With Green Lantern # 76, first released in April 1970, DC started a radically different project than anything they’d done with the title before. For the next fourteen or so issues, Green Lantern would team up with Green Arrow to travel the country—mostly the Pacific Northwest, it seems—to find “the real America” and deal with pressing, real-world social issues along the way. It’s timely that we look at this now, for not only is Arrow now running on The CW, but DC has re-released this iconic run in a trade paperback. One imagines that this might have been timed to coincide with the show.
The run is not renowned for its subtlety—comic books were largely targeted at teenage boys (as they mostly still are) and hadn’t gained the sheen of respectability they now enjoy—but it does have this classic page, where a superhero is actually asked why they seem to be so useless.
Anyway, as one might imagine, this run is chock full of stuff for us to write about. In the first issue, #76, we have the case of a slumlord who gets in a street altercation and is allegedly planning to raze a tenement he owns.
I. The Setup
The story opens with Green Lantern flying around Star City when he sees a crowd of ruffians assaulting what appears to be an innocent bystander. He intervenes. His intervention is mostly okay, too, because he uses non-lethal methods to prevent what has the potential to be quite serious injury. So far, so good.
But then the crowd turns on GL, hitting him with a can, and begins showering him with whatever comes to hand. Turns out the “bystander” is actually the local slumlord, and they don’t like him much. So when GL saves his bacon, the locals aren’t thrilled. But when GL is about to take it out on one of the assailants, Green Arrow steps in. At this point, the landlord, the assailants, and the locals basically disappear to let our heroes get on about the business of discussing things.
Green Arrow points out that the locals are right to dislike their landlord. He’s apparently not spent a dime on maintenance in years, and the place is basically falling apart at the seams. But to make matters worse, he’s decided to level the place and replace it with a parking lot and is about to start evicting the tenants. The tenants may not like where they live, but for many of them, it’s all they’ve got. Green Arrow is upset about this, as fits his character. In this series, Hal Jordan serves as the privileged, white do-gooder, while Green Arrow is more the (privileged, white) liberal iconoclast, some cross between socialist and anarchist.
But the way the conversation goes, Green Lantern is upset at the hooligans, because they were breaking the law even if they were justifiably upset, while Green Arrow is upset at the landlord, because he’s oppressing the poor even if he’s technically within his legal rights.
II. Landlord-Tenant Relations
Except that he probably isn’t. Two things. First, just as a general principle of contract law and landlord-tenant relations, tenants who pay their rent and don’t violate the conditions of their lease can’t generally be evicted just because the landlord would prefer them to be. Not in the middle of their lease anyway. The landlord has agreed to provide the premises for the lease period, and that includes an agreement not to suddenly start using the premises for something else, like a parking lot. He may be able to simply say “I’m not going to rent to you anymore” at the end of the lease, and if he’s saying that to all of his tenants as a way of phasing the premises out of residential use, he might well be able to do that. But that’s not really eviction. It would turn into an eviction if the tenants refused to vacate the premises, but terminating a lease at the end of its period is not an eviction.
And the story really does suggest that its an eviction. The way Green Arrow tells the story, the landlord is about to turn out all of his tenants at once. If he were simply terminating leases as they expired, that process would likely take a year, and even if he had to evict holdover tenants (i.e., trespassers), he’d probably wind up doing so piecemeal, as leases likely start and finish every month. Especially if the landlord gave immediate notice that leases would not be renewed, this isn’t exactly the same thing as turning a bunch of people out on the street all of a sudden. It gives them time to find a new place to live. So while potentially not the most awesome thing to do, the legal way of doing this isn’t as bad as Green Arrow makes it out to be.
III. Tenants’ Rights
Except that many major cities don’t generally let landlords terminate leases like this. This is less common in mid-sized and smaller cities, but it sometimes shows up there in low-income housing. The idea here is that municipalities have passed ordinances saying that once a tenant is in a particular apartment, he can’t be evicted or have his lease terminated as long as he continues to pay rent and does not violate any other conditions of the lease. Indeed, New York City has made it very difficult to evict even deadbeat tenants.
So if Star City has a tenants’ rights regime similar to New York City’s, the landlord probably couldn’t evict his tenants legally, even at the end of their lease terms. To do so, he’d have to work with the city council, which mightn’t be all that willing to see a few dozen low-income housing units be replaced by a parking lot.
Then there’s the issue of maintenance. This one’s a little easier. Green Arrow accuses the landlord of not spending anything on maintenance, implying that while this may be his legal right, it’s the wrong thing to do. This is closer to being accurate. All residential leases come with an implied “warranty of habitability“, i.e., a warranty that the landlord cannot avoid that the premises are fit for occupation. Unfortunately, the bar for this is very, very low. As long as there are four walls and a roof, electricity, and running water, most municipalities will certify a residence as “habitable.”
For instance, it’s increasingly common for tenants to complain of mold infestation/contamination. This is partly because this sort of diagnosis is relatively recent, and partly because the country’s housing stock is aging so these sorts of problems are more common. Regardless, mold infestation generally does not violate the implied warranty of habitability, and frequently doesn’t even violate local public health codes either. So there are a lot of things that tenants wish landlords would take care of that they’re not actually required to by law. So especially in low-income housing, where the incentive to retain tenants is pretty darned low, slumlords have very little incentive to keep their places decent.
So the analysis here is murkier than the story makes it out to be. What we’re told is that the law is on one side, but right is on the other. The reality is not so clean cut. The tenants are clearly breaking the law by attacking the landlord, but they may well be able to insist upon their legal rights to avoid eviction. And even assuming Star City doesn’t create such rights, if the landlord is truly evicting his tenants rather than just letting leases expire, he’s probably breaking the law. Green Arrow is probably right about the maintenance bit, but that’s a less serious complaint than eviction, which as we’ve shown is legally problematic at best.
This significant, because it’s that conundrum—law on one side, right on the other—that causes Hal Jordan to have his existential crisis that launches the next dozen-odd issues. Closer legal analysis might have revealed either that the landlord wasn’t actually as bad a guy as Green Arrow made him out to be, or was actually breaking the law, letting Green Lantern’s previous prejudices and assumptions go unchallenged.
So it’s kind of a weak start to the series. We’ll see how it goes from here.