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When most of us think of the American dream, we think of owning a nice home, a white picket fence, and a big yard for the kids to play in. Today, however, research shows that the rate of homeownership is on a steady decline, especially for millennials

There are a number of reasons for this, of course. The most recent economic recession dissuaded a number of young people from purchasing property. Instead, analysts have noted that by and large millennials have chosen to rent property in larger cities rather than purchase homes. In some cases, renting can be more advantageous, as tenants are typically not responsible for home upkeep, and in some cases, landlords can be held responsible for injuries.

This is a far cry from what renting property was like in centuries past.

In the 18th century, tenants were typically tied to an agricultural production system and beholden to a tenant farming scenario. In essence, landlords would own the land and contribute to the management of the property, while renters would contribute their labor to the property — a far cry from the HOA systems most renters have in place now.

In the 18th century, most renters were known as tenant farmers. In this agricultural production system, tenants made payments to the owners of the property either in their labor, their production, cash, or a combination of the three. Tenants could be discharged by the property owner at the will of the homeowner who could then require tenants to commit to indentured servitude.

In many parts of the world, tenants of these properties would typically bring their own tools and animals, which distinguishes them from sharecroppers, who typically offered no capital and instead paid fees with their produce.

“Many tenants were ‘tenant at will’ meaning the held no lease on the land, could be evicted at any time and had no recourse in disagreements with the landlord,” notes one expert on tenant rights in Ireland. It’s a reality that was pervasive for many tenants all over the globe. “Although they had to pay rent to the landlord, the Irish peasantry was very attached to the land on which their forebears had lived and would do almost anything to remain in the place of their ancestry.”

Surprisingly, evictions function fairly similarly today — to the point where some landlords will go so far as to pay their tenants to vacate the property. The similarities don’t end there.

According to Douglas M. Bregman, an expert on the landlord/tenant relationship, there’s a historical precedent for this relationship.

“The English feudal system and common law laid the foundation for the early landlord and tenant law,” Bregman argues. “By the 18th century, revolutions in England and in other parts of Europe generated alternative approaches to land ownership that diverged from the early feudal system.”

In essence, a landowner could now act freely with his or her property interests and allow non-owners to use and occupy the land for a cost — not unsimilar to how landlord/tenant relationships function today.

Industrialization put an end to the influx of agrarian tenant agreements, favoring instead monetary compensation, and a further emotional distance between the landlord and the tenant. It also provided a pathway for more responsibility for maintenance from the homeowner. In addition, tenant’s rights have become more profound.

As Bregman writes, “In an increasingly industrialized and customer-oriented society that place[s] more value on the tenant’s rights, tenants [are] empowered with serious rights and landlords with multiple obligations.” He continues, “The landlord and tenant legal relationship has become more and more complicated as societal issues have become more prominent.” Things such as environmental laws, accessibility accommodations, the rights of those who are economically or socially disadvantaged are certainly more prevalent than they were in centuries past.

While basic elements of the landlord and tenant relationship are still present today, it’s clear that industrialization, modernization, and updated social factors have created an environment that benefits both parties.

About the Author:

Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.