In recent weeks, the seedy existence of celebrity landlords came to the fore when word got out that Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard gifted the residents of their two Los Angeles buildings a rent-free April, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Bell and Shepard live in a $4.3 million home in Los Angeles’ posh Los Feliz.) But instead of providing a warm and fuzzy PR moment for the actors, their landlordism exposed something disturbing about the charismatic celebrities who are ubiquitous on our various screens: Many of them are not simply (rich) workers, but capitalists.
Actor and filmmaker Michael Rapaport publicly shamed actress Natasha Lyonne for being a poor tenant in his Manhattan brownstone. Hannibal Buress owns a building in Chicago that he used to rent out on Airbnb, thereby contributing to the gentrification of the city while he raked in indie film and TV projects. Buress was outspokenly against Bernie Sanders’ proposal for rent control (Sanders himself rents out a vacation property), to the disappointment of many of his fans, who assumed he held progressive views on the matter. Plenty of other high-earning entertainers, from Jennifer Lawrence to Melissa McCarthy, also rent out properties, though they’re luxury vacation or city homes that are likely rented temporarily by other very rich people (Bella Thorne also recently made headlines for offering those renting her $2 million Sherman Oaks home free rent amid COVID-19).
Still, the whole ordeal feels icky. Forget offers for rent-free April—well before the pandemic, people have slept on the street, been poisoned in asbestos-ridden cramped apartments, and languished in student debt, and Kristen Bell, who reportedly earned $125,000 per episode on The Good Place, has been charging rent? (Shepard, also an actor, has reportedly made $13 million off his podcast alone.)
The whole concept of being a landlord is only possible because, under capitalism, housing is privatized. Many landlords use this as an excuse for charging you money to live in their unoccupied homes and buildings while they profit—that’s just how the system works! But surely, you could simply not buy a second home or investment property. You could even rent out an apartment you no longer needed in order to pass on ownership to the tenant, charging only property taxes and maintenance, at no profit. You could use your TV-show money to buy a building and share it equitably as a co-op, while living there among the other owners, allowing individuals and families to buy in affordably or at no cost, depending on means. Instead, the free market guides, and the point is to turn a profit off the income of your tenants.
In cities, corporate real-estate developers enact this process even more ghoulishly, flipping crumbling buildings into a different shitty building with a shiny facade, and then charging $2,000 a month for a studio. This is the kind of landlordism that’s easier to rail against, since it closely resembles the myriad other ways capitalism exploits us through corporate influence and abuse. It’s more difficult, however, to make sense of landlordism when it comes down to an individual you may like or even know, especially if that person has a bank loan hanging over their head. Even the best landlords—the ones who fix things promptly, update the kitchen while you’re on vacation, don’t raise the rent—must have a market- or inheritance-driven reason they’re having a stranger or acquaintance pay to live in a property they own.
However, when it comes down to it, wealthy, working actors have not even the most basic excuse for charging rent under the current system. Landlordism is simply another lucrative revenue stream, where you can outsource any work that actually has to be done on the property to typically underpaid laborers. Bell, Shepard, and whoever else may consider passing on ownership to groups of struggling performers who abound in L.A., and have seen their wages severely reduced or entirely disappear not only during the pandemic, but at various unpredictable moments. That would certainly be better than charity.