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

Gloria Steinem

Thursday, May 22, 2014

How About a Facebook Anti-Slumlord Alliance?

I began a series of posts in January of this year discussing what academics term “disinvestment,” and most everybody else calls “how things got to be so bad in our cities and towns.”  There is a lot to the story, and I am not finished.  The historical focus of this blog has, however, led me to neglect one of my most pressing duties in the present: publicizing and shaming those in our towns and cities who today practice the cruelest form of disinvestment, SLUMLORDS.  I introduced the historical series over the holidays with a post on that very subject, and feel compelled to return to it now.

Slumlords are a national problem; they infest large cities and small towns where they slowly drain the value from our stock of urban housing.  Much more to the point, however, is that they mistreat those who are most vulnerable to such treatment and the least equipped to resist, the poor.  They flaunt the law (which is fundamentally designed to protect property owners anyway), because it is usually cheaper to pay a fine than to obey the law in the first place.

Not so long ago, each group struggling against such a pervasive menace operated largely in a vacuum.  Its potential strength of both activists and supporters was limited to those in the same community.  This placed them at an immediate disadvantage (which still exists today), because the opposition was organized, funded and connected.  The only answer was to “organize, organize, organize,” to grow in both numbers and influence.  Still, regardless of good intentions and effort expended, growing itself all too often sowed the seeds of internal discord.  There are as many reasons for this outcome as there are examples, but underlying every one was a fundamental and unavoidable problem that has not gone away: human beings are complex, and largely ruled by instinct and emotion.  Thus it often happens that a group of people discovers that many of them simply do not like each other enough to even work together occasionally in a common cause.  The result is bickering and membership decline, followed by the end of both the group and the still-needed effort.  In larger communities, the essentially same problem gets multiplied when groups of people need to work with each other.  Then, in addition to the inevitable intra-group friction, you create friction between the groups themselves, because you add jockeying for power, influence and credit.  The result is even more effort expended to overcome these unfortunate but all too human inevitabilities, and consequently less effort directed at the actual objective.

But now we have the Internet, which offers an (admittedly imperfect) opportunity to enjoy the benefits that accrue to numbers while bypassing any need to actually gather together.  As Nextdoor is a great way for people within a neighborhood or community to communicate, so might Facebook be for communication between communities, regardless of the physical distance between them.

I did a quick, and quite incomplete, Facebook search for groups containing the word “slumlord.”  I found thirty-three, not counting two in Canada, one for a band and one for a soccer team.  Had I been more inventive with my searches, I am sure I would have increased the number.  I also checked into groups with the word “slum” in them, and came up with two of that separate “slum” and “lord.”  A search for pages with “tenant association” in the title produced far too many to deal with, although many obviously exist to deal with this problem, so I decided to stick with direct references to slumlords. 

I know of four such pages that do not use “slumlord” in their titles at all, and would not pop up under any search, but deserve mention.   “Scumlord Buster” in Baltimore truly walks the walk, and you should learn more about her and her work; it’s quite impressive.  “Allentown Tenant Association” and “Philadelinquency” are equally relentless advocates for tenant rights in their respective cities.  I must also call attention to my good friend behind “Golden Cockroach.”  She labors ceaselessly against slumlords in the not-so-well-known Borough of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and could use some support.  That’s one reason I write this post.  I am sure there are many more such groups in many more urban communities, and that’s the other reason I write this.

My quick and decidedly unscientific search, plus a little existing knowledge, thus unearthed with little effort more than 36 Facebook pages dedicated to exposing the evils of slumlords, subjecting them to well-deserved public exposure and aiding their victims.  Seventeen of the pages are geographically specific (I did not count “from Hell” in this category).  A few seem to seek national awareness through the wide applicability of their names.  “New Rental Laws to Protect Tenants from Slumlords” takes a needed positive tack, and deserves both national awareness and national support.  Sharing information about how such laws can be standardized and implemented could be a useful result of anti-slumlord groups using the Internet to communicate.
Numbers tell an interesting story (as they usually do), and these numbers are all over the place.  The aforementioned “Allentown Tenant Association” has 4,396 “likes,” making them the informal “best known” in my survey.  Of those surveyed that count “members,” “Slumlord Watch of Columbus, Ohio” leads the list with 431.  “Slum Lords of Augusta Ga.” with 419 members is close behind, while the wider-focused “Slum Land Lords of Southwest Pa.” has 337 members.  By contrast, five of the 36 or so pages surveyed have only one member; three have only two.  Far too many have fewer than ten.  More than one makes you a “group,” but numbers do relate to influence; low numbers, little influence.

Regardless of a group’s size, reach or intent, all can benefit from more people knowing about them and about what they do.  That’s why I am advocating a “Facebook Alliance” of anti-slumlord groups and individuals.  Such an alliance would be purely electronic, of course, which makes it doable, even by those like myself who are less than Internet-savvy.  If you already have a page, you already do the work; why don’t you spread knowledge of yourself and what you’re doing as widely as you can?  Seek out other groups and get on each other’s timelines; we’re talking about multiplication here, not addition.

Here’s what I recommend, however presumptuously, that each of these groups do, regardless of size:

First:  Get In Contact With Each Other (after doing a better Facebook search than I did).  Do it even if it’s just to say “hi, we exist, we know you exist, and we know what you’re up against.”  Each group’s efforts, if seen only by that group, are so frustrating, with few measurable successes in the face of such apathy, that a feeling of “what’s the point?” is inevitable.  That’s where “Facebook friends” can help.  Let everyone else know about you, and about each other.

Second: Inform Each Other.  Post on each other’s timeline, comment (by which I mean offer useful advice) and spreading the word.  The names and faces will differ, but much else is quite the same.  It also means spreading useful knowledge, perhaps about “New Rental Laws to Protect Tenants from Slumlords,” or whatever you, from your experience, think will benefit those fighting the same battle in different location.

Third: Seek Help When The Digital Age Can Provide It.  Publicity is an extraordinarily powerful thing is today’s world; the problem is how to get it in the first place, then how make it go viral.  Petitions are now electronic, and thus so can Declarations, Manifestos, or whatever else you can craft to gain attention.  A network of anti-slumlord Facebook pages has great potential to spread the word quickly and widely, thus greatly increasing your chances of being heard.

In fact, a network of anti-Slumlord Facebook pages has potential in a number of areas.  It offers an unprecedented opportunity to spread the word about an issue that is too complex for Twitter, and one whose difficulties and conundrums should be better understood by those involved in it.  There always has been strength in numbers, but that pesky personality thing kept rearing its ugly head.  That’s the beauty of the Internet, you don’t have to actually know, or even meet, your allies and “friends.”  Yet you can be both allies and friends, in the truest sense of the word: those who tell you when you are right, but correct you when you are wrong, and who support you regardless. 

So, spread the word about yourself to each other, and stay in touch.  You do not have to have “slumlord” in your group’s name, just an interest in righting the wrongs they do.  You can exist in a large city, a small town or anywhere else, because slumlords are everywhere.  You don’t even need to belong to a group.  If you—or your group—seek to improve your urban environment, then the war against slumlords is your war.  Join it, at least by letting others know they are not alone.

BTW: For those of you in such groups who are encountering me for the first time, here is a link to a previous post that sums up my position on slumlords.