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Providing MiLB players with housing sounds good, but the devil’s in the details, and it’s a terrible idea

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Minor Leaguers don’t need team-provided housing. They need and deserve a living wage.

Wild Card Round - St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres - Game One Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

In my day job, I’m a lawyer. If you’re reading this, you probably know that already. Since the beginning of my career, however, a good portion of my practice has always been eviction defense.

I generally try to do as many eviction defense cases pro bono as I can, because I believe housing to be a human right. Over the years, I’ve defended hundreds of eviction cases, if not more. I’ll get into the “why” of that a little later, but I’m telling you this in the interest of full disclosure because (a) this is a subject near and dear to my heart, and (b) when it comes to housing, I am not impartial.

On May 12, 2021, the Associated Press reported that the Houston Astros would be providing furnished housing to its minor league players.

Players with the Triple-A Sugar Land Skeeters, Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks, High-A Fayetteville Woodpeckers, Low-A Asheville Tourists and the franchise’s Gulf Coast League team were offered housing ahead of last week’s opening day, the Astros said Wednesday, confirming a report by The Athletic.

Housing has been among the greatest difficulties facing minor league players, many of whom will make as little as $10,000 this season despite pay raises introduced for 2021.

On the surface, this sounds wonderful, especially given the absolutely horrendous conditions most minor leaguers face when it comes to finding a decent place to live, as Marc Normandin relates.

The only way some players can afford to live on their salaries is by sharing a small apartment with a large number of teammates. Former player Ty Kelly discussed with me just last year about how he didn’t even get a bedroom one year, and had to sleep on an air mattress in a living room that otherwise had no furniture, nor blinds or curtains, in it. As More Than Baseball tweeted, six players to an apartment meant to have half as many people was not uncommon.

It seems like a good idea on the surface, right? Major League Baseball teams have no shortage of money (no matter what owners say), and minor league players deserve good housing. The problem is that landlord-tenant relationships are not like other contracts.

I could go on about the racist origins of evictions (every forcible entry and detainer law in the United States began as a Jim Crow law to remove Black and Indigenous people from land that white people wanted to occupy, as Richard Rothstein explains), or that every U.S. state evicts more people each year than most of the mainland European Union combined, or that a leading cause of the incarceration of young Black men is the eviction of their mothers. That’s the subject of another article, however. What I do want to focus on here is how team-owned housing is essentially taking a cohort of young, socioeconomically disadvantaged, often Brown or Black young people, and putting them at the mercy of a multi-billion dollar corporation with respect to the most important right a person has: housing.

Since the 1969 case of Diamond Housing Corporation v. Robinson, courts have recognized that a disparity in bargaining power exists between landlords and tenants. Leases are traditionally adhesion contracts, meaning that landlords present a form agreement for acceptance or rejection, and tenants can make few, if any, changes thereto. Legal doctrines like the implied warranty of habitability, creating a legal requirement that landlords must maintain the premises in a decent and habitable condition, have only slightly changed that calculus. Further, there is a significant disparity in economic power as well between landlords and tenants, with one estimate that landlords have an average income of $97,000 per year. By contrast, over 75% of all tenants make under $75,000 per year, with an average of less than $35,000. In 2002, the Illinois Supreme Court noted that due to this prolonged disparity in bargaining and eceonomic power, “[w]ithout the prospect of liability for significant additional damages, landlords would therefore have little incentive to meet their statutory obligations.”

Corporate housing - like what the Astros propose to provide to their minor leaguers - would be even worse. For one thing, it’s often taxable, meaning that minor leaguers are paying taxes on their housing, and could end up making even less money (the Astros, on the other hand, get a tax write-off). But putting that aside, disparities in economic and bargaining power mean that tenants - especially tenants who don’t speak much English or who are new to the United States - tend to be less willing to report problems in their units. Matthew Desmond has done remarkable work showing how corporate landlords make money by deliberately churning through Black and Brown tenants, even securitizing judgments.

And what happens when a player is released by the team and has to forfeit his housing, but has nowhere else to go?

The stigma of eviction in the United States is a real and lasting one - and remember that whilst landlords (and the Astros) can afford eviction attorneys, tenants (and minor leaguers) generally can’t. As the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, explains,

Our analysis revealed that tenants face several barriers when fighting eviction cases in Cook County. While 81% of landlords appeared with legal counsel, an overwhelming majority (88%) of tenants were self-represented. Tenants were often unfamiliar with what defenses and resources are available to them, or that not attending court could result in a default judgment against them. Although 33% of completed eviction cases resulted in a final judgment on the first court date, many tenants did not realize that their very first appearance in eviction court could decide the fate of their housing and leave them with a lasting eviction record.

Notably, an eviction goes on a person’s permanent court record even if no judgment is entered; LCBH ”estimate[s] 15,091 people each year ended up or will end up with a public eviction record despite having no eviction order or other judgment against them, an experience that can have lasting consequences for a tenant.”

So what the Astros are doing seems like a good idea on the surface. But a traded or released player with nowhere else to go could end up with an eviction on their court record or credit, making it essentially impossible for them to find housing in the future. Worse, a player may not want to report a problem in their unit, fearing it will hurt their career, or worse, result in that player being forced to leave the United States. This isn’t speculation; this already happens in other industries. We already see corporations forcing migrant workers to live in deplorable conditions in employer-provided housing units, with “over half” of all such units cited for “black mold, raw sewage and pest infestations were among the most serious violations. Other common violations ranged from broken doors and windows to defective plumbing and electrical wiring.” Of course, “[o]wners of migrant housing argue that it is difficult to keep housing in good shape because workers are constantly moving in and out, and inspection agencies say they can only do so much with the staffs and laws they have.” It’s all too easy to see how quickly this could happen to team-provided housing for minor leaguers. And, frankly, I see it every day.

So in reality, we don’t want teams to be their minor leaguers’ landlords. It just gives a corporation even more power over the lives of young kids who already have far too little control in their relationship with the team. And frankly, it just is another way for teams to avoid giving minor leaguers the one thing they really need: a living wage. After all, gushing over the Astros giving minor leaguers a bedroom for six months out of the year, wothout paying attention to the terms or quality of that bedroom, is just another distraction from the poverty those minor leaguers still will be facing at the end of the day.

Sheryl Ring is a consumer rights and civil rights attorney practicing in the Chicago, Illinois area. You can reach her on Twitter @Ring_Sheryl. This post is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice, and does not create any attorney-client relationship.