renters, and that people are not necessarily sympathetic to landlord interests, because most people are like, ‘This is the person that I send my rent to, and the rent is too high and the system is unjust,’ et cetera. I think what’s interesting is that in both of those campaigns, the opposition kind of focused on a couple things. One is just confusing people about what Prop 10 and Prop 21 were.
Adam: Yeah. It’s a classic prop move.
Alexander Ferrer: Absolutely. And so I think in some places, there were arguments being made against Prop 10, or Prop 21, saying, ‘This isn’t rent control, or the limit is too high on rent increases. This doesn’t really help tenants. There’s no specific protections for senior citizens.’ Of course, that’s all mostly totally nonsense in bad faith. Another line that was kind of interesting was phrasing it in the sense that this will actually end up hurting tenants by constraining the supply of housing and then leading to higher housing costs and ultimately more evictions of tenants. I think that is obviously always raised in opposition to rent control and is almost always categorically false given that the vast majority of rent control policies currently in place across the United States, certainly in California, are not price caps, they are just not rent ceilings, they are allowable, acceptable annual increase, and they’re more about stabilizing.
Adam: Right. Similar to New York.
Alexander Ferrer: Exactly, and so there’s very little evidence that these types of protections, especially given the exemptions of new units that are almost 100 percent across the board and adopted with these policies, there’s very little evidence that they do anything to depress the supply of rental housing.
Adam: Yeah, because it seems like for sure, especially over the last year, because I think the mom-and-pop thing really went into overdrive during the eviction moratorium because that was more relevant, and I mean, we’re talking every single major paper within roughly around the same month had the same kind of bleeding heart story, our suspicion we argued at the top of the show, is that some of these real estate interest groups, like you said, even the ones that are quote-unquote “mom-and-pop” backed and funded that these kind of found sympathetic cases and sort of spoon fed them to reporters, which of course, makes sense because it’s not like the reporters are just knocking on doors, going door to door looking for sympathetic landlords, they is obviously some kind of conduit similar to the job shortage, the ways in which, you know, the most sympathetic diner in Appleton, Wisconsin minority-owned was the face of why we needed to get rid of unemployment insurance, there’s, again, it’s hard to sort of put a face to these rapacious forces, you have to sort of find one. I want to talk about the current state of the housing crisis, because obviously, this leads into homelessness in California, and forgive us, this is our second California-focused episode in three episodes, I want to talk about there’s obviously a huge homeless crisis in California, we are told that that is not about housing costs, but that is, in fact, a lack of policing — that’s what we’re told from the usual recall bodeen, anti-Prop 47, Walgreen shoplifting crowd — I made the mistake of writing a piece about that in San Francisco Chronicle, and I never get email and I got email for weeks, people are crazy — I want to talk about how homelessness sort of feeds into this and how a lack of affordable housing creates this kind of feedback loop that fuels these right-wing forces and what organizations like yours are doing to correct it.
Alexander Ferrer: Yes, so SAJE is primarily a tenant organizing operation, and we have been really active in trying to pass and codify a permanent guaranteed right to a lawyer for tenants facing eviction in Los Angeles, and actually, the state legislature did just pass a bill to fund these rent council programs, they call it, and so we’re really focused on making sure more people don’t become unhoused, especially through eviction defense, because this is how most people become unhoused, and it is more or less impossible to to house everybody when there are thousands of more people being put out on the streets every year, and then we also focus a lot on advocacy for low income, permanently supportive, affordable, social housing that would be created with the intent of getting people off the streets and into permanent housing, and I think there’s overwhelming evidence that you can’t really solve any of the attendant social problems associated with houselessness without putting somebody in a house first.
Adam: Amazing how that works.
Alexander Ferrer: Yeah, and there’s overwhelming evidence that housing first works, and we’ve just really kind of given up before ever trying it in a way.
Adam: Yeah, it’s the only social problem that is taught, you know, if I am toilet paper-less, or hot dog-less, or carless, the solution is to give me toilet paper, hot dog and a car, but with housing, it’s this total abstraction for which we’re just plugging away at the solution. We don’t know the answer. We’re working on it though, we’re gonna keep tweaking the levers of capital. Sorry, I just had to throw that in there. I was getting angry.
Alexander Ferrer: I mean, I think you’re absolutely right, and there’s a really compelling argument to be made that just letting the housing market sort itself out and seeing where chips may fall is a situation which is inherently going to reproduce houselessness and eviction and displacement, and we need more interventionist measures to really resolve any of these problems and adopting the changes that we need is made harder and harder by, as you mentioned, kind of the reactionary backlash to houselessness that certainly we’re facing in Los Angeles, where our political environment is extremely hostile to the interests of unhoused people.
Adam: You have a Dirty Harry County Sheriff situation going on, right?
Alexander Ferrer: Yeah.
Adam: You want to talk about that for a second? I feel like a lot of our listeners would need to know what’s going on, there’s kind of a political standoff there, especially over Venice Beach, you want to talk about that for just a minute?
Alexander Ferrer: Essentially, the sheriff has kind of been, I guess you can’t really call the sheriff a vigilante because they are, you know, theoretically —
Nima: Because it’s a job that they have.
Adam: He was going a little bit off of his jurisdiction, right? Wasn’t that the issue? That’s why I used the Dirty Harry analogy, but yeah.
