Taking on the language barrier as a landlord

Taking on the language barrier as a landlord.
by James Miller


I have had two semesters of Spanish in high school. Since that has been over twenty years ago, I now know just enough Spanish to unintentionally insult someone or get arrested in Tijuana.

I am guessing that this topic will be a foregone conclusion in places like California, but here in the Midwest I am finding that intolerance and discrimination is indeed prevalent in my local rental area, and there are lots of qualified Hispanic tenants who are being turned down because their primary language is Spanish, and the mom and pop landlords don’t know how to deal with this.

I find that many of these landlords characterize all Spanish speaking people as “Mexican”, and seem to believe that letting in Hispanic people will cause their apartments to become run down and create all kinds of trouble.

I realized that because of this, catering to English as a Second language (ESL) tenants was basically an untapped market.

When I started taking on Spanish speaking tenants, I also found them to be some of my best tenants. Rent was paid on time, apartments were kept very clean, and I even see that the majority of them who take their shoes off at the door.

This wasn’t always the case, but in my experience I had a better than average experience with my Non-English speaking tenant base.

The only time a problem arose was when I needed to communicate with these tenants.

Here is what you will need to do as a landlord or property manager to bridge the language barrier:

1) The first thing that I needed was a translator.

There is usually someone in their life who can communicate in English fairly well. Often times they are in contact with professional translators who can get the job done. many times job placement agencies have people who are fluent in both languages. Then there is also the local high school Spanish teacher.

Many times they will jump on this opportunity, and can become a faithful resource if you compensate them modestly.

2) Get the leases changed over to Spanish.

I am not sure of the legal ramifications of a ESL tenant signing a lease written in English, but getting the lease changed over is a one time cost for something that can be used over and over again.

3) Use written communication.

I use freetranslation.com, which can translate into several different languages. It doesn’t always translate everything 100% correctly, but gets the general idea across.

After having tenants laugh at something I had translated using this service, I figured out that using a two step English to Spanish, then Spanish back to English translation lets me verify if there is anything that can be potentially confusing or embarrassing.

4) Don’t be afraid to try.

Not knowing a language can be intimidating, but I found that we can communicate quite a bit with some broken words and pointing. Even though they all have my phone number, most of the time my Hispanic tenants will wait for me to stop by the apartment building and pull me aside if they have something that needs to be fixed.

The language barrier also helps to reduce nuisance calls, as ESL tenants will take care of the issue themselves if they can.

Some of my English speaking tenants will call me for just about anything. I have received calls asking me to replace burnt out light bulbs in apartments (even though that is their responsibility), or how the neighbor doesn’t always put his garage door down. yes, true story.

5) Make an effort to learn some key words in Spanish.

Don’t give me the “They should speak English if they want to live here” routine. That isn’t even the point. The point is to fill the apartment wit the best qualified tenant that you can.

By at least partially learning another language, you are opening yourself up to a ever growing tenant base.


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