Depending on your personality, snaking clogged toilets and evicting desperate tenants from crumbling McMansions might not sound like the most luxurious way to spend your days. But if you spend an hour or two watching the YouTube channels of landlord influencers like Kevin “Meet Kevin” Paffrath, you’ll soon learn that investing in real estate is the first step toward creating “lasting wealth”—or, in Paffrath’s case, gaining a net worth of $5.5 million by age 27, as he claims in one of his videos.
According to Paffrath, he didn’t set out to become a YouTube star; he just wanted to promote his various business ventures, from landlording to selling houses. Over time, however, his channel has grown to almost 200,000 subscribers, fueled by a relentless schedule of posting videos multiple times a week, with provocative titles like “The Fastest Way to Become Rich with Real Estate” and “The REAL Reason Women are Poorer than Men.” (Spoiler: it’s the wage gap.)
Self-help media isn’t new, but a growing sense of economic anxiety has produced novel strains of thought in the self-improvement world, especially around finances. Figures like Paffrath are attempting to sate that growing demand. These new quasi-philosophies can take many different forms: for example, on Reddit, the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) movement promotes living a miserly lifestyle in order to achieve a higher rate of savings with the goal of “financial independence,” which should ideally allow you to “retire early”—hence the acronym.
FIRE advocates often decry everyday expenses that they view as unnecessary extravagances, such as Starbucks lattes, takeout, and the wallet-shredder known as avocado toast. But while Paffrath respects those who try to achieve financial goals, he thinks that the cult of frugality can be overzealous. “I mean, all these people who say, ‘Don’t eat out, stop drinking lattes, because it’s making you poor,’” he says. “And then they retire at 35 to live off Domino’s coupons. I think some of that is the stupidest advice... If you’re focused on not spending 50 bucks at Red Robin, I think that’s a miserable way to live life. I think real estate is the easiest solution to all that.”
This “self-made” image is ubiquitous among finance YouTubers, including Paffrath and fellow YouTube landlord Graham Stephan. The mantra “I, too, can achieve it” is as central to their appeal as their conspicuous-yet-tasteful displays of wealth and photogenic but shallow aesthetics. And it makes sense: Many renters wish to become property owners, partly for the opportunity to stand on the other side of a relationship marked by obvious power differentials, sometimes to the point of outright exploitation. Yet the ethical implications of becoming the master of someone else’s housing are rarely discussed in these videos. Rather, some of the advice offered, while rarely outright unethical, reflects a worldview untroubled by the power disparities between landlords and tenants.
In July of this year, Paffrath uploaded a video where he dispensed advice on how to prevent getting “SCREWED” by tenants. In it, he voices some arguably incendiary opinions on landlord-tenant relations, including his preference for rejecting any applicant who has below a 700 credit score, which is at or higher than the national average. Early in the video, he opines: “Tenants usually don’t have very good imagination. If they had good imagination, they would be buying properties that need work, and not renting them ‘once they’re done.’” At one point, he acknowledges that credit scores are a form of legalized discrimination. And near the end of the video, he suggests that landlords should outright mislead their tenants by attempting to conceal the fact that they own the property, which is a controversial stance even among landlords:
“Rule No. 10: Never, ever tell a tenant that you’re the owner,” he says. “You’re just ‘the manager.’ And, if a tenant, worst-case, somehow figures out that your name is on title, [say] ‘yep, I’m one of the owners, but there are other owners as well.’ Look, it’s happened, tenants have come up to me and said, ‘I know you’re the owner, we really want these palm trees trimmed, make sure you trim those palm trees.’ And I go, you know, I’ll check, I’ll check with the other owners. Hey Lauren, the contract says the tenants have to maintain the palm trees and everything, but the tenants want us to do it. Do we want to do it? And Lauren says, ‘[expletive] no.’ ‘I’m so sorry, the other owners said no.’”