Alexander Ferrer: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, I think that the sheriff has like, I don’t know exactly what the jurisdictional issue is with the sheriff versus LAPD within city boundaries, but certainly the local council member was not being informed of the sweeps that were happening in Venice Beach. Also there is another council member kind of using the situation to grandstand, and all this was kind of happening without the the representatives from that area asking for it, and the representative for Venice Beach is one of the most sympathetic representatives in Los Angeles City Council towards unhoused people, and so essentially, the the sheriff has been coordinating these sweeps within this district in defiance of the elected representative.
Nima: So, Alex, before we let you go, you’ve been talking a bit about what SAJE has been up to in terms of your organizing work and work with tenants. What else do you have going on, is there research that we should be looking forward to, what do you have on your plate moving forward, and maybe how can folks learn more about SAJE and get involved?
Alexander Ferrer: So you can find SAJE at www.saje.net, we have actually been putting out a series of reports on the housing crisis, of course, and also some reports on other issues that are relevant to low income tenants in Los Angeles, low income tenants and workers in Los Angeles, and SAJE also has a tenant clinic that kind of deals with the immediate needs of tenants facing eviction or other kinds of terrible housing situations, and that work is, you know, eternal and ongoing and intensified by the pandemic, of course, and we continue to research on these issues. SAJE is continuing to do this research, including with partners in the state of California, at the statewide level, there are many tenant organizations as well, and I am in graduate school doing the same research more or less. So all this work is continuing, certainly.
Nima: Well, it’s incredibly illuminating. So thanks for all the work that you’ve been doing. We’ve been speaking with Alex Ferrer, Policy and Research Analyst at SAJE, that’s Strategic Actions for a Just Economy. Again, Alex, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Alexander Ferrer: Thank you so much for having me and giving a platform to these issues.
Adam: Yeah, I mean, look, I mean, of course, these industries are going to put their particular spin on it, they’re going to try to use the face of minority and small mom-and-pop grandmas as the face of real estate. Again, if there was a, you know, an effort to de-monetize Patreon podcasters we would find the most sympathetic person and put them, say ‘This person is going to starve to death,’ you wouldn’t put me out there, right? Because that would be disgusting.
Nima: I would put you out there. You have a young child, Adam.
Adam: That’s true. I have a young child now, I’m sympathetic.
Adam: But you know what I mean? So, you sort of see this story of a story of a story and you start to notice a pattern you’re like, well, that’s man, boy, you know, I didn’t realize that landlords were the Rainbow Coalition. That seems odd.
Nima: How is every single landlord this kindly, just kind of happened to land a property through the hard work of their ancestors, and they’re just trying to hold on to it?
Adam: They use that cynical, Republicans do this thing. It’s the kind of, it’s about generational wealth and building up generational wealth, and, if you create tenant laws you restrict Black wealth, and it’s like, yeah, in very minor cases, and there’s got to be better ways to solve that then to have these carte blanche sunsetting of eviction moratorium, right? If your concern is really minority owned small mom-and-pop, then say like, ‘Okay, well, it’s a minority owned unit that’s less than two units, they’re exempt.’ It’s like, okay, fine. Sure. But of course, they’re not arguing that.
Nima: No, of course not, and certainly, the solution for closing the racial wealth gap in the United States, the legacy of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation and redlining, is certainly not evictions and no rent stabilization.
Adam: Well, in these stories, they don’t, you know, guess what they never mention? They never mention the gender or race of the person being evicted, because they don’t want us to know that that’s almost certainly also a person of color, and also probably a woman. So again, this is all very curated in a very specific way, and after the 15th one, you’re like, okay, come on.
Nima: You’re like, ‘I think I’m onto what they’re doing.’
Adam: Well, it’s just —
Nima: And especially when it is couched in our current moment, still in an economic crisis, when so many people have been hurting this past, you know, year and a half, and certainly will continue, loss of jobs, and then you add in the potential for loss of housing, which should be a very basic human right, and you turn it into, ‘Oh, we need to protect this new class of sympathetic mom-and-pop,’ and so that is where our sympathies lie. We don’t think about who’s going to be left out on the street. We just think about who can’t pay their mortgage, will have to sell their just single property because they have this nightmare tenant and then we’re all like, ‘Oh, that would suck to have a shitty neighbor or a shitty tenant,’ and then we side with them and it’s really all in favor of cutting regulation and ensuring that sheriffs can fucking kick people out of houses.
Adam: I mean, you can see how effective this is because they achieve their goal: the eviction moratorium sunsetted with bipartisan support. Now, there are several Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, other progressive members of Congress, who are trying to bring it back, but that is likely to not succeed.
Nima: Right. So much of the harm has been done and this has been set up for decades and you still see it used today constantly. The small landlord, the mom-and-pop, small business owner always have the sympathy and we don’t think about the rights and the needs of the vast majority of the population, and who the lack of protection mostly serves, which are going to be corporate for-profit entities, not your grandmother who has a garden apartment to rent out to a college kid.
But that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you so much for listening everyone. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work, if you are to, through this mom-and-pop operation we call Citations Needed through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your help through Patreon is incredibly appreciated because we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, for listening, we’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, September 29, 2021.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.