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 […]

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)

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