From the Witt
At RentPost, we try to provide you with the entire spectrum of data when it comes to leasing and renting and making better decisions. We even offer some good do’s, don’ts, and general points of reference when it comes to landlord-tenant interactions.
However, no explanation, no matter how involved, of the science of renting could ever really be complete without paying little attention to its history. By learning about the history of renting, it becomes a little easier to see how it, as a business, has evolved to the point it’s at now. By putting leasing and renting in a historical context, we can all make better business decisions today.
PART ONE: From Pyramids to Poolhouses
Basically, renting developed from a more primitive form of tenancy, called tenant farming. Tenant farming developed from—and yes, we have to say it—slavery, which dominated prehistoric and ancient social relationships.
In Ancient Egypt, for example, a huge proportion of the populace were all slaves to the Pharaoh. Remember all those pyramid temples they built to worship him? They would do whatever work he required of them—all too often heavy lifting—and he would take care of them how he saw fit, depending on his mood. He would provide slaves with some sort of food and shelter, thus maintaining the very primitive Egyptian social networking.
The Roman Era
By the time of the Romans, social attitudes had somewhat developed. As a result, even though there was an Emperor who could force anyone to do anything with a word, the system of landowning and tenancy had evolved somewhere in-between the way it was in Ancient Egypt and the way it is today.
Wealthy landowners, called patricians, still held slaves, but these were usually prisoners of war. By then it was accepted convention that legitimate Roman citizens should have some right to property, even if they could not own land. Here renting began in earnest with plebeians—the Roman term for the common poor—renting living space from their more wealthy counterparts, usually at exorbitant rates. While this system perpetuated the gap in wealth between the two classes, it at least provided a strong classical precedent for poorer classes to live as tenants without being slaves.
The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages, about a thousands years after the peak of the Romans, saw somewhat of a regression in the rights of tenants. Large landowners—no longer in the city of Rome but in the forests and foothills of western Europe—were able to gain huge amounts of control over their local populations, with no central ruler or King to control what they did.
This was feudalism, and the most powerful lord around would grant his protection to other local, less powerful lords if they promised him fealty or loyalty. These lesser lords in turn would rent out tracks of land at exorbitant rates. They would build shacks and farm them, usually finding themselves lucky to break even and not be “evicted” from their property.
Feudalism began to die out around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when new, more powerful kings grew jealous of the wealth of the powerful lords, and individual citizens became more and more indignant with the unfairness of tenant farming.
Tenant farming—along with its inherent abuses of tenants—never really died out. But over the centuries, the balance of power between landlords and tenants had greatly evened out, for several reasons. Not only did feudalism die out; liberal and humanistic ideals from the Enlightenment gradually mollified attitudes concerning social class and enhanced the cause of individual rights.
Capitalism, and the rise of the middle class, helped blur the once-clear line between rich and poor, and an increasing number of people began to rent under better conditions and with better interest rates. People of similar means began renting to each other as equals. The resulting growth of the economy from this more efficient and fair method of business only increased people’s commitment to making the business of renting and tenancy more manageable.
PART 2: The Footsteps of Our Predecessors
Part 1 gives a very generalized history of how the relationship between landowners and renters began and evolved. Hopefully without being too specific or detailed, I can add a little perspective on how we got to where we are as a society when it comes to our freedom to rent, and, in a basic sense, where the capital to rent sprang from in the first place. This section also should highlight the ideological perspectives that make renting practicable.
Free Property & Landowner Rights
For one, any history of rent isn’t complete without a history of free property, or, what I would call “the basic rights of the (land) owner.” Renting—unless you include peonage systems like serfdom—can never exist without the landowner having some guarantees of protection under the law.
Among these would include protection from violence or disruption on one’s own property, the right to evict tenants negligent on their rent, and the right not to be taxed so heavily you can’t reasonably hold on to your property (okay this one’s less clear).
The commitment to these “rights” took up root in western thought gradually starting around the middle of the last millennium in Europe. Unfortunately, in and before this era, most people lived without any governmental guarantee to their property or goods. In other words, at any time, a king, lord, or anyone with enough men or weapons could rob you without threat of reprisal. Rent and rent collection were most often a matter of good faith or brute force.
Like many ideologies in history, the “free property” ideology rose to the forefront of social philosophy only after it had been backed and championed by force. In this case, it was the overwhelming force of the landowners—and later the middle class—which, in many instances, preluded revolutionary new popular governments or at least curbed royal authority.
The first major example of the demand for the right of free property, or at least freer property, was the signing of the Magna Charta (Latin for “Great Charter”), signed at Runnymede in England in 1215. Basically, the noblemen in England had become so powerful in contrast to the King that they forced him to agree in writing to several points, including their right not to be taxed so heavily they would have to sell their lands off to the crown.
With these “rights” more guaranteed, these massively wealthy aristocrats were free to rent out huge tracts of land or country estates to whomever they pleased, and to their own profit. Nevertheless, since advancement in class was almost impossible in this period, they rented principally to other large landowners of similar status. Occasionally even the King would rent from these magnates, who not uncommonly began to rival their monarchs in wealth and property.
Freedom of property, then, when granted to these nobles, enhanced their entrepreneurial flexibility and precipitated not only renting but a general economic surge—not to mention an immense increase in their personal wealth.
The Modern Era
Certainly, even today, renting is not completely fair. Most of us, either as tenants or landlords, feel that we have in some way be wronged or treated unfairly at some point in the process. But people will never be perfect and certainly making them that way is not the goal of RentPost.
However, by appreciating the evolution of renting through history, we can learn from the motivations, tendencies, mistakes, and even abuses of our predecessors to make better business decisions. In acknowledgement of this past, landlords should strive to treat tenants with this hard-earned, long-coming, and well-earned respects. Tenants who are treated well should be grateful and accommodating to the concerns of their landlords.
The gradual improvement of renting and the forging of better landlord-tenant relationships in the last two thousand years points to an auspicious future. Everything boils down to how we can steel ourselves for the unforeseen challenges the years ahead are bound to present.