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

Gloria Steinem

Friday, April 17, 2015

Focus on the Landlord, Not The Tenant

I wrote a two-part series on February 20th and March 6th about the effort—and time—required to remove a Housing Choice Voucher from a woman who was clearly abusing it.  My focus was on how hard it is to get something like that done, but I did mention the contrasting actions of the two landlords involved in the ongoing scam.  I want to return to that point, because those contrasting responses illustrate an important fact that we often lose sight of when discussing the “Section 8” issue.  We obsess about obnoxious tenants, but ignore their landlords.  That is a serious mistake.

The lady in question pulled her scams on two landlords.  One reported her, in an attempt to protect his property from further damage.  She then moved, and found a landlord who didn’t care what she did.  During the several month period when a neighbor was monitoring both her activities and the slow-moving wheels of the Montgomery County Housing Authority, there is no evidence that her new landlord so much as lifted a finger to address the issues his tenant was causing in the neighborhood.  The contrast between their attitudes demonstrates the difference between a landlord and a slumlord, and why we should at least match our anger at welfare cheats with anger toward those who enable them.

But first, a point about the importance of landlords to a healthy urban community.  Critics of urban life tend to use the percentage of rental units as something of a shorthand for the health of an urban community.  The implicit assumption is that the lower the percentage of rentals—and the higher the percentage of home owners—the better.  That impression is not correct if utilized as an assumption.  While we all acknowledge the importance of homeownership, the simple fact is that not everyone can—or should—own a home, particularly in an urban area.  Rental units always have been, are now and always will be a significant component of any urban neighborhood (in the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I rent an apartment).

The second problem with fixating on rentals vs. homeowners is that a focus on the raw number of rentals is not productive, because it misses the central point.  Forget the percentage of rental properties; there is a much more important question on which to focus:  are those who own the rental buildings LANDLORDS, or are they SLUMLORDS?  To me, there is a clear distinction between a landlord and a slumlord.  Both own rental properties to earn a profit, but their similarity pretty much ends at that point.  Landlords maintain their properties, and try to ensure that their tenants obey the rules and the law.  Slumlords maximize their profit by avoiding maintenance and don’t care about what their tenants might be doing.  Slumlords find Housing Choice Vouchers too lucrative to resist, and let their properties steadily deteriorate while they squeeze out the maximum profit from them.  Landlords may accept a Voucher, but continue to maintain their property in a good condition.  This means that good landlords are a necessary nutrient for a healthy community, while slumlords are a cancer that saps a community’s health.

Remember: most of the tax money we pay to support “Section 8” actually ends up in the pockets of landlords.  The Voucher holder never touches it; it goes straight from the Housing Authority to the property owner/manager.  We focus on the tenant because he or she provides the obvious evidence of the program’s faults, but we ignore the owner.  If property owners cared for their properties, couldn’t the number of Voucher atrocities be cut substantially?

The answer to that question borders on the obvious, but what can residents of towns afflicted with slumlords and rotten tenants actually do?  Individual efforts, as I recounted earlier, are always difficult and can be dangerous.  Municipal governments have proved to be largely incapable of conceiving and initiating any programs to tackle the problem.  So, if it’s dangerous to do individually and you don’t trust your government, how about a private company?  Isn’t it the grand American capitalist tradition to look to private initiatives instead of just waiting for those from the government? 

“Betterlandlord.us” is just such a company.  The firm is based in Utah, where it has established a successful track record offering an approach it calls the “Better Landlord Program.”  The first step is a survey that involves identifying all rental properties in a municipality (including those with “shadow landlords”) and mapping them, then analyzing the costs of providing services like police and code enforcement to these properties.  It uses the information gathered to set licensing fees for rentals.  These fees are the “stick” to prod landlords into joining the program.  Betterlandlords.us offers offers classes for property owners on how to become better landlords, briefing them on good property management practices, borough ordinances and how to attract better tenants.  Property owners who take the course sign an agreement that they will take steps to reduce crime, vandalism and blight on their properties.  If they don’t complete the course or follow the agreement, they are terminated from the program and forced to pay the licensing fees for their properties.  Those who follow the program have the fees waived.  The company claims that it provides a sufficient "carrot" by pointing out how landlords can make more money through property improvements and an improving rental market.  Such a program must be established by a municipal council, which votes it into place, allocates funds for the initial study and then establishes the licensing fees.   There is flexibility in both the rules and the fees that allows each town to customize the program. 

Utah is far away, but some dedicated residents of Pottstown discovered the program and brought word of it to the Schuylkill Valley.  I want to offer major kudos to the Citizens Action Committee for Pottstown for recommending the program to their borough council.  Council voted (unanimously!) to undertake the program and allocated $18,500 to produce the initial survey.  Pottstown’s citizen activists tell me they are having trouble determining how much progress has been made to date, so we should all hold our opinions about how things are going to go.

I also found it fascinating that the Citizens Action Committee was invited to present the program to the Neighborhood Watch of Phoenixville.  Considering how everybody writes about how well Phoenixville is doing and how bad Pottstown is, the fact that residents of the former town are advising the latter demonstrates that reality is more complex than is publicized, and that no matter how well a town is doing, there is always room for improvement.

