The Ethicist: Must I Warn Renters About Our Racist Neighbors?

March 18, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Must I Warn Renters About Our Racist Neighbors?

I have a rental property, and the neighbors next door are extremely racist. We didn’t know this when we bought the house. We have had both white and Hispanic people as renters. The next-door neighbors harassed the Hispanics until they left. The white family had no issues getting along but did hear their racist rants. I cannot legally do anything about this behavior. Am I obligated to tell any prospective renters about this problem? I don’t want people to move in without knowing of it. If I do tell them, how do I phrase it so that I’m not perceived as discriminatory? Melissa, Louisville, Ky.

My response: Lately I’ve answered questions here using my stock answers to show how people can solve most of these problems posed as ethics issues with a problem-solving approach instead. In this case, I’m going to indulge in commenting more.

I cannot legally do anything about this behavior.” Since you mention the law, you’re talking about the First Amendment. Not only will it not help you, assuming they aren’t violent, it helps them, as I believe it should, not because I agree with them but because I believe free speech helps society.

Since you mention you can’t do anything, you can. That’s the point of my answers. You want to change their behavior. That’s leadership. Your first thought appears to use the law—an authoritarian approach—and when you realize it won’t help you, you give up.

Maybe because my recent workshops on how to lead people without relying on authority are fresh in my mind, not only can non-authoritarian approaches work, they often work better than authoritarian approaches. People resist authoritarian approaches, often making them counterproductive.

I’m not going to go into how to lead people without authority here since I wrote a whole book, Leadership Step by Step, to help anyone develop the skills, but I recommend it. Then you don’t have to throw up your hands when you can’t get city hall to force people to do what you want.

By the way, convincing them and other fact and logic-based approaches usually won’t work either. Facts rarely influence.

On to the stock answers (by the way, I say stock not to belittle them but to show how few solutions can apply broadly). . .

Labeling something an obligation doesn’t change your situation. You probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than a New York Times columnist labeling something for you, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the excuse to say, “But the New York Times told me to” but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.

As for what to do, If you’ll allow me a quick analogy, if you want to learn to create art, taking academic classes in art appreciation may help you appreciate art others made but not to create it. You have to practice, starting with the basics.

You’re asking how to lead people, meaning you want to improve your leadership.

Nearly every resource I’ve seen on leadership is leadership appreciation—that is, books on principles and such that help you appreciate others’ leadership but not to lead. To learn to lead you have to practice, starting with basics.

To answer your question on how to lead people, I recommend my book, Leadership Step by Step, which gives you exercises to practice the skills of leadership, not just to appreciate others’ practice. You have to do the work of the exercises, not just passively read it, but what expressive or performance-based practice can you learn without work?

I’m not just plugging my book. I wrote it because nothing existed to give you experience and skills, not just appreciation.

Unit 4 covers what you want, though I’d start at the beginning and do the exercises in order.

The New York Times response:

Yikes. You say there’s nothing you can do legally, which suggests that your Hispanic tenants weren’t threatened and had no reasonable fear of bodily harm. A lawyer could advise you of any civil legal remedies you might pursue. But you may have concluded that any available legal remedies would be ineffective. That’s true, unfortunately, of the remedies against many forms of appalling behavior.

So let’s assume you’re left with the quandary you describe. If you don’t warn prospective minority tenants about your neighbors, you’re failing to give them notice of a condition they’d most likely want to know about. If you do warn them, they may wrongly infer that it’s you and not your neighbors who are prejudiced, which could expose you to legal risks yourself. But yes, as an ethical matter, you should inform all potential tenants about this situation, and leave it to them to decide if they want to deal with it.

A lawyer may be able to guide you to a legally acceptable way of presenting the information. I would think you should tell all prospective tenants roughly what you’ve told me. This will make your property harder to rent, and you may wonder whether you have to bear that burden. Unfortunately, doing the right thing here is likely to be costly.


We have an elderly tenant who has been hospitalized and in extended rehab several times in the last few months. He is in fragile health, nearly completely deaf and often in a confused state. Each time he has returned from the hospital or rehab, he has refused a caregiver or visiting home nurse. His relative cannot care for him, so he is left alone for much of the time. She seems hostile to any suggestions on our part and frustrated, because he won’t listen to her either.

