Renovating Renting

Over at The Atlantic Cities, Emily Badger writes on the plight of that most vulnerable of demographics: professional singles and couples torn between the mobility of renting and the security of homeownership.

The smallest rental units in Canada–‘micro-lofts’ in the Burns Block in Gastown

“The Anxiety of the Forever Renter,” she reflects, isn’t a matter of economic insecurity (perhaps because that’s already a given)–after all, the housing crisis is just an exclamation point on the broader historical finding that residential real estate isn’t a winning investment. What troubles her are the quotidian woes and indignities of sharing the rights to one’s home with a landlord:

There’s something fundamentally demeaning about being a renter, about having to ask permission to change the showerhead, about having to mentally deduct future losses from deposit checks for each nail hammered into the wall to hang family photos.

and

More recently, my husband called our property manager to announce a long-awaited addition to our household that we thought would be welcome.

“I just got a job,” he told her, literally on the day that he had just gotten a job. “And my wife said when I get a job, I can have a dog. So I’m calling to tell you I’m getting a dog.”

As it turns out, we will not be getting a dog.

Having adopted a Thatcheresque aspiration in this vein–“A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself without a dog can count himself as a failure”–the extent to which renting forecloses certain lifestyles poses some tough choices. I wonder, though, how much anxiety over the rise in middle-class people renting past their 20s and early 30s is inherent to the market relationship of renter to landlord or the unwritten social contract between tenants and neighbors, and how much is simply a hangover of the norms we’ve adopted after three generations of an “ownership society.” For example, we tend to treat the indignities of getting the landlord’s okay to build a window flower box as a hardship of the powerless, while being scolded by the neighborhood association is the burden of the well-to-do.

Part of this problem is that, globe-trotting knowledge workers notwithstanding, renting households remain are more likely to be single-earner, low-income, and low-wealth. I can empathize with Badger’s desire to have her cake and eat it too, but her vision of “some system that decouples ‘renter’ status from income class” follows from the kind of thinking that turned the inconveniences of renting into a special affliction of the young and marginalized in the first place. As a new demographic of older and wealthier renters emerges, a strategy that emphasizes their uniqueness and tries to opt out of the system is probably the worst possible outcome.

Instead, I hope to see a movement that empowers renters across the income spectrum. Insofar as upper-middle-class professionals feel oppressed by their scumbag landlords, let me suggest that they band together with their neighbors, across the hall and across town, and put their influence and energy into demanding better treatment and accountability from their landlords. Tenants unions, such as the 59 member organizations of the International Union of Tenants, provide a good starting point for this kind of activism. Tenants organizations have helped promote regulations that prevent abusive practices–for example, laws requiring that landlords provide photographic evidence of damage in order to withhold a former tenant’s security deposit.

Housing the hyper-mobile professional workforce of tomorrow is a serious challenge, and engaging them in local activism won’t be easy. But homeowners and homebuilders were able to carve out a set of tremendously favorable policies for themselves 60 years ago. If tenants can organize themselves into a real constituency, perhaps they can re-balance the playing field for those who rent by choice–and maybe give a little power to the many renters who don’t.

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3 thoughts on “Renovating Renting

  1. I certainly lik e the idea of tenants’ unions, and as a greater proportion of renters will be made by upper middle class professionals or, at least, higher educated professionals, some of these changes will likely occur. After all, this represents the addition of a critical mass of people who at least know how to navigate the legal landscape or have enough disposable income to devote to funding a cause. This wasn’t always the case with the vast majority of renters. On the subject of renting, there are big benefits to renting. Yes, they can’t have a dog, but they do have the ability to uproot themselves and move relatively easily without having to deal with the added stress of putting a house on a market; there is also the benefit of not having to be liable for repairs. Many of my friends who own seem to spend an unbelievable amount of time and money fixing their homes. Most young people I know who own in Vancouver invariably own a condo so they have to pay a strata fee, so they get the “joy” of paying a rent-like fee on top of their mortgage all so that they can get things taken care of that the property manager in my rental building takes care of for “free”. Finally, I call attention to empirical evidence that owners are not necessarily fitter, happier or more productive than renters (Rossi & Webber, 1997); they are more financially sound, but they would have to be – their equity is tied in a home!

  2. Great post, Tim! I totally saw discrimination against renters when I worked with neighborhood planning from owner-residents in the neighborhoods. University Hill Farms, for example, is composed of moderately wealthy homeowners on one side, and one of the highest concentrations of racially diverse renters in the city (outside of, say, the downtown core or Eagle Heights). The neighborhood association boundary was drawn specifically to exclude the renters, and they were a bit miffed when we told them that the steering committee for their neighborhood plan should be representative – as many or more renter reps than owner reps.

    In neighborhood planning, we often talked about how it was more difficult to engage renters – if they’re mobile, they don’t always develop strong roots in a neighborhood and engage, or students are too busy, or low-income families with multiple jobs and/or children don’t have the time or resources to engage. We can’t discount disadvantaged communities – they’re the ones who may stand to gain the most from community investments, rather then the retired home-owners who show up to meetings to complain about a sidewalk being added to their street or – *gasp!*- a three-story building going up in their neighborhood.

    For destigmatization, maybe we need more rental diversity? Rental attractions above and beyond cheaper rents and not having to fix the leaky faucets, stuff like strong TOD neighborhoods. Or just having apartment units that accept dogs! Bob showed me a pair of apartment buildings in downtown Minneapolis near a park that is one of the only places that accepts dogs, and apparently something like 90% of the renters there are dog-owners.

    Diversity could also mean diversity in ownership structure – co-ops and co-housing situations could be very appealing to young professionals, for example, and could merge some aspects of renting and traditional ownership.

    Anyway, just a few rambling thoughts! I might put together something more coherent when I’ve had more sleep. 🙂

  3. Great post, and interesting article. The rent vs. own is a difficult question for sure (unless you live in Vancouver, where the question is rent or leave). I wonder if, when I eventually make enough money to afford to buy, the numbers will favour renting or buying. I did a calculation just the other day based on renting or buying a 3 bedroom place in Edmonton and found that, if strata fees were reasonably low (usually only the case in a duplex it seems) I would still save more by renting and investing the differential in something else. That is, the delta between the all-in housing costs of renting and owning is greater than the principle paid down on the mortgage with each payment. This delta is far greater in Vancouver as well. That being said, I’d like to see some long range financial planning based on renting and buying scenarios. You have to save a lot of money renting during your working life to pay your rent for the 20-30 years of life without an income we can now expect.

    There is another difficult issue to address if we truly transition to less home ownership: that of government support for housing. Right now, government funding and tax policy overwhelmingly supports ownership, not tenancy. Sure, this is a cultural thing based on ideas about the good life and responsible people buying property, but there is an equity element too. It is less politically risky for a government to financially support thousands or millions of individual homeowners than it is to support a small group of land barons who charge rent and set the terms. I know governments are in the business of giving more money to the rich all the time, but they try to at least be discreet about it. You would need some carefully crafted policy to help tenants without just lining the pockets of landlords and raising median rents across the board.

    As for tenant/landlord conflicts, that is a two-way street. My parents rent out a house and have been left with thousands of dollars in damage bills and other costs because of irresponsible tenants.

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