The following is a paper I wrote for one of my lower level English classes at NSU. Unfortunately, I was limited to less than 10 pages, so this was a very short and concise paper and not exhaustive regarding how irresponsible landlords contribute a majority to urban blight. Just a note of warning, this paper was turned in to a national database in order to combat plagiarism. So if you landed on my blog and are thinking to use it for a paper submission, I would suggest you think again. 🙂 Without further ado, here is my opinion regarding combatting urban blight.
Responsible Landlord Practices Key in Combatting Urban Blight
Venture into the urban core of any American city and empty buildings, boarded up windows, decay and blight are normal sights to see. Every city battles this problem and although there may be other factors that cause urban decay, absentee landlords seem to be at the heart of the matter. Slumlords are typically landlords who do not pay attention to repairs needing to be made on their properties and who attempt to gain as much profit as they can from the least amount of expenditure. Landlords who operate in this manner generally have their own interests at heart rather than their tenants’ interest at heart. In order to remediate urban blight, we will have to employ ways of limiting the root cause: unethical landlord practices.
Shortly after WWII, many families sought the quiet ideal life in suburbia. The automobile made it possible for people to travel farther and to live outside city limits. Even though many people sought the ideal life on the fringe of the city, many of the city’s poorer residents remained due to their closeness to resources and jobs. In his 2001 book entitled Downtown: Its Rise and Fall, MIT urban historian Robert M. Fogelson writes that “The upper and middle classes were moving to the periphery and the suburbs, but the lower class, many of whose members belonged to one or another of the nation’s ethnic and racial minorities, were staying put — some because they did not want to move, others because they could not afford to” (318). When people migrated farther and farther from the heart of the city many urban properties and businesses suffered. As residents have disappeared, many abandoned buildings have been left in their wake. Little did America know that this mass exodus, starting in the late 1950’s, would be a contributing factor to urban blight and open the real estate arena to those seeking to maximize profits on homes declining in value. Compounded with the emptying city, over the past sixty years elderly long-time residents have started to pass away and children who have moved away from their family home and currently have no need of these properties end up boarding them up, leaving them empty or neglecting to pay the property tax. Many of these homes end up in tax sales and also bought by slumlords.
Unscrupulous landlords purchase declining properties for a relatively small amount of money and rent them out barely habitable in order to milk them dry, then turn around and sell them. This strategy, while effective in making a few quick bucks, is short sighted in the long run. Not only does this poor tactic adversely affect neighborhoods and property values, but it also promotes squalor and unhealthy living conditions. Chris Blank, a research consultant, in his article “Reasons for Urban Decay” contends that “Slumlords have been a factor in urban decay in the U.S. for many decades. In the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, ethnic enclaves were often filled with buildings owned by slumlords, who spent little or no money or effort to maintain them. Even in the early 21st century, absentee slumlords are a major factor in contributing to urban decay.” It is apparent that landlords have operated slums for many years and have been left unchecked without any strong supervision or oversight by city planning officials. Owning real estate generally falls under investments and many states do not require that a landlord have a business license in order to buy or rent real property. In effect, landlords have very little administration other than city ordinances over managing their properties. This lack of control has escalated blight due to the ineffective management strategies of irresponsible landlords.
When blight is present in an urban neighborhood, it contributes to the perspective of the area being crime ridden and when searching for a home to purchase, a prospective buyer will generally look for an area they perceive to be safe and well maintained. Many urban areas across the U.S. are eyesores and property values are low because they do not present a tempting package to those in the market for a home. G. E. Breger, a journalist for Land Economics, in his article “The Concept And Causes Of Urban Blight” asserts that “Not infrequently the appearance and activities of neighborhood residents add conspicuously to collective corrosion. Or in nonresidential neighborhoods employees or customer clientele may be responsible for this detractive attribute. Of far greater importance, blighted neighborhoods generally spawn crime and disease, and thus evoke fear throughout the community.” These factors decrease desirability and drive prospective homeowners away. Slumlords contribute to the unseemliness of the area, not only by not making repairs, but also many slumlords are in the practice of emptying a previous renter’s belongings out on the curb where they will remain for days, if not weeks, until they are picked up and discarded reducing the already waning property’s curb appeal. Many of the reasons for this type of blight point back to poor or lack of maintenance by landlords.
