TV's 'World's Worst Tenants': Don't try this at home
Sending a trio of tough-talking 'eviction specialists' to tenants' doors may make for good TV, but real-life landlords might want to try a softer approach to stay within the law.
A horse turns up in a peculiar spot in this scene from "World's Worst Tenants." // © Spike TV/Zoo Productions
If good television is real people in their most desperate hour, then Spike TV may just have a hit.
In a new spin on the nation's collective housing woes, the cable channel in August finished airing the first season of "World's Worst Tenants," a reality show that tags along with "eviction specialists" as they re-enact their experiences of trying to toss people from their homes and businesses.
"Spike TV beats down the door of the most despicable, outrageous, dangerous and insane tenants," the series promo says. Viewers get to go behind the scenes of "the most heated, high-stakes disputes" and watch the pros "forcibly remove problematic tenants."
For viewers hardened by reality television's steady diet of obsessive compulsives, hoarders, overeaters and women who had babies without knowing they were pregnant, the new offering may seem like just another hour on the tube. But to others — particularly those who work with renters — the show's inflated re-enactments go a little too far at a time when millions of Americans are struggling to pay the rent.
"Are there some bad tenants out there? Of course there are. But there are also bad landlords," says Bill Deegan, founder of RenterNation, a website about renting. "It just perpetuates that negative image of renters."
Worse, tenant lawyers say, is the clear message the show sends: that when it comes to the sticky realm of landlord-tenant relations, intimidation and violence is the way to go. More than a few of the show's scenes end with tenants pinned to the ground.
"I am really concerned that landlords may see this as validating such conduct, or tenants may be more intimidated into allowing it, out of fear," says Steven R. Kellman, founder of the Tenants Legal Center in San Diego, where many of the scenarios depicted in the show occurred. "Besides the potential legal liability, people can get hurt."
It is yet one more reason, they say, that tenants need to be aware of their rights.
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Lighten up: It's a TV show
For a television show — reality or fiction — to succeed, it needs three things: compelling characters, a topic with universal appeal and, of course, conflict. Producers figured they had found it all in the work of Todd Howard.
Howard, a burly ex-Marine with a thundering voice and a walk to match, is an "eviction specialist," hired by landlords and property managers to mediate disputes with tenants. His self-appointed title is the first bit of fiction. Legally, no such position exists; only a judge can order a tenant evicted, and only a law enforcement officer can carry out an eviction. Howard has been in the business for 23 years, in the San Diego area.
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For "World's Worst Tenants," Howard, his wife, Randye, and business partner, Rick Moore, re-enact some of their most dramatic cases, with actors improvising the other roles using loose scripts.
Typically, tenants have been notified of some violation or another before Todd Howard shows up at the door. Words are exchanged. Things get heated. The ever-rational Randye Howard steps in to restore calm. Amid it all, the threat of violence always looms, and sometimes tenants are wrestled to the ground.
In one episode, Todd Howard forces his way into a home, past a tenant trying to hold the door. In another, he runs after a pickup truck, pulls the driver out and throws him to the ground.
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In the introduction that plays before each episode, Todd Howard — muscles bulging beneath a tight T-shirt, a tuft of hair springing from the back of his otherwise shaved head — announces into the camera: "You don't want me knocking on your door."
No, you definitely don't.
"World's Worst Tenants" seems to fulfill its entertainment mission. In its 10-episode first season, dramatizing 30 incidents, the show averaged 1 million viewers. Spike TV spokesman Salil Gulati said that the show has been sold internationally and that "it's looking likely that a second season will be on Spike."
The "World's Worst Tenants" unofficial Facebook fan page has collected more than 5,600 likes in its debut season, and it is peppered with praise such as this: "I am not going to lie, it's the world's worst show. Yet I can't turn away."
As one television reviewer, T.G. at Complex.com, put it: "Physical altercations — that's what we want from our reality TV."
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Exactly, says Chad Greulach of Zoo Productions, the show's executive producer. He says producers intentionally select those that escalate into "hyper-energized environments."
"As far as the tone of the show, it's Spike TV," he says. "We're producing a television show. For that to be successful, we have to deliver what the audience wants." Furthermore, Greulach says, each script goes through the show's lawyers to ensure that anything depicted on screen falls within legal bounds. "If a case is going to expose us too much legally, we won't even follow it," he says.
Do as I say, not as I do
The problem, tenant advocates say, is just that: "World's Worst Tenants" purports to provide legal advice even as it screens for high drama and physical take-downs.
