Reality TV Week: World’s Worst Tenants

World's Worst Tenants Logo courtesy of SpikeTV

Time to get a little trashy.

So a property manager, a process server and a former Marine walk into an apartment. Sounds like the set up for either a joke or a reality series. When one of my coworkers brought the new show "World's Worst Tenants" to my attention a couple of weeks ago my first thought was "Wow, how trashy can you get?" and the second thought was a bit of regret that I didn't come up with the idea myself.

Regardless, I'm here to offer my thoughts on the first two episodes, which are all that have aired at the time of writing. (A third airs Tuesday evening but I'll have to have this article in the hopper by then.)

The Premise

As best I can tell, they've got two burly property managers (who call themselves "eviction specialists") and a wispy process server with at least some knowledge of the landlord-tenant laws driving around southern California in an Escalade. They visit a selection of the worst problem tenants and are shown alternately threatening, roughing up, busting and saving the lives of the more extreme examples of the rental business.

An excerpt for your viewing pleasure (or distaste) and then on to the analysis after the jump.

Full episodes are, of course, available at from the link in the first paragraph. I probably don't need to tell you this but the clips are not safe for work.

Don't try this at home

In true reality TV style they've cherry-picked the scenarios most likely to make for good TV. The first episode involved a tenant with automatic weapons and explosives, a tenant on a houseboat (complete with boat chase) and a bunch of drugged out squatters with fighting dogs. Each of the scenarios involved the leads entering the property and physically taking down one of the tenants. Each one also involves tenants who are not entirely sober or sane, who at some point state "you can't come in here, this is my house!" while held in a headlock by one of the leads.

This program is going to set back landlord-tenant relationships by decades. Landlords will watch and get worried that their tenants are engaging in similar practices. Tenants will expect that all landlords will hire comparable rednecks to "enforce" the rules of the property. And most crucially, landlords nationwide will inevitably think that they can get away with pulling stunts like those shown on TV and still remain within their rights. In case I haven't made it perfectly clear, Chicago landlords should under NO circumstances attempt to reenact situations from this show with their own tenants!

Yes, some of the stories would carry over to Chicago rentals. I can spot which ones, but I've been doing this since 2005.

What the heck is a process server?

Could these guys ever get away with this in Chicago? They could theoretically follow the basic premise if several conditions are met. Technically only the owner or the designated manager as specified on the lease are allowed to serve notices to tenants. So, these guys would have to be named as property managers on the lease from the outset. According to their bios on the show's website, these guys do run a property management business so it's possible that this criterion is settled.

Secondly, and this is crucial, they cannot actually evict anyone. Yes, the word "eviction" is used a lot throughout the dialogue and many articles reviewing the show claim that the leads are performing evictions. They aren't and they can't. California, just like Illinois, requires a court order and the presence of the sheriff in order to actually toss a tenant out of their rental. What these guys are doing in most cases is starting the eviction process by serving either notice of past due rent or notice to cure or quit.

In both states, if a tenant has not paid rent or is breaking some other rule set out in the lease, the landlord must be able to prove in court that he/she gave a written warning before suing to evict. This is called "proof of service." Additionally, after the eviction case is filed, the landlord must provide proof of service that the tenant has been notified of their court date.

In Chicago as well as California, proof of service can be accomplished in multiple ways, but the most assured way is for the landlord or his/her authorized agent to deliver the notice by hand to the tenant, ideally in the presence of multiple witnesses. In the event that the tenant goes into hiding or is tough to track down, the landlord may hire what's called a "special process server" to deliver the notice in their stead.

As best I can tell, when these guys pay a visit to tenants they are either acting as process servers or performing regular inspections. As a Chicago landlord both of these are valid reasons to be paying your tenants a visit, although in the case of inspections you'll want to make sure you've given proper two day notice and are visiting between 8am and 8pm. However, they are not evicting tenants on their own, nor are they changing locks or removing tenants' belongings from the property, nor terminating utility service. All of the latter actions are considered "self-help" evictions and they are very, very illegal.

But they're going into people's apartments in the middle of the night!