Proper maintenance and reinvestment in rental properties are the keys to reduce blight and cause property values to escalate. Landlords reinvesting funds into older real property is essential in bringing about new life in urban areas. In other words, landlords should seek to sustain their properties by providing proper maintenance which will in turn allow property values to increase and this is the better financial venture in the long run. An older home provides benefits that newer suburban homes may not. In older neighborhoods, lot sizes tend to be bigger and in the earlier 19th century, home construction was very sound. Not only would better maintenance cause an urban property to appreciate, but communities and cities would also benefit as a whole.
Some landlords argue that renters are just as responsible for upkeep and maintaining their rental unit. While I agree in part that a renter is responsible for keeping their rental clean, the landlord is responsible to facilitate repairs and keep the property free from safety and health hazards. Landlords are responsible for making all necessary repairs and also perform maintenance or remedy a problem after being notified by the renter. If the landlord fails to take measures to correct the defect, generally the renter has a remedy through the City’s code enforcement or Attorney General’s office to take action against the derelict landlord. However, many renters fear eviction if they speak up or press the issue with their inattentive landlord, so they put up with the neglect. Many of the homes slumlords choose to purchase are in deteriorating neighborhoods. The houses purchased are already in dire need of maintenance and many times the slumlord will make enough repairs on a home to pass a housing inspection in order to rent it out. Renters, even if they wanted to repair their rental units, generally do not make enough money to facilitate repairs and probably would not rent such sadly abused properties in the first place if they were able to afford something better. Many slumlords accept Section 8 housing vouchers which subsidize low income families’ rent. However, Blank asserts that “Without funds to maintain aging housing stock, and high concentrations of very poor residents, public housing developments became decrepit and dangerous, and a major center of urban decay in many cities.” Many renters, even if they wanted to move, may not have the funds to secure better housing or to even fund the cost of moving from one rental to the other. Faced with the decision of putting food on the table or repairing a property they do not own, many renters will do what they need to survive and ignore the poor condition of the unit. Not all of the landlords are unethical and there are property owners who maintain their buildings, however, a good majority of these urban homes are owned by absentee landlords who do not properly sustain their buildings. Slumlords generally maximize profits by living off of the indigent and have no concern regarding their renters’ state of living. In order to combat this disturbing trend in our inner cities, new strategies will need to be employed.
Some cities require landlords to obtain a business license in order rent properties. This is not a consistent practice across the board, but in the urban areas that have required landlords to obtain licensure, they have experienced a small revival in their cities. Salt Lake City, Utah for example requires all landlords to obtain a business license annually and attend an eight hour training course every three years. During this training, landlords are instructed on how to do credit and criminal background checks on perspective renters, as well as learn ethical landlord practices. According to the Utah Apartment Association “the programs have helped reduce the number of so-called slumlords – landlords who shirk their responsibilities to tenants and the surrounding community.” All funds received for the landlord business license are then funneled back into the area by way of code enforcement and police protection. If urban cities implemented a similar license requirement, this practice would not only educate landlords, it would hold them responsible through their licensure. Having an oversight committee would encourage more involvement of landlords in the administration of their properties.
In order to reverse urban blight, we must find ways to limit slumlords from gaining control of multiple properties and also encourage better maintenance practices on the buildings they do own. One way to limit the control of properties is to re-zone urban areas and enforce deed restrictions in areas with high rental property. A deed restriction is a limitation on the use of a property. Deed restrictions have been proven to be a useful tool for many years to enforce such things as mineral and water rights, easements for particular uses and restrictive covenants. Most deed restrictions that are employed currently have been applied to new homes and in connection with home owner’s association. Deed restrictions have been very effective in maintaining property values in new neighborhoods due to their preventative qualities. Other types of deed restrictions utilized restrict homes to being sold only to permanent residents. For example, in a certain area, a prospective buyer may be required to be a resident and live in the house at least eight months of the year before being allowed to purchase it. Another benefit of re-zoning neighborhoods and creating deed restrictions on properties is that the percentage of rentals and homeowners is closely monitored.