The producers say it is critical that the show accurately depicts legal procedure. The star, Todd Howard, even cites legal procedure throughout the show. In an interview, Howard expresses pride in this very mission.
"We try to educate landlords and tenants as to what the law is," he says. "Every single day, not less than 20 people approach me. They always say: 'Golly, we've had so many people who've taken advantage of us, and thank you for teaching us what we have to do.'"
But at least one early episode did not depict legal behavior: when Howard forces his way into a home against a tenant's will. In truth, only a law enforcement officer with a court order can do that, lawyers say. Greulach admits the error, saying that producers were aware of the violation but chose to air it anyway.
"That could have exposed his team to suit, or at least complications," he says. "If you were watching the show as a legal textbook, that would have been an error. But that is one-thirtieth of season one," Greulach says, adding that the other 29 episodes were by the book.
But even those shows that do stick to the book simmer with undertones of violence, if not outright drag-downs. This is dangerous legal ground to tread, lawyers say.
"The show glorifies abusive conduct by landlord goons," says Dean Preston, executive director of Tenants Together, a nonprofit that provides services for tenants in California, where the show is filmed. "In one episode, the 'eviction specialist' asks his sidekick, 'You got your weapon?' as they prepare to go into a building, and his sidekick pulls out his gun. In several episodes, they assault tenants. This may sound like great fun to producers in Hollywood, but it encourages lawless conduct and harassment of tenants."
Furthermore, it may take a careful eye — and several hits of the rewind button — to pick up on details that distinguish legal from illegal behavior. For example, in one episode Howard tackles a tenant to the ground, but only after the tenant put his hand on the shoulder of one of the "eviction specialists." In court, Howard's team might be able to argue successfully that the tenant initiated physical contact. But, say lawyers, a judge might also rule that the tenant felt threatened in his own home and that the gesture, made while asking Howard's colleague not to touch the tenant's animal, was nonthreatening and did not justify such a response.
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Even so, the initial touch transpires quickly on screen. Will viewers pick up on such subtleties? Are they as highly trained as Howard is in safe physical responses? If the violence escalated, would a judge ever find in favor of an outsider who had entered the home of a tenant who felt harassed?
"There's no legal procedure for four and five people to gang up on the tenant and demand the rent," says Kellman, the tenant lawyer. "There's no law that as a tenant you have to subject yourself to that."
The show's producer says the show isn't billed as a guidebook. "'Want to know how to get your tenants out? Watch "World's Worst Tenants" and find out how.' This isn't that show," Greulach says.
But the show does not display disclaimers. As is evident from the comments by Facebook fans, viewers believe they have tuned in for a reality show with a good dose of legal education.
"Live in a different state, laws might be different," wrote one fan, "but learned a lot. People need to know their rights as tenants and landlords."
On the Facebook page, fans post questions for Howard about how to deal with their own tenant issues, and Howard posts "Todd's tips." In one, he erroneously posts that a tenant who is given three days notice to move after a new sale will "have to oblige." In fact, federal law guarantees that tenants can remain for 90 days or the remainder of their lease, whichever is longer.
"My concern is that a landlord will look at this show and say, 'I can break in. I can force my way in and conduct inspections. I saw it on TV,'" Kellman says. "And that's completely wrong."
"You don't get police powers or court powers because you're a landlord," he says. "Maybe in feudal England."
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Know your rights
Landlord-tenant laws vary by state and town. Landlords and tenants alike should seek independent advice from professionals before resorting to self-help, lawyers say.
If you're among the one-third of Americans who rent, you have basic rights that apply everywhere and that are important to know, especially if your landlord is a fan of "World's Worst Tenants":
- Only an officer of the court — typically, a police officer —can carry out an eviction, and he needs a court order to do so.
- Only a law-enforcement officer can enter your home against your will. And, again, he needs a notice from the court.
- A landlord can enter under the guise of an apartment inspection only if the terms of the inspection have been spelled out in a lease and the landlord gives 24-hour notice for the exact time. Even so, if you, the tenant, are home and still refuse entry, the landlord cannot force his way in, says Janet Portman, a lawyer and the author of several Nolo legal guides for landlords and tenants. Instead, the landlord could begin eviction proceedings for violating the lease.
- Landlords can enter in an emergency, to show the unit or to perform agreed-upon repairs.
- There is rarely, if ever, a legal justification for violence, Portman says. "Any landlord who physically assaults a tenant has assaulted a tenant," she says.
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