Adjacent to our home, my wife and I have three rental homes that we rent out seven months each year, during the summer and winter tourist seasons, and we also operate an eighteen-space mobile-home park. We find renters easily; everything is always full. We conform to federal, state, and local laws excluding many types of discrimination and try to be fair when selecting renters. Within these limits, we ask prospective tenants various questions and try to select applicants we think will not cause problems for us or our other tenants.
Sometimes, after a single person has rented and moved in, we find out he or she is living with an unmarried partner, either of the opposite sex or the same sex. The laws virtually rule out getting rid of such people. Still, we don’t like to rent to them, since we would like to keep a wholesome, family-type community.
How accepting can we be of such couples without compromising our own moral standards? Morally, should we be concerned with a tenant’s private lifestyle? Or should we simply try to ignore what people do privately?
Personally, I feel that as landlords we do not have the right to inquire into tenants’ private lives. Many nonmarried couples seem to see nothing wrong in their arrangements. Then, too, Scripture says, “Do not judge.” Sometimes young people seek our advice, since we are an older couple, whom many of them treat like grandparents. But I don’t like to offer advice unasked.
This question calls for derivation of norms for landlords. The objective of maintaining a wholesome, family-type community is legitimate. To achieve it, the landlords may take various reasonable measures, within the limits of the law, in accepting tenants and renting to them. Once tenants are accepted, the landlords should assume they are behaving in an upright way unless evidence to the contrary comes to their attention. If tenants misbehave in a way that probably violates the law and it seems appropriate to call the police, the landlords should do so. If tenants’ lawful behavior annoys others or is indecent, the landlords should require them, within the limits of the law, to behave better or leave. If tenants’ sole indiscretion is in speaking openly about their immoral relationships, the landlords should give them sound moral advice.
A landlord cannot prevent tenants from committing various sorts of sins in the space they occupy, and, in general, need not try. Of course, it plainly is wrong for a landlord intentionally to facilitate immorality in order to profit from it, as some motel owners do—for example, by renting rooms to prostitutes at special, hourly rates. But there is no question of that in your case. You like to keep a wholesome, family-type community. Within the limits of the law, you apparently try, as you should, to do everything possible to achieve that goal. Since you have no problem keeping everything full, you certainly should not compromise that policy to maximize profits, and, if you can afford it, you might even sacrifice some profit to further the policy—for example, by minimizing rent increases to desirable tenants, not least to large or less affluent families, in order to encourage them to stay with you or come back.
Someone might object that charging desirable tenants less than others would be unfair to the latter. However, if your regular charges are fair, you will do no injustice in sacrificing some of your profit to promote tenancy by people you prefer, assuming your preference has a morally acceptable basis, as seems the case.
I assume that in renting your units the laws you mention prevent you from discriminating on racial and ethnic grounds, which certainly would be unjust. If the laws permit you to favor senior citizens and families with children, however, you might find it helpful for your purposes to restrict occupancy to families with at least one member over a certain age or under a certain age—for example, over sixty or under sixteen—and I see no reason why such discrimination need be unjust.
You are likely to be better able to maintain a wholesome community if you fully inform prospective tenants of your standards of behavior and as a condition of renting to them obtain their commitment to observe those standards. It also may be helpful, if the law allows it, to require prospective tenants to list the names and ages of each person who will reside in the unit, and to prohibit unregistered overnight guests.
Once renters have been accepted, I do not think landlords, managers of hotels, and so forth have an obligation—or even a right—to ask who is going to bed with whom after the doors are closed and the shades drawn. You should assume that people are behaving in an upright way, as some surely are, unless you have evidence to the contrary. Tenants who are behaving improperly should not commit additional sins of immodesty and disrespect for others’ moral sensibilities. Unless they commit such additional sins, there is no evidence of impropriety and, therefore, no problem for you. But what if tenants do not behave discreetly?
In some cases, their behavior may violate the law; know what to watch for and call the police when appropriate, just as you would if you had reason to believe a tenant was committing robberies or other crimes. In other cases, behavior is not unlawful but annoys others and/or damages your property. Then you, as landlord, have a right and duty, within the law, to require such tenants to behave better or leave. Even when the law severely limits your options, you can and should ask undesirable tenants to leave or discourage them from returning.
In still other cases, the only indiscretion of tenants is to speak openly about their immoral relationships. If they speak thus to you, it is not invading their privacy to offer moral counsel. Indeed, doing that is a Christian duty that used to be called “fraternal correction,” but is better called “admonishing apparent sinners” (see LCL, 227–32). By fulfilling this duty, one can help others avoid hell. Nor should anyone be deterred from admonishing wrongdoers by Jesus’ warning not to judge, since it concerns others’ internal guilt rather than the objective immorality of their actions (see GS 28; S.t., 2–2, q. 60, a. 2, ad 1).
A couple who flaunt their immoral relationship sometimes consciously or, perhaps, unconsciously desire others’ acceptance and approval, either to lessen their own sense of shame and guilt, or to overcome social hindrances to their behavior, or both. Admonishing them makes it clear that you will not give the acceptance and approval they seek.
Any admonition, however, must be delivered gently and in a constructive spirit; self-righteousness and castigation should be avoided. For the two purposes of admonishing others are to help them understand moral truth, so that in its light they can see how its violation injures themselves and others, and to encourage them to live according to moral truth, so that they will fulfill themselves in genuine communion with others. Thus, it also follows that your responsibility to admonish tenants who seem to be sinning comes to an end as soon as it is clear that doing so is fruitless or even counterproductive—for example, by provoking greater or more blatant wrongdoing.
Finally, people living in immoral relationships generally have deeper moral and spiritual problems. Do what you can to help with these by praying for your tenants, giving them good example, being receptive to their confidences, offering friendly advice, and bearing witness to your faith whenever you can.