Across the street is a partially run down home, with the front screen door off its hinges, peeling paint all around the house, and a partially collapsed garage door. This is the site you see outside your front window every day. What you also see are the kids that leave for school every morning from that house and it makes you wonder how that family is able to tolerate the conditions they are living in. Selfishly, you also wonder about your own home’s value being that close to this deteriorating rental home.
The Inner-Ring Rental Home Kingdom
The physical conditions of rental homes, of the single family or duplex variety, are a major concern for citizens in both inner-city and inner-suburb. Recently in the city of Warren, MI, which borders Detroit to the north, an initiative has begun to get more owners of rental homes to register their properties with the city. The fees involved with registering are a revenue generator for the city for sure, but the process ultimately results in city inspections that ensure the house is up to code. Also involved in the process is obtaining up-to-date records of where the property owner lives. Warren is an inner ring suburb, and as per usual of such cities is a housing stock that is smaller post-war homes that have now become ideal rental properties as compared to owner-occupied units. Warren is reacting to a growing presence of slumlords that in turn are adding to the amount of dilapidated homes.
Warren and other suburban municipalities have to confront the sorts of rental issues that the central cities have dealt with for quite some time, albeit without the same density of units and perhaps more importantly without the intentionality of having these rental units in the first place. Bernadette Hanlon’s 2010 book Once the American dream: inner-ring suburbs of the metropolitan United States talks much about the reasons why inner-ring suburbs face the challenges they presently do. Hanlon points out that the modern-day home is indeed “more than twice the size of the average house built in 1950” (P.47). These homes were, however, single-family homes, and intentionally so. With the change in American preference for larger home size the inner-ring suburb has become ideal for rental homes because of their physical characteristics. Ironically enough, some of the owners of these homes often live in the exurb inside the larger, newer home, and may consider the old neighborhood in a less desirable light in comparison to their McMansion paradise.
On the Ground and from Within
Warren’s reaction is but one source of a stance against the creation of the inner-ring slumlord, but what other examples exist that can assist in stabilizing these rental communities? An active citizenry of the rental community is certainly one route, demonstrated by the Baltimore, Maryland group Baltimore Slumlord Watch. Concerned citizens in this group do what the internet is good at, publicly posting something that was once thought of as hidden. Making transparent who the owner is of a particular run down property is not entirely flattering for said owner and hopefully leads to public action against such properties.
In a proactive example, rental owners can come together to help each other out and provide a vehicle for dialogue with the citizenry. The Winnipeg Rental Property Owners Association states the issue at hand rather bluntly:
“We know that there is little public sympathy toward landlords, and the term ‘landlord’ often has negative connotations. We are seen as greedy, uncaring and heartless individuals who get rich by taking advantage of poor families, and contribute to the decline of the inner city through neglect of our properties.”
With that sort of self-characterization follows the goal of such a group:
“We intend to change the way the public perceives landlords, by educating and informing them of the vital contributions we make toward inner-city housing, as responsible rental property owners. We will demonstrate how much better that housing could be, with the right supports and policies in place, and a collaborative effort with our three levels of government.”
A Place to Rent
If cities like Warren want to move forward on the rental housing issue, they must do so with the help of both sides of the issue. Perhaps a neighborhood watch as intense as the Baltimore Slumlord Watch may not occur in this inner-ring setting. But the single concerned citizen about a certain property’s condition must be heard, and perhaps community leaders will form out of this process. That rental property owners may band together on their own to fight for their collective reputations may not happen any time soon either, but perhaps the city could facilitate gatherings for such owners to come together and to discuss between owners their collective concerns and challenges. Who knows, that process may even be bringing old neighbors back together who once lived down the street from each other.