"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, December 20, 2013

Why Calling Slumlords “Maggots” Disrespects Maggots

          I’m going to take a holiday break after this post, and will return on the first Friday of the New Year.  Beginning in January, I will begin to publish, on an irregular basis, a series of posts discussing how things got to be the way they are; what happened to our urban areas after the Second World War.  The process is called “Disinvestment,” and it involves several topics.  Much of it is old news, but still misunderstood.  But I don’t want you to think that the process is over.  That’s why I am going to introduce this series by discussing a continuing source of urban decay, one that still eats away at our urban areas, large or small, to this day.  With both the Holidays and cold the weather upon us, it is appropriate to begin our review of “Disinvestment” with a thought to the people struggling to survive in cold, drafty and unheated hovels, the human victims of the decay that still stalks our urban areas.
     The collective name for this source of decay is “slumlords.”  Compared to the forces that swept over our urban areas in previous decades, they are as microscopic as bacteria.  It’s their numbers that make them harmful, because their numbers are huge.  Decay is what slumlords bring to any town or city they infest.  They are each so small and collectively so pervasive that an afflicted municipality often concludes that going after this source of decay is just not worth the effort.  That’s because a slumlord is often a very minor player, who may own only some, a few, or maybe even just one deteriorating residential building, and who takes more than full advantage of our legal system’s support of private property and the requirement for (expensive) due process.
     Many have referred to them as “maggots,” an enormously pejorative term.  I can’t use it, unfortunately, because it would give maggots a bad name.  Maggots eat diseased or dead tissue.  They can actually be a part of the healing process (remember in the movie Gladiator when Maximus is advised not to brush the maggots off his wound?).  The same cannot be said of slumlords.  They have no redeeming social value.  I am tempted to call them “vermin,” because, as Wikipedia puts it, “Use of the term implies the need for extermination programs.”  But I resist.
     Please do not confuse slumlord with landlord; slumlords are a diseased mutation of an otherwise respectable—and very necessary—type of businessperson.  A landlord invests in properties to maintain and upgrade them; in urban communities, with their high percentage of renters, good landlords are an asset.  Slumlords, by contrast, operate under a very different premise; they simply extract value from properties and let them deteriorate.  Their business model maximizes profit by avoiding maintenance.  They work their mischief on residential buildings.  Large manufacturing or commercial buildings have little value after their industries and businesses have left en-masse, and unless they are lucky enough to be converted into self-storage sites, quickly become the most individually obvious statements of urban decay.  Residences take longer, because they have value to their new owners long after they have ceased to be homes to those that cared for them.  I say “new” owners, because slumlords will have recently purchased those buildings in those neighborhoods.  They got them cheap, precisely because those who called them “home” have left.  This means they have to rent them cheap.  Under such conditions, profit increases as maintenance decreases.  As their properties deteriorate, they rent to less and less desirable people, who make a progressively greater contribution to the decay of the building.  The cycle continues, steadily downward.  When there is no more profit to extract without actually investing money to sustain the properties, they usually abandon them.  If the neighbors are lucky, the city tears them down.  More often they simply become residences for even less desirable occupants.  In this manner the physical plant of a city, the buildings themselves, slowly, quietly deteriorates.   Slumlords undermine the residences of our cities until they collapse, often all too literally.

     Slumlords function best in the shadows, rather like harmful bacteria; prolonged exposure to the light of public scrutiny can be fatal.  Fortunately, there are groups dedicated to exactly that.  Here’s one whose work is particularly needed during the holiday season:  The Tenant Association Of Allentown.  Slumlords are their target, and they are relentless.   They take photos of the sores these slumlords are cultivating in Allentown, identify the addresses, actively seek the names of the slumlords themselves, and publish a “Do Not Rent From” list.  They just keep coming; they build their case plain fact by plain fact, irrefutable photo after irrefutable photo.  All of this in addition to a constant series of posts informing tenants about both their rights and their responsibilities, by the way.  That they have managed to attract personal abuse is testimony to their effectiveness.  The Tenant Association of Allentown is not alone in this approach, nor are such organizations limited to Pennsylvania, by any means (a shout-out here to both Philadelinquency and Baltimore Slumlord Watch).  I support them all, and seek to call your attention to all of them during what should be a time of personal reflection, regardless of personal belief; a brief opportunity to place God over Mammon.