Recently, he was hospitalized twice in the space of a few weeks. The last time he was released, a nurse practitioner came the following afternoon to check on him. When she buzzed the doorbell, there was no answer, so she tried us. We let her in, only to discover that our tenant had pulled out his catheter and was incoherent. The nurse practitioner called 911, and the police arrived and did an assessment; they recommended that our tenant be moved to a place where his needs could be met. But they said moving him against his will would require a social worker’s recommendation, plus other legal actions.

We could not reach his relative by phone, despite multiple attempts. She came the next day to bring him back to the hospital to reinsert the catheter. She accompanied the ambulance that took him home.

My husband says we should stay out of it. But I’m worried that our tenant will try to cook something and start a fire, injuring himself and possibly our family. And while I sympathize with his relative, I also worry that she is being grossly careless. My inclination is to follow up on the report recommending that he be moved to a suitable facility, rather than wait to see if action is taken. What would you suggest? Name Withheld

My response: My stock answer is that your question is legal/medical/other professional service. Talking to a professional will answer your questions more effectively than a newspaper columnist.

You also seem to answer your question: “they said moving him against his will would require a social worker’s recommendation, plus other legal actions.” If you don’t want to care for him yourself and assume the risk of him staying, why not follow this experienced professional’s lead?

The New York Times response:

We lose the right to manage our own life only when we become incapable of responsible decision-making. And as the police officers told you, that’s a judgment that needs to be made by a trained person. Still, the events you describe strongly suggest that your tenant has reached this point, and that it’s more important to take care of him than to respect his demands to be left alone.

You have two rather different sets of concerns here. One is for your building and your family: Your tenant’s condition poses a risk of serious harm to both. The other is for your tenant: You have good evidence that he shouldn’t be left alone, for the sake of his health and his well-being. If his interests and yours pulled in opposite directions, you might face a hard choice. But they don’t. The first set of concerns gives you moral standing to intervene. Unless his relative accepts responsibility for him, the fact that she disagrees is, morally speaking, neither here nor there. Given that you do have standing, you should then aim to do what is best for him and, as it happens, for you. It would be both prudent and caring to explore getting him into a place where he can be properly looked after.


A college friend invited me to stay with him when I returned to my hometown after a long absence. He lives alone in a house he inherited. The bed linens were clean, and the bathroom was clean, but there were dust, cobwebs and clutter all over the house, and the whole place needed a good cleaning, painting and replacement of flooring. He said he was trying to downsize, but the living room was filled with sheets, books, pans. I really had no recourse but to stay there, as he was my transport to the airport several hours away, and I did. In retrospect, I worry about him and his mental state. What can I do? Name Withheld

My response: The top consideration I see is your emotional state. You say you worry—I presume an emotion you don’t like. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

What should you do? Assuming what you described is a problem and he agrees, I recommend:

  1. Figuring out what resources you have—relationships, time, etc
  2. Figuring what skills you have and can create
  3. Creating as many options as you can
  4. Considering what outcomes each option will result in
  5. Choosing which option to act on based on those outcomes, evaluating them using empathy
  6. Implement the option you like most
  7. Do the best you can, knowing that problems will arise

The New York Times response:

How long has he been in the house? If he’s in the process of discarding the detritus of his parents’ lives, it may just be that this is going slowly, especially if he’s an only child. He invited you in, you say, and your bedroom and bathroom were fine. Still, I’ll grant that what you describe would seem consistent with conditions like depression or even compulsive hoarding. Aside from his cluttered and untidy home, did he seem to be socially isolated or impeded in major life activities?

Assuming that he does have a serious problem, it doesn’t sound as if you have a close-enough relationship with this man to intervene effectively from a distance. Do you know of friends or relatives who are in a position to do more? If you think you’re the only person who has noticed and is in a position to do anything, you might help your friend simply by letting him know that the condition of his house has made you wonder whether he has a problem. He might resent the observation, but the chance that you could spur him to seek the help he needs would be worth risking your not-very-close relationship.

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