So yes, generally if a landlord enters their tenants' apartment unannounced they are breaking the law. This is due to a much misunderstood thing called the right to quiet enjoyment. Most tenants think this means they can complain to the landlord when their neighbors blast music at 2am. Instead, it overrides the landlord's normal right to access their property which is granted to them normally as the owner of the building. See, when you buy property you get the right to occupy that property. However, when you rent property you get the right to keep your landlord out for the duration of your lease. THAT is the right to quiet enjoyment. It means if you come home and find the maintenance guy watching your TV without prior notice, you've got the right to toss him out.

Getting back to the show, you'll notice that they do enter the rentals in a few stories, although in most cases they're simply standing on the steps outside looking menacing. Let's take a look at the cases where they do actually enter the property:

  • Episode 1, the squatters. As the apartment was supposed to be empty they did have a right to enter the property. Once they determined that squatters were living on the premises it became more murky. It could be seen as an emergency situation, which would permit the landlord and her agents to remain in the property. However, in my opinion they should have passed the matter over to the cops as soon as they discovered anyone living in the abandoned unit.
  • Episode 2, the peeping tom. A tenant claimed she smelled gas. This is a viable emergency and technically the landlord and his agents could do what they did in entering the tenant's apartment and neighboring apartments to determine the source of the leak. However, in Chicago the gas company requests that you report any potential gas leaks to the fire department immediately rather than entering the property yourself.
  • Episode 2, the guy in the tub. Again, emergency situation. The tenant was screaming for help. Legitimate entry.
  • Episode 2, the fighting ring. Commercial property is not subject to the same rules and regs as residential property, even in Chicago. Anyone is permitted to enter during posted business hours. Entering after business hours as they did on the show is not kosher, but again, this was an emergency situation.

Anyone looking without a critical eye would be thinking that they're entering the property in all stories even when they're stepping out of line. Yes, they're entering these properties under dubious circumstances but in each case they'd technically have a valid reason for doing so. However, in each case they go far further than safe & sane business practices would generally encourage, all in the name of reality TV. And very few newbie landlords would be able to tell when they've crossed the line between emergency housecall and privacy violation. I'd say that in each of the cases above they probably should have stopped and called in the authorities long before they are shown doing so.

Above all, entering the property in case of emergency does not include bringing a camera crew along, so I'd definitely recommend leaving the documentary equipment at home unless you want evidence to bring to your eviction hearing.

If you must watch...

I'm not here to make any judgments about your TV viewing habits. If you opt to watch this show go right ahead, it's good trashy fun. However, if you're renting in Chicago keep a few things in mind.

  • California has 3-day notices. Chicago does not. Chicago requires a 5-day notice for past due rent (a "pay or quit" notice) and a 10-day notice for behavioral problems ('cure or quit").
  • This is a TV show. It is staged to be more dramatic with higher stakes than normal. Property management does not require you to put yourself into stupid, hazardous situations. Starring in a TV show does.
  • Most of these scenarios can be avoided with good screening.
  • To date there is no law saying you cannot discriminate against a tenant because you saw them acting like a moron on a TV show. Remember that all of these evicted tenants have to move somewhere else. If there's any reason to watch, this is it.
  • In between shots of violence and drama they do provide some worthwhile reminders about landlord-tenant law and ways that a landlord can shore up their business practices. They're done quietly and usually delivered by Rick Moore. These are actually worth listening to in many cases, although remember that they're talking abut California law, not Chicago law.
  • The number one problem in all of this is that the landlord is nowhere to be seen in any of these episodes. The folks writing articles about this show can get away with saying that the leads are "evicting" tenants even when they aren't because evicting is the landlord's verb. Doctors heal, teachers teach, policemen make arrests and landlords evict. It's what they're known for, because in most scenarios the only time a tenant will meet their landlord face to face is in the courtroom. Landlords can make great strides towards avoiding these extreme tenant problems and help the industry regain some of the trust it loses through exploitative shows like these by remaining in communication with their tenants throughout the lease and keeping an eye on their property through regular site visits.

Let me know your thoughts and questions about the show, and the sensationalizing of the landlord-tenant business. If you have a crazy tenant story that you'd like to share, go on and do that too!


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