Will the “Good Landlord Program” work in Pottstown?  Will it be implemented in Phoenixville?  Stay tuned.  I will be following developments and reporting back to you.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The “Pottstown Expressway”: Opposite Ends, Opposite Fates

A development proposal has just been presented to West Norriton Township, Pa., my home of long residence, that allows me to revisit the subject of a previous post.  The fact that this new tidbit provides additional evidence that I was right the first time probably influenced my decision.

Picture if you will a road, a rather new and modern super highway, lanes separated by a median, accessible only by grade-separated cloverleafs, pretty much the whole nine yards.  It is very heavily traveled, in both directions.  At each end is a housing development.  They are by no means mirror images of one another, but both were built to take advantage of the new highway and the traffic it would bring.  That traffic has materialized, and more than had been planned for (surprise! surprise!).  The development at the road’s eastern end not only prospers, it has recently offered plans for a dramatic increase in units.  The one at the western end?  Opinions differ, but only in varying degrees of disappointment.  Why should this be?  For starters, because one development is adjacent to King of Prussia while the other is in Pottstown.

The fate of these two projects, one at each end of a new road, is testimony to how the construction of a road can be sold to the general public as one thing, when it is actually something quite different.  The road about which I write is U.S. Route 422, and I have written about it before, in my post on February 20, 2014 (Why Did They Build The “Pottstown Expressway”?).  That post contains what you should know about the project, but here is a brief summary: The road was sold to the public (who would pay for it) as a benefit to a needy community at one end.  Its true purpose, however, was to open for development the land along the road itself, to the benefit of a very different group of people.

The success of the road’s real purpose is beyond obvious, whether you live in the area or just have to drive through it.  This post is essentially just piling on, but the contrast between the two ends of the road has many facets, none of them good for Pottstown.  That deserves to be better known.

The two housing developments in question were built to take advantage of the same two things: a scenic river along which people would want to live, and a new, modern road to connect the new residents to their workplaces some distance away.  That very same combination—with a much stronger road component—is what drives the current building frenzy in the Conshohocken area, but it attracts the roving eye of entrepreneurs wherever it occurs.

It did so at each end of the "Pottstown Expressway," and two entrepreneurs chose to build housing developments at those points.  Pottstown Borough Council approved the Hanover Square Townhomes project in 2005.  The site had earlier hosted Mrs. Smith’s Pies, and great hopes were entertained for this repurposing of abandoned land.  Ownership changes and the economy postponed groundbreaking until 2009, after which the construction site was sold again, this time to Cornell Homes Inc.  It initially offered townhouses for sale, but the lack of response led to offering some for rent.  This has had decidedly mixed results.  

The eastern site is also an old industrial one, repurposed.  The area is known as Betzwood, after an early industrialist, and has hosted several occupants, but its brief early 20th-century turn as a movie studio for Lubin Films is its chief claim to fame.  It sits at the foot of the high bridge over the Schuylkill at that point, not quite at the end of Rt. 422, which is just a short distance away after crossing the river.  Brian O’Neill, who specializes in converting former “brownfield” industrial sites (and is a major player downriver in Conshohocken), won approval for what became “The Lofts at Valley Forge.”[1]  Additional units were later built on the same site, just downriver from The Lofts, and named Riverview Landing.  Its website inexplicably identifies Eagleville its location, but it is really in West Norriton.

While Hanover Square emphasizes affordability, The Lofts and Riverview Landing aim rather more upscale.  The Lofts pitches itself as “luxury waterfront homes for the Philadelphia and King of Prussia area.”  True, it is a considerably more picturesque location than that of Hanover Square, although marred by the huge bridge virtually overhead.  The bridge, of course, is what quickly connects their residents to King of Prussia, so its looming presence be damned.  Without it, there would be no Lofts at Valley Forge or Riverview Landing in the first place.  Want more evidence of success at this end of the road?  The Lofts and Riverview Landing are about to be joined by an additional 1,330 more apartments in four large buildings, somehow squeezed into the same site.  West Norriton has received the Conditional Use Request, and unless the township commissioners somehow grow a backbone and insist on more than one entrance for all these people and their cars, we can expect construction to start in due course.

So, it’s location, location and location, right?  King of Prussia is happening (and for those who crave something different, Phoenixville is nearby), and Pottstown isn’t, despite the “lifeline” road having been in place for some years now.  No one calls it the “Pottstown Expressway” any more; that was just a campaign slogan.  It’s just Route 422 now.  You can read a great deal about Route 422, its traffic nightmares and proposed solutions, but you won’t read anything about how it has energized Pottstown, because it hasn’t.  Then again, that wasn’t its real purpose in the first place, remember?  That was just the “party line,” and if you control the terms of the discourse, you determine the result. 

Is it any wonder I use the school cartoon I do to accompany my links on Facebook?

[1] In the interest of full disclosure, I must confirm that I, upon discovering that the original plans for The Lofts called for the destruction of the only two remaining buildings from the Lubin area, contacted the late Dr. Joseph Eckhardt, the leading authority on the Lubin studios.  Together we successfully lobbied for their retention.  I must also note that as this is written, a request has been made to West Norriton Township to allow the conversion of these two buildings into residences, in addition to all the others.