"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.