Biden AdministrationUkraine InvasionInflationEnergyCybersecurity

The overlooked figures in the eviction moratorium news: landlords

August 8, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC

Heavy recent media coverage of the latest eviction moratorium has largely ignored the group at the center of it all: landlords. We’ve met tenants in danger of being evicted and heard lots about President Biden’s decision to authorize the moratorium, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s opinion last month requiring Congressional action to extend the moratorium past July, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision not to press hard for a bill. But landlords, the moratorium’s target, have been only a vague and distant presence.

A closer look at landlords may upend some stereotypes.

The word “landlord” rarely sparks warm and fuzzy feelings. In popular culture landlords are often evil, portrayed as heartless plutocrats or giant, unfeeling corporations. Yet getting a realistic picture based on data turns out to be surprisingly difficult.

“There is very little research on landlords,” Department of Housing and Urban Development researcher Todd M. Richardson wrote in a 2018 note. “The lack of available research on landlords has created a policy blind spot…. In an interesting data shortfall, researchers don’t know the precise number of landlords in the United States.” Assembling multi-dimensional data on them, he explained, requires combing through various reports found in the nooks and crannies of federal departments.

So that’s what we did. The search yielded three surprises:

The vast majority of landlords are individuals, not businesses. About 10.3 million individuals reported rental income to the IRS in 2018 (the most recent year with available data). Some landlords with very little rental income may not have filed, but it’s a safe bet that between 10 million and 11 million individuals are landlords. It’s harder to estimate the number of business entities (such as corporations and limited liability companies) that own rental properties, but evidence from Census Bureau surveys, plus Richardson’s estimate based on 2015 data, suggest that the number is less than a million. So among landlords, individuals outnumber businesses by at least 10 to one.

Most individual landlords own very few units. The majority own just one or two rental units; the average is 1.9. Business-entity landlords own well over 20 units on average, with some owning hundreds or thousands.

Individual landlords don’t make much money, on average. They reported receiving rent averaging $34,217 in 2018, the IRS reports. Deductible expenses, not including depreciation, averaged $23,679. No source provides comprehensive income and expense data beyond the averages, so we don’t know the data’s statistical distribution. But it seems likely that most of America’s total landlords don’t net much money.

Eviction moratoriums, which have been in effect for almost the entire pandemic, allow millions of tenants to stay in their units even if they don’t pay the rent. The moratoriums weren’t supposed to harm landlords. Congress authorized $46.5 billion to help tenants pay their rent, but administration of the program was left to local authorities, which have mostly botched the job; through June, only $3 billion had been disbursed. Landlords were owed $27.5 billion of unpaid rent as of June.

Landlord-vs.-tenant conflicts are often imagined as titans vs. the little guy, and sometimes that’s what they are; most U.S. residential rental units are owned by businesses. But in considering who’s suffering financially, it’s worth remembering that most landlords, millions of them, are mom-and-pop operations—not the billionaires and corporations we too easily imagine.

Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories straight to your inbox each morning.