What Minneapolis landlords have in common with Chinese peasants

In its heyday, Minneapolis Property-Rights Action Committee was an awesome group that brought political change to the city. It was widely seen as a conservative group, friendly to Republicans. Landlords, by definition, have money; or, at least, they have real estate that they rent to others.

Most people think landlords are politically significant only in relation to tenants. Stereotypically, they are out to cheat their tenants, getting as much money out of them as possible while doing little to maintain their properties. Therefore, we need tenants-rights advocacy groups, lawyers, and politicians to keep the landlords in check.

Some landlords may act rapaciously. Tenants do have their grievances. But essentially landlords are proprietors of businesses. They see their tenants not as adversaries but as customers. Their job is to keep the customers happy. They want the current tenants to stay in their buildings or, when vacancies occur, to fill the units fast. This assumes, of course, that the tenants are paying their rent and are not engaging in destructive behavior, either to the building or other people.

More often than not, in inner-city neighborhoods, it is the landlords who are victimized by tenants. The worst case is when gang members take over a building, selling drugs and terrorizing people. One would think that the owner of the building could call the police to arrest people engaged in criminal activity; but the system does not work that way. The city expects the landlord to take care of behavioral problems occurring on premises. People are looking to blame him for any and all problems related to his business.

The political culture of Minneapolis is fixed on the stereotype of the bad landlord. I once attended a dramatic performance sponsored by a “community group” which included skits of white landlords and Somali tenants interacting in various situations. A white-female landlord was lording it over the tenant in personally demeaning ways. This was how she got her kicks. The solution proposed here was to bring in a lawyer to be an advocate for the tenant. The skit was produced by a group founded by an attorney specializing in lawsuits against property owners.

The stereotype of the undeserving landlord appears in numerous newspaper ads or in radio commercials. “Fire your landlord” said one commercial that I heard in New Orleans. A newspaper ad that appeared in a local newspaper showed a woman’s high heel at a tenant’s throat. “Are you your landlord’s bitch?” the headline asked. Mortgage brokers and bankers wanting renters to switch to home ownership sponsor this kind of ad. In reality, the high-pressure lending industry (especially the makers of sub-prime loans) created a “housing bubble” that could not be sustained.

Lawyers, bankers, and politicians stand to profit from the negative stereotype of the unworthy landlord. They’re considered higher-class people than landlords. They’re higher on the food chain. It is in this context that Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee was founded. The purpose was not to agitate against tenants but against abusive government. The group’s first act was to file a class-action lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis for its selective use of inspections.

An alliance was formed between Charlie Disney, founder of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee, and Kirk Hill, long-time head of the Minnesota Tenants Union, in which both landlord and tenant condemned abusive city policies. While this eventually shook up the city’s political establishment, Twin Cities newspaper reporters and editors hardly took note. They were too busy reliving political struggles of past decades. Landlords, to the extent that they were politically significant, were persons who cheated tenants.

Now, how does this situation relate to China? “Landlords”, in a Chinese context, means primarily owners of land. Historically, they owned farm land worked by peasants in a sharecropping arrangement. The same word, in Minneapolis, means primarily owners of rental property. There is also, of course, a vast difference in wealth between owners of Minneapolis real estate and persons owning land in the interior of China. Most Chinese landowners are poor. The land is their source of livelihood. This they have in common with American owners of real estate.

We know that landlords have traditionally been a pariah group in China. Mao Zedong railed against landlords although his father was one. “Land reform”, in which the government confiscated properties belonging to landlords, was high on the agenda after the communists took power in 1949.

A school textbook in China tells how a greedy landlord tried to trick his tenants to do more work. They were supposed to begin work at daybreak, when the rooster crowed. This particular landlord figured that he could get more work out of people if he rooster crowed earlier. So he went to the chicken coop at 3 a.m. and poked the rooster with a stick. Unfortunately for him, a 5-year-old boy had to get up then to go to the bathroom. This boy caught the landlord in the act and told his parents. They and their fellow workers beat the living daylights out of the landlord. It’s a story which many Chinese people know.

By some weird dialectical twist of history, China has now become a bastion of the property-rights movement. By a vote of 2,826 to 37, members of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, China, passed a law on March 16, 2007, which gave owners of private property the same legal protection as property owned by the government. Besides private businesses, this law also protected the property rights of homeowners and of farmers.

The Chinese government was acknowledging the fact that the private sector now accounts for 65 per cent of China’s GNP. Private parties own 80 percent of the housing in urban areas. The dynamism of the private sector contrasts with the stagnating public sector. Meanwhile, small farmers have been under pressure to relinquish their land for development projects favored by corrupt government officials. It was therefore a step forward for human rights, clean government, and the rule of law that the People’s Congress recognized property rights as a fundamental right of the Chinese people.

A cable-television program about political unrest in 21st Century China, provided cultural context. It began with the observation that, within Confucian culture, there exists the idea of civic propriety. A top government official who lived a thousand years ago was famous for his sense of justice. If there were injustices in the community, people would appeal to him to have the situation corrected. And so, Chinese people had the idea that they could appeal to top government leaders and find someone like this just administrator who would help them. If the appeals failed at the local level, they came to Beijing.

Thousands, in fact, were doing that. There were so many protesters at government offices that the police had to turn them away. The politicians eventually saw the light and passed legislation to address their grievances. On the cable-television program, a commentator observed that this type of peasant protest was at the heart of the Chinese human-rights movement. It was essentially a property-rights movement.

So we see that the situations with Chinese peasants and Minneapolis landlords ar not so dissimilar as one would suppose. As China developed economically, an unholy alliance was formed between the business class and government officials. The developers wanted land. The farmers who worked this land were often unwilling to sell it. So the developers turned to government officials to take the land, proposing to compensate the peasant occupants at a rate far less than the land is worth. When the peasants appealed for justice, the police beat them. The more they complained, the harder they were beaten. In one case, a woman who complained was committed to a mental institution. But justice eventually prevailed.

I thought, my goodness, these peasants could be members of Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee. They’re raising the same type of issue that we raised. Here as there one finds collusion between big developers and local government officials. One finds government officials willing to “steal” from the small property owner if given a cut of the action. In China, the police stifle political protest by beatings. In Minneapolis, they don’t do that. But there is the same culture of corruption.

We think that our American system of government protects human rights. Our former Minneapolis mayor was one who made a name for himself in Congress by advancing a human-rights agenda. Yet, during his tenure as Mayor, the seeds were sown then for systematic violations of property rights under the guise of “innovative and creative ways of acquiring property” as a memo circulated among city department heads put it. Elsewhere on this website, one finds links to pages illustrating some of those ways.

What have property rights to do with human rights, one might ask? Property rights are a subset of human rights as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which the United Nations adopted in 1948. A committee headed by Eleanor Roosevelt drafted this document.

Article 17 of the Declaration reads:

“(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.”

In practice, a cleavage exists between big property owners and small property owners. The big property owners typically have political connections. And that’s where the rub lies. The big property owners use their political connections to compete unfairly with the small property owners or have their property taken away.

I think that, wherever in the world we may live, we small property owners who struggle against an axis running between government and big business (or the politically connected non-profits) are fighting the good fight. Our cause has relevance to today’s world. We are in the ranks of a truly progressive political movement extending half way around the earth. Others who call themselves progressive but do not recognize the justice of this cause are political romantics living in the past. Justice will win.

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