Monday, March 06, 2017

But what is to stop them from doing this?

We can yell until we're blue in the face about landlords threatening to jack up rents should City Council pass its "healthy homes" rental registry ordinance. But what is actually going to stop them from doing that? One gets the impression that proponents of the ordinance don't care. Or at least they don't care enough.

Back in January, a Gambit cover story on the ordinance, made plain the gross power imbalance that exists between landlords and tenants in the city.
Brown moved into the one-bedroom apartment in 2010. There were leaks in the foyer, holes under the kitchen sink, mold and mildew in the cabinets, and two broken air-conditioning units. She suffered through it for the affordable rent: $450 a month. She waited 30 minutes for hot water to drip slowly into her bathtub. She was told it was an old house and the pipes were old. "Excuse after excuse," she says.

She asked her landlord to make repairs, which he rarely did, and the more she asked, the more defensive he became. A month before she was told she had to move, Brown wrote him a letter. "I love where I live," she wrote. "I don't plan on moving." She asked for help paying for the window units she replaced, whether through reducing her rent or paying her for their cost, and to install a lock on the fence — or reduce her rent so she could buy one — after a man broke into the backyard. Her landlord responded with a letter giving her until the end of May to move out and prorating her deposit if she waited that long. She left before the end of April.

"I was confused, I was mad," she says. "I hadn't done anything. I called like, 'Why am I getting evicted?' He said, 'You typed me this letter. It's time for you to go. You're not being appreciative.'"

"'You're not being appreciative,'" she says.
The registry is supposed to alleviate that problem. I'm not convinced it does, though. If we take the landlords' threats at face value, in fact, this may make matters worse. Without strong protections for tenants against evictions or rent increases, the "burden" of inspections and fees inevitably become yet another bit of leverage for landlords looking to exploit vulnerable people. There is already abundant evidence that landlords behave badly towards tenants. There is little in the ordinance that prevents them from continuing to do that.

Instead, the main thrust seems to be about reducing "blight." By which we mean it's about protecting property values from the ill effects of living near unpresentable buildings and (unspoken but implied) people. Here's Latoya Cantrell in the Gambit article emphasizing this, in fact.
"Any substandard property that exists, in any neighborhood, brings down that neighborhood. No one deserves that," Cantrell said outside City Hall on Jan. 18. "If we're going to improve the quality of life for all New Orleanians, we're going to have to improve the rental stock."
It's subtle, but part of what she means by improving the "rental stock" references the renters themselves. If the registry ordinance ends up tipping more problematic properties over to more well manicured short term rentals where nobody actually lives, so be it. So long as the tourists don't make too much noise, it's better than having to deal with living too close to the poors. Short term rentals are exempt from the registry, in fact.

It's true that New Orleans has a problem with slumlords. But a policy approach to that problem should directly address the power relationship between an impoverished struggling population and the city's disproportionately wealthy landholders.  "Healthy housing" standards are great. But if you aren't addressing the affordability issue you aren't actually improving the health of the community.  Instead, the Healthy Homes law is essentially Obamacare for housing. It's a step toward encouraging better practices, but housing in New Orleans also is badly lacking a viable "public option." Without stronger measures to address access to housing, whatever improvements are made in quality will remain out of reach.

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