Soon after it was posted, the video was shared on the subreddit for the leftist podcast Chapo Trap House, where users quickly flooded it with comments like “Mao didn’t go far enough” and “Landlords deserve the wall.” When asked for his reaction, Paffrath groups these commenters with other naysayers he often encounters on YouTube. “They’re all the same groups of people who generally weren’t educated on how to invest, or chose not to invest, and therefore because they missed out, society is garbage and everybody else should suffer because they’re suffering and misery loves company,” he says. “I look at these comments and I mostly feel bad for these people. I think to myself, if these people allowed themselves to be challenged by watching a few more of my videos, they would realize, ‘Wow, this might be a way for me to turn my life around.’”
Though Paffrath’s cheery videos can make buying property sound like an achievable goal for many Americans, the reality is less optimistic. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, in 2017, only 12.4 percent of renter households in the Los Angeles metro area could afford to buy a median-priced home in their city. While the outlook is sunnier for some areas—54 percent in Atlanta, for example—that leaves a massive portion of the population out of the game entirely.
While the idea of a “landlord influencer” might seem strange, according to Mike Vraa, managing attorney for Home Line, a tenant advocacy organization based in Minnesota, it’s simply an updated incarnation of a niche that’s existed for decades. Since most landlords eventually come to view property management as their primary career, they’re likely to seek professional advice from more experienced landlords, especially when they run into problems. To Vraa, these ur-landlords can be a force for positive change, provided that they use their platforms to promote legal, ethical behavior, which he admits isn’t always the case.
“One of the major issues between landlord-tenant relations is the expectation that the landlord provides the contract, and the tenant either signs it or moves on,” Vraa says. “If I were to count the number of landlords that I’ve met that allow for actual negotiation, it would be on one hand, and it might be on no hands. The stereotype is that the tenant doesn’t know their rights, but there are just as many landlords who don’t recognize that they have to give notice before they enter the residence, and such... I think if these influencers are letting other landlords know the laws, how to conduct business ethically, then it’s probably a good thing. But in a lot of cases, these sort of things are like, ‘I scammed a bunch of people and made a bunch of money, and you can too.’ That typically brings in a lot more viewers.”
The overwhelming majority of Paffrath’s content consists of mundane tips that have a neutral or even positive effect on tenants; for example, in one video, he encourages new landlords to price their first property slightly below market rate, rather than pouring money into improving it and trying to charge a higher monthly rent. However, there’s a vast gulf between unlawful and unethical, and that’s where viewers have to draw their own conclusions. None of these figures ever speak publicly about the moral hazards of landlording, such as how evictions often perpetuate the cycle of poverty, or how non-violent felons struggle to find housing.
Like a lot of influencers, Paffrath lives in California, which he describes as “ground zero for income disparity,” and he’s seen firsthand the effect that the state’s ruthlessly competitive housing market can have on those of modest means. But while he recognizes that there are problems, he personally views his business as entirely removed from them. Instead, he points to the strategy employed by one of his investment heroes, Warren Buffett: Make as much money as you can, then donate it to the causes you feel passionately about as you age.
“I separate ethics from business in terms of screening tenants, in that I don’t think they’re one in the same,” he says. “I don’t think having stringent principles in the way I screen tenants is a matter of ethics at all. I think I’m a very ethical landlord in that all my properties have excellent safety standards, they’re quality properties, but to me, a lot of this stuff that people talk about is activism. I don’t think activism should be mixed with your business principles... It’s just not my problem. I’m not going to rent to someone with a 600 credit score because I feel sorry for them, or because I think it’s the politically right thing to do.”
When presented with these claims, Vraa was far from surprised. He’s careful to note that he’s encountered plenty of ethical landlords throughout his tenure at Home Line—those who might extend relief to a tenant with a debilitating disease, for example. But he says that most landlords get into the business for one simple reason: to make money. While he says he wishes that more landlords would extend a little extra empathy to their tenants, he’s found that Paffrath’s attitude toward this sort of social change is typical.
Instead of lamenting that attitude, Vraa feels that those who disagree should take an important lesson from it: For change to be lasting, it will have to be structural. “There’s been a lot of movement on these issues in the past few years, with people calling for housing as a human right and such,” he says. “That’s all well and good, but if you actually want that to mean something, you need to change the laws, because the vast majority of landlords are not going to do it out of the goodness of their hearts... I personally believe that there are a lot of good landlords out there, and the bad ones give them a bad name. But they do this to make a living, and you can’t expect them to change on their own.”