There’s No Shortage of Low Quality Housing

In two recent posts, Emily Washington at Market Urbanism (part 2 here) argues that middle class sensibilities, with regard to housing, pose a significant barrier to the construction of affordable units for low income renters in the U.S. As an example, she offers the tenement housing of early urban America as spaces that, while unpleasant, offered upward mobility to many immigrant families from Eastern and Southern Europe. The benefit of this kind of housing, according to Washington, was primarily due to its proximity to jobs, and that marginally better quality housing that is further away from job centers harms low income renters.

While an intriguing thesis, the post doesn't offer a lot of evidence that building codes impose massive costs on new construction. We can draw clear estimates of the effects of overly restrictive zoning or parking minimums on per unit cost issues, but this question of “quality” is much more muddled and seems to be a proxy for simply demanding more units in buildings. One could calculate the space necessary for in-unit bathrooms and washer/dryers, and you could make an estimate from there, but the posts don't offer those estimates. Instead, the post critiques “middle class sensibility” and its effect on housing as limiting the ability of developers to build housing to meet the needs of low income renters.

But what this post misses is that there is not a shortage of low quality housing in the U.S. A cursory search of “substandard housing” returns a litany of articles from around the country about the travails that many low income renters face living in poor housing (code violations in Fresno, Sonoma County, Dallas, reservation lands). Low income renters in the U.S. have to deal with many problems, but one problem they certainly do not lack is access to low quality, dangerous housing. 

One of the frustrating aspects when discussing housing quality is that analysts and researchers actually have little idea as to the overall quality of much of the housing in this country.

Analysts for HUD found through exploring the American Housing Survey that the vast majority of houses (greater than 90 percent) are adequate for human dwelling, but due to survey design issues (for reasons such as switching from on-site inspection to telephone-based, non-response rates, and incomplete geographies; for example, Portland has not been surveyed since 2002) we can be fairly confident that the AHS gives us an overestimate of occupied housing that is adequate. While I could not find good overall summary data at the national level, a search concerning building inspectors gives us article after article of cities across the country that face shortages of building inspectors (Baltimore, Fayetteville, the Bay Area, Portland). While a shortage of inspectors is now most often linked to delaying new construction, this shortage also makes it very difficult for cities and counties to enforce building codes. Additionally, most cities' code enforcement is activated only when there is a complaint of either a tenant or interested party, like a neighbor, and for the most vulnerable of renters, filing a complaint is often a last resort because it could trigger an eviction.

This pattern is described in vivid detail in Matthew Desmond's Evicted, in which inner city landlords buy older, cheap properties, perform minimal upkeep, and rent them out. These units, due to their age, are often not up to code and it is too expensive for many landlords to maintain them, but because their tenants are often quite poor, they do not complain. When tenants do complain, landlords will often trigger an eviction as retaliation and continue to let the property deteriorate. Of course, this process of disinvestment and reinvestment in property was already well described by Neil Smith's rent gap theory. In a recent piece in The Atlantic on Durham, NC's development surge, one landlord described how she often bought dilapidated units from other landlords who'd let them deteroriate, renting them out at very low cost to progressively poorer renters until they sold. After buying these units, she would make the repairs (sometimes relatively cheap, other times incredibly expensive) and then sell them again for a tidy profit.

The point is not that people flipping houses is necessarily a bad thing, but that a signifcant proportion of rental property in cities are in varied states of disrepair because it is not profitable for landlords to repair them while renting to low income tenants. Now, we can say that this dilemma is due to “middle class sensibilities,” but one should ask where the line should be actually be drawn. As the articles above showed, many rental units that do finally draw complaints from poorer tenants are downright dangerous to live in. This isn't some example of first world concern-trolling, but a demand to defend minimal standards that we can all reasonably meet, such as the presence of a working bathroom or smoke detectors. Yes, we can argue that requiring running water and smoke detectors represents a normative demand, and maybe that demand does emanate from a particular class orientation, but we should also note that these complaints are coming from tenants themselves—people who are disincentivized to make demands of their landlords precisely because they cannot move.

Building costs are clearly a factor in housing affordability. Zoning and parking requirements blow up the average cost per unit in extreme ways, but a demand for lower quality housing assumes that existing codes are inordinately expensive compared to say zoning requirements, and that they are not necessary. Yes, these codes are socially negotiated, but that's all the more reason to take them seriously.

Many people today are harmed by unhealthy housing, and doubly so for poorer renters. Exposure to vermin, lack of proper plumbing facilities, lead paint, or lead water lines are all risk factors that disproportionately affect the poor and people of color in this country. While the tenement may have offered a leg up to some, they were also incredibly unhealthy, the site of not just Victorian concern, but poor and working class demands for better quality housing, and they were ultimately abandoned because we as a society said that we should not expose people to unhealthy housing merely because they are poor. It is a sad testament to our own history that the demands for safer housing by activists regarding tenement housing have not yet eliminated the most grossly unhealthy housing for poorer folks across the country. We can do a lot more to make building housing cheaper, but we need not consign people back to literal tenements to do so.

Photo credit: Harriet Hilton, via flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Jamaal Green is a doctoral degree candidate at Portland State University in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning studying economic development and equity planning. His specific interests include the intersections of land-use and economic development policy and the role that planning can play in mitigating social and political inequality.


