Sunday, August 02, 2015
Is it wrong to give a break to those who might not need it, when others clearly do?
Let's say you own a two-family house and live in one of the apartments with your family. You've always rented the other unit to friends or family at below-market rates for the area. You're almost certain that these renters could afford to pay market rates based on their jobs and where they lived before moving into your house.
Now, let's say you've been reading regular reports about families in the area struggling to find affordable apartments. Then, you begin to cross paths with families in your own line of work who desperately want to live in your neighborhood because it's close to their children's schools, healthcare providers and other services they use.
Is it wrong to charge below-market rates to those who can afford to pay more when you know there are families out there in greater need?
A.L., a reader in Boston, posed this question to me recently. She and her spouse own a two-family house in the city. They rent out a two-bedroom apartment to work acquaintances for about $250 less a month than what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development lists as the averagefair market rent for such a unit in Boston. Comparable apartments in their neighborhood rent for at least $600 more than the couple is charging.
It's not that A.L. frets about the fact that she and her spouse could get more money for the apartment. Given that the mortgage is paid off, they receive more than enough to cover maintenance costs and pocket a nice profit.
A.L. mentioned that she'd read a new report from Northeastern University, "The Greater Boston Housing Report Card2014-2015," which includes observations such as, "Working middle-class families are increasingly being priced out of the region's rental and homeowner market" and "Low-income households...are increasingly finding themselves with excessive housing cost burdens and the potential for homelessness."
Based on the report, A.L. wonders if she and her spouse should offer their apartment at an affordable rate to a family whose needs are greater than those of the friends and family to whom they've been renting.
A.L. and her spouse are fortunate that they're able to show generosity to family and friends by making the apartment available at below-market rates. It's also admirable that A.L. struggles with questions of fairness and displacement in the local housing market.
But just as A.L. has no ethical obligation to rent to friends and family at below-market rates, she also has no obligation to rent to another family whose needs might be greater. Either choice is admirable.
The right thing is for A.L. and her spouse to do is to continue to be conscientious landlords and come to an agreement about how much they want to charge in rent and whether or not to keep the rental in the family.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
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