A young couple’s dream of owning a rental property becomes a nightmare, as a dangerous con artist takes full advantage of the California rental code at their expense. [ Pacific Heights credits: Dir: John Schlesinger/ Melanie Griffith, Matthew Modine, Michael Keaton/ 103 min/ Thriller/ Anti-Regulation]
“He’s taken possession [of the apartment]. So whether he signed a lease, or whether he paid you money or not, he’s legally your tenant now. And he’s protected by laws that say you have to go to court and prove that he deserves to be evicted. However, the net effect of these laws is to protect any pointy-headed cretin who moves into your property and slowly drives you bankrupt and insane.” That’s a nice summary of the U.S. apartment rental situation both on screen and off, given by the film’s cynical representative of the legal profession. According to current law in many parts of the country, it really can take months to have someone evicted, even if they haven’t paid any rent. And if a landlord plays it wrong, all sorts of other legal trip-wires can come into play.
That’s pretty much what happens in this film. A young, naive couple buys a classic, three-unit Victorian in the upscale San Francisco neighborhood of Pacific Heights, with the idea of fixing up the building and renting it out. Then a con artist moves in and refuses to pay his rent, so they try to evict him. Unfortunately, because they don’t know anything about eviction law, the con artist is able to manipulate them into taking actions that are to their legal disadvantage. It turns out that he has a long history of successfully scamming landlords, often getting huge monetary awards in judgments against them. Indeed, it looks like that’s going to happen in this story too, until one of the landlords turns the tables on him in a daring and risky maneuver.
This movie should be given high marks for dramatizing the ongoing injustice suffered by landlords, made possible by a legal system that gives tenants quasi-property rights. Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine make a suitably sympathetic pair of vulnerable victims, and Michael Keaton is very credible as the evil tenant. The final resolution isn’t entirely satisfying, but overall it’s a heart-pounding watch that focuses long-overdue attention on the subject of unreasonable tenants’ rights.
“Pacific Heights is a thriller that is almost a documentary on the horrors of landlord-tenant law.”
–David Boaz, Cato Institute