Deed restrictions are a tool used most recently by tourist towns where most of the properties are owned by once a year vacationers. What happens in some of these desirable vacation areas is that most of the property is bought by the rich or elite and then become private vacation homes or rentals. This in turn limits area residents from being able to purchase or rent housing since the high demand drives up property prices. Many times, rentals are only available for vacationers and are not open to year round residents of the area. City officials noted that this phenomenon causes many properties to remain empty and susceptible to theft for most of the year, as well as severely limiting housing options for area residents. In order to solve this dilemma, many towns rezone neighborhoods and implement deed restrictions where a percentage of the properties sold have to be lived in a minimum amount of months out of the year by the person purchasing the property. For example, if properties are purchased in Zone 1, the deed restrictions in that area require that at least 40% of the purchased properties must be lived in by permanent residents at least eight months of the year. The other properties in Zone 1 can be bought and rented. A tight control over how many are rentals and how many are residential units is maintained by the city’s zoning committee. If these kinds of zoning ordinances and deed restrictions were employed in urban areas, the city can then in turn limit the amount of houses purchased by slumlords. This would create safe, affordable, clean and habitable places to live for low income residents, as well as re-opening the housing market to permanent residents and homeowners.
Secondly, deed restrictions outline a standard of maintenance for the houses located in various zones. Many of the requirements require that the house be free of peeling paint, broken windows or shutters; rotten wood and all manner of general health and safety hazards. Failure to comply with the maintenance issues results in tickets, fines, penalties and eventually court dates. Faced with such a high standard, slumlords who are thinking to make fast and easy money will shy away from properties requiring so much attention and maintenance. The number of maintenance code violations increase in urban areas as houses age and the percentage of home ownership declines. Many cities have taken note of the growing epidemic of downtown dilapidation and have started exploring ways to revitalize their areas. Limiting the amount of property that can be owned for the purpose of renting will promote home ownership and bring in more permanent residents to help sustain the area. Homeowners generally invest in their homes and perform maintenance out of necessity. Homeownership also fosters pride in self and pride in the community. This is not to suggest that renters should be pushed out of the area, on the contrary, renters are valuable to downtown and urban areas where condos and large buildings are located. Without renters, these buildings would not thrive. However, balancing the amount of rentals versus owned properties is crucial to urban revitalization. In order to even the numbers, oversight of the maintenance of the properties in these re-zoned areas would be key and, as suggested above, those wishing to profit on the indigent, will either become educated in the area of appropriate landlord practices, or shy away from properties because of the extensive requirements.
If we do not have people willing to relocate to these areas due to blight, then our inner cities will continue to suffer. University of Seattle Business professors William Weis and David Arneson in their article entitled “Thriving As A City In Year 2020: A Model For Urban Vitality” point out “No one wants to live in a pig pen. Indeed, we want our living environment to be as attractive and as pleasant as we can make it, and that goes for our neighborhood as well.” Weis and Arneson argue that to become a thriving urban center by the year 2020, good planning will need to take place now to draw people back to the urban core. “Without the people, there is no city. In the developed world, the most economically vibrant cities are those most densely populated. Period. No exceptions. What are left today of American urban centers are sparsely, not densely, populated.” If plans to check urban blight are not put in to place now, downtown areas will irreversibly decline. In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Sicinius asks “What is the city but the people?” (Shakespeare, III,1,1975).
It has been predicted that due to the recent economic downturn and gas prices, many people will start to return to urban areas due to resources being closer to home and housing being more affordable. USAToday journalist Haya El Nasser in her article entitled “Will ‘intelligent Cities’ Put an End to Suburban Sprawl?” affirms that “Suburbs far from urban centers suffered the biggest drop in housing values, and many studies show transportation savings for those who live in or close to cities. This urban revival is fueled by the fact that cities have fared better than many suburbs in the economic downturn because the resulting housing bust put the brakes on many people moving to bigger houses or newer communities.” If this precedent continues, the need for a new solution will be critical and re-zoning neighborhoods will become a must. The reversal of the mass exodus to the suburbs could potentially bring good benefits to our inner cities as people search for lower cost housing in urban areas. Alan Greenblatt, in his article entitled “Downtown Renaissance” insists that “After decades of decline, America’s downtowns are making a comeback. From Phoenix to Philadelphia, from Memphis to Minneapolis, once derelict areas have become clean.” If city officials would organize now and start requiring business licenses of landlords in order to rent units within the city and by rezoning these regions with the implementation of deed restrictions, everything will be in place for these returning residents to breathe new life into these metropolitan communities. Those citizens seeking to become urban dwellers will have little more to do than to jump off the spring board into urban revitalization.