  1. Well said, Jamaal.

    I tend to think this is a missing component of the supply-side filtering argument. It’s been shown rather convincingly that housing does indeed filter (e.g. Rosenthal’ s AER paper from a few years back), but our understanding of what that filtered housing looks like when it reaches the bottom of the market is still lacking.

    The market once provided housing for the vast majority of the population. But at the bottom end of the market, that housing was in the form unsafe tenements which we as a society deemed unfit for habitation. (Both because of the public health and safety externalizes they produced and because we decided it was beneath the dignity of a developed country).

  2. The basic logic of this piece seems to be:

    1. There is some housing that is ill-maintained.
    2. Therefore, there is enough ill-maintained housing (whether you define “enough” as enough to meet market demand, or as much as there would be with less regulation).

    Conclusion 2 simply does not follow from Conclusion 1.

    Moreover, this article somewhat misses the point of Washington’s post. Her point is that numerous TYPES of housing that were suitable for the poor (e.g. SROs, residential hotels) have been ruled out by zoning codes. The fact that other technically permissible forms of housing are poorly maintained is not inconsistent with her argument at all. In fact, the two go together: if the only possible forms of housing are apartment complexes and single-family houses, of course some poor people with go into one of them, causing them to be ill-maintained. The rest will go on the streets.

  3. First, her post focuses on BUILDING codes and standards, not on zoning, using tenement construction as an explicit example. Second, I maintain, repeatedly actually, that we do not know the actual amount of poorly maintained housing but a combination of sources from journalists and academic literature point towards a serious underestimation of the supply of poorly maintained housing that people live in. The question remains whether such building standards are drivers of increased housing expenses and compared to zoning, which again, I mention explicitly, it’s probably a negligible factor. The argument remains that the QUALITY of housing is probably not a big driver of housing affordability issues either from the developer or renter end.

  4. If we want upward mobility, we need jobs providing it, and quality training and education for jobs more difficult than the ones immigrants in tenements got. If the problem is that poor people cannot afford housing because of low wages, work hours, and public benefits, then those things need to be changed. Tenements near to factory jobs are not a feasible solution today when so many jobs are in the suburbs, which are built around cars. The real estate market—where investors milk and flip substandard buildings and sometimes speculate that gentrification will happen—is not a solution either. The idea that subpar housing is needed for subpar poor people and that upward mobility will save the deserving poor is not a viable option in today’s economy.

  5. I’ve spent the last 28 years working on home repair programs, with whatever variety of housing funds we can find. Usually not more than $1million annually (100-200 homes) and not doing substantial rehab on most of the homes, more emergency repair with health, safety, accessibility and energy conservation in the forefront of our reviews.

    Much of the time we are doing damage control for homeowners, not landlords. There is a huge volume of sub-standard rental property, in varying degrees of disrepair. Not knowing the terms of financing makes it difficult to determine if they can “afford” to adequately fix the property up, regardless of how much they charge for rent. Private lenders don’t make if financially feasible, in the low income rental market, to acquire and adequately rehab much of he existing housing stock.

    At least in our area (N Florida), most substandard rental property will be single family homes and mobile homes, not large multi-family properties, with very different lending options. The biggest factor here, really, is the disparity between wages and housing costs. It’s a completely different discussion whether there is sufficient decent rental property in the market, if people had sufficient wages to choose better.

  6. Jamaal,

    How can you claim that Ms. Washington’s posts had anything to do with BUILDING codes and standards??? She never once mentioned building codes. She was primarily concerned about zoning and land use codes and related regulations. In fact, her examples of boarding houses, residential hotels and tenements have everything to do with zoning and land use codes. She also mentions the need to allow “existing housing to be used in ways that are illegal under today’s codes.” Here she clearly means zoning and land use codes, and not building codes.

    You need to understand that “housing quality” means more than the building codes to which a unit was constructed or its current state of repair. The quality of housing can also be measured by design features, amenities and the use of materials that exceed the minimum building codes. Quality is also measured by the size of the units, the density of the project, the parking facilities and other project amenities. Legislating middle class standards for the size, density, features and amenities of housing clearly makes housing less affordable and less available.

    In many communities, a 250 square foot studio apartment which meets the building codes is illegal due to zoning and land use regulations, even though it can provide decent accommodations for one or two occupants. The same is true for boarding houses, SROs and group homes. They can meet the building codes, but not other exclusionary restrictions.

    And, despite what you think, even sh**ty housing is in short supply in most coastal counties of California and some other areas of the country. For example, my county had twice as many homeless people as vacant rental units in 2013.


  7. @Daniel

    “…and because we decided it was beneath the dignity of a developed country.”

    To me, that says we’d rather have people be homeless, if necessary, than have them living in housing the middle/upper classes consider beneath them. You can’t give people dignity by removing their “undignified” options. That just forces them to turn to an even less-dignified option, or to make tradeoffs they don’t consider justified. For example, living in “dignified” housing beyond their means, or with a too-long commute.

    If you want to give people dignity through public action, give them more and better options, not fewer. Expanding housing vouchers or instituting a basic income are two good examples of giving people more, better options. Limiting units per lot, requiring minimum square footage per unit and mandating certain formats of housing are all examples of taking options away, and they have all worked out terribly.

    I’m all in favor of building and zoning codes for preserving health and safety that are based on strong evidence. Passing laws in the name of “dignity”, however, is just cruelty dressed up as kindness.


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