Last week I updated my Facebook status to note that I was happy to have a driveway to shovel. That sounds pretty stupid, or maybe naive, but it's true. As a new homeowner, I'm finding small pleasures in all sorts of tasks and chores, because I'm finally doing them for myself. It's that whole "pride in ownership" thing, I guess. I have to admit that I have more motivation to take care of my surroundings now that I own them, compared to when I rented.
I say "I have to admit" because I have been such a defender of "renters" over the years. I've been to enough public meetings, read enough articles and letters to the editor about proposed developments, and talked to enough "concerned citizens" to know that "renters" are the bogeyman of urban planning- and the primary argument against allowing greater density in neighborhoods.
In Missoula, the debate over density was often raised in the context of: "if we have more density in our neighborhoods, we will have more renters, and if we have more renters in a neighborhood, they will force the remaining owners out, and then it will be a ghetto." No, really, that was how the logic went. The opponents of "density" (often owners of large historic homes on tony places like the University District) said things about "renters" that have been said about members of many minority groups over the years, but that can no longer be said about those groups if one wants to maintain one's status as politically enlightened. I listened to retired professors and professionals expound on "urban decay" as if a proposal to allow single accessory dwelling units was the road to an immediate conversion of their neighborhood to one of the worse parts of Detroit.
And always at the core, were those awful, filthy renters (spoken in a sneering tone.) Of course, what was really meant by renters was poor people, or nonwhite people, or young people, or people who didn't drive brand new cars. "Those people," one opponent of a proposed project said, "Those people's children will be playing on our playground."
And through those interactions, on Cape Cod, in Missoula, and even in Burlington, I had always sat silent in the corner, a renter, one of those people. One of those people got up and went to work every day. One of those people who shoveled his sidewalk and brought in his recycling bin instead of leaving it on the curb for weeks. One of those people who didn't blast his stereo late at at night. A renter. Let's not forget too, that even in a neighborhood full of renters, somebody owns those properties and somebody has the responsibility to maintain them. Where was the outrage at the landlords who didn't maintain their properties? Even though matters of decay were often their responsibility, I rarely heard those professionals and owners mention landlords as culprits. Because after all, many of them were landlords with income properties, but none of them were renters themselves. Much easier to scapegoat a group of people you know you aren't sitting next to at a City council meeting.
We (collectively) talk a lot about affordable housing, and we always talk a big game about how we want that housing to be ownership housing, because of all the supposed benefits of ownership. People take better care of where they live when they own it. That sounds so simple. But, as half of a couple of young, white, middle class educated professionals who just went through the rigmarole of buying a house, I can safely say that there are plenty of people who are just not going to get over the financial hump (or the career stability hump) necessary to break into ownership. The solution in my mind is clean, well-designed and extremely livable rental housing, with the regulatory framework (both in terms of how it is built and how it is managed) to achieve it.
My mother-in law gave us a real estate book recently that was mostly about how to purchase, renovate, and rent out income properties. There were lots of good ideas in there, but the overarching tone of the book was exactly what I am talking about when it comes to how we need to regulate the management of rental properties: The book said that any action a property owner takes on an income property may have only one motive: profit. At face value, that makes pretty good sense, but the author goes on to describe how to do structural things to make walls look square, even if they aren't, and other ways to obscure the decay of a poorly maintained property with cheap wallboard and paint.
That's all well and good for maximizing profit today, but it is counterproductive to the future value of the neighborhood and the overall value of the built environment. And tenants notice that kind of stuff, even if they aren't experts in remodeling themselves. They live with with and in those cheap cover up remodels (or worse, in units that have had nothing done to them yet charge the same price), and the daily stresses of doing so (dripping faucets, loud bathroom fans, mold, disintegrating cheap particle board counters, peeling linoleum to trip over, drafty windows, closets that smell like cat pee, cabinets whose doors don't close properly, toilets that run, etc) add up.
So too with the outside of these places. In our last rental, we never knew if we would have a place to park when we got home from work because our downstairs neighbors had decided to have visitors, extra roommates and their vehicles over all the time. if one of them took our space, we might have to park in somebody else's space and worry about getting that knock on the door at midnight when they came home. We might get "parked in" when one of our neighbors came home and had nowhere else to park. That's a pretty good psychic drag day in and day out, when all it would take is the landlord working to resolve the issue with some rule enforcement. Would that maximize profits today, tomorrow, or even next year? No way. So it doesn't get done, and 10 individuals living in that building experience a drag on their productivity, creativity and energy because they are all worrying about the stupid parking. What about when a landlord fails to have the walks around a building shoveled in a timely manner, and 10 people go to work 20 mornings out of the year with wet pantlegs and feet because of that failure? Who pays for that? We all do, and nobody has a profit motive to fix it. (My solution was to suck it up and shovel, and not worry too much about the free-ridership of my fellow tenants, but you get the idea.)
Freshman environmental studies classes beat the idea of the tragedy of the commons into their students. The collective energy and functionality of a population of people is a commons. That commons is robbed when a landlord fails to maintain a property. Nobody has a profit motive to fix the problem. We cannot live in a fantasy world where we just assume that everybody will own a home someday. There will always be renters, and most of them will get up and participate in society every day. When that participation is hampered by living in a crappy apartment that nobody has a profit motive to fix, we all bear that cost. That's where the discomfort with "renters" comes from, in my opinion. And the solution lies in the same profit motive. How can we give people who don't own their home a profit motive to maintain it? How can we give people who own a home but don't live in it a profit motive to keep it up to a humane standard?
I'm about to suggest some things that there have probably been volumes written on, so forgive my naivete:
1. Regulate: Force Landlords to take better care of their properties so that they aren't using that commons so much. This has been done to a degree in terms of safety, heating, etc, but certainly some places have higher standards and inspection requirements for rental units than the base rules enforced by HUD.
2. Equity: Allow tenants to pay into a fund that pays for upgrades to their property. Keep track of what upgrades are performed and how they affect property value, and enter into an agreement with tenants who invest in the property regarding what sort of return they can get on those investments (perhaps at least what they put in but more if the value of the property rises?)
3. Micro-ownership: Instead of renting to tenants, find a way the operate less expensive properties as a condominium. Allow tenants to purchase the right to live in a condo on a monthly basis as well as some share in the equity, so they can sell that share back when the time comes to move. This means developing micro-financing and ways of reducing transaction costs.
I'm sure there are other good ideas out there. We are an increasingly mobile society for whom the 30-year mortgage (both in price and transaction costs) may not be compatible with the number of career and location changes we are likely to make in our lives. We are allowing landlords to make significant profits while allowing properties to decay. We are forcing external costs on to tenants for lack of a profit motive. I'm happy to be looking at my experiences as a renter from the other side, and I'm happy to have a driveway to shovel, because it's my driveway, and when I shovel it, i know I'll come home and be able to park my car there. My employer is happy because I don't waste any mental energy worrying if I'll have a place to park every night. Everybody wins, but the path here was not easy, and lots of things could have made it impossible. There's got to be a beter way.