Thursday, October 8, 2009

Slumlord Narrative

Without a doubt there are some bad landlords who are rightly labeled "slumlords."

But, more often than not, the "slumlord narrative" of "progressives" does not fully explain the tenant-landlord dynamics that leads to less than ideal buildings. Rarely is it simply a case of a "bad landlord" abusing "good tenants." Usually there is a dynamic interplay in which the behavior of the tenant shapes the behavior of the landlord and visa-versa.

A landlord that I work with keeps his building in Avondale in impeccable condition. The halls are always clean and he is constantly investing his time, labor and money into maintaining and improving the building, while keeping rents affordable.

The same landlord previously owned a building in Logan Square that he later converted into condos. Previously, the halls of the building were filthy and the general condition were less than optimal.

When I questioned him why the state of the buildings were so starkly different, he responded "the tenants." When he purchased the Logan Square building the 1st thing he did was paint the halls and replace the carpet, but within a week gang symbols were scrawled on the walls and the new carpet reeked of urine and litter abounded. A tenant who moved out decided to take the new appliances with them. On top of that the landlord faced chronic late payments of rent and and costly evictions. And thus, the landlord quickly realized that any investment in time, energy and money, beyond the bare minimum would be a waste of time. Eventually this clear economic logic led him to convert the apartments into condominiums.

In contrast, the tenants in the Avondale augmented the landlord's regular regimen of cleaning and maintenance, by voluntarily cleaning the halls and picking up garbage from the premises. The tenants behaviors reinforced the landlord's commitment to investing in the well being of the building and its tenants. Accordingly, the landlord was provided by an incentive to maintain and improve the building. In addition, the behavior of the tenants lowered his operating costs which allowed him to maintain generally affordable rents. Faced with a reasonable return on his investment, he has opted to not seek the condo conversion of the building.

Admittedly most cases are not so clear cut; in substandard buildings landlords rarely are blameless. And in some cases, pathological tenant behavior is a product of slumlord neglect. But, more often than not the line between victims and villains is not so clear cut. A dynamic exists in which both parties jointly construct their shared reality and engender the behavior of the other. But in a world of subtle and complex social and economic reality there is little room for activists and the heavy handed state intervention that they demand.

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