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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