And small owners are biting the dust, too

Housing built of wood has always served America’s newly arriving families and America’s poor. Wood is plentiful, cheap.

The first settlers met a land of forests and, of course, built their homes of wood.

Later, waves of European immigrants built millions of multi-family homes, all out of wood. Familiar triple-deckers, row-houses, millworker housing were all built with the same woodframe techniques used for many of the wealthiest homes.

Today in every urban center, this same woodframe housing is by far the most abundant form of housing occupied byAmerica’s lower-income citizens. And all this housing is mostly owned by small owners, most of whom also live in their multi-family homes.

It’s disappearing

If well maintained, woodframe housing can last many centuries. But woodframe multi-family housing is disappearing — rapidly! — and with it, our country’s most affordable housing stock.

In lower-income neighborhoods in almost every urban center, older woodframe multi-family housing is being steadily torn down. On a list of abandoned houses in Boston, over two-thirds of them lie in Boston’s lowest-income neighborhoods — Dorchester and Roxbury. Meanwhile, in the last decade, almost no new woodframe multi-family housing has been built. New construction is typically large-scale, high-rise, concrete-and-steel apartment complexes, expensive and upscale.

Anti-housing laws

Small owners are excellent at physical maintenance. They do it themselves , they do it cheaply. They watch their property closely, often just because they live there. One housing specialist pointed out that most abandoned housing is not in bad shape when it is abandoned. But owners of modest income with tenants of modest and low income are being driven out of business.

What is driving them out? Housing laws — or anti-housing laws — that make the cost and risks of providing housing just too great for these small owners with limited-income tenants.

Small owners trip over technical rules governing the landlord-tenant relationship, rules that make little sense to them: security deposits, lead paint, the sanitary code, legal rights and duties and restrictions. The most important precaution an owner can take — screening one’s tenants before accepting them — is a complex procedure that most small owners don’t do or don’t do thoroughly. Then, when a nonpaying tenant needs to be evicted, the laws are stacked so that small owners face a battle so costly it can easily bankrupt them.

As several housing inspectors recently agreed, the difficulty of evicting nonpaying tenants is destroying many decent multi-family homes in their lower-income community centers.
The frequently heard comment — “I could never be a landlord” — reflects a real truth: being a landlord is a tough business. So tough that more and more people are simply not doing it.

Government can’t do it

The question is: if private citizens are pushed out of the rental business, who will own and maintain our nation’s rental housing, especially housing for the poor?

The federal government’s role has been a disaster. Huge housing projects have only concentrated the problems of poverty, gangs, crime and drugs. Thirty-five years ago, Chicago replaced a shantytown with a mega-complex of high-rise public housing, some 4,000+ units called Robert Taylor Homes, later known as “The Hole.” All efforts to eradicate its problems failed, and the complex is now being torn down. In Boston’s Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods, once-occupied housing projects also sit abandoned.

The latest government attempts are small-scale projects built by “non-profit” developers. But these projects are so costly that few units can be built, and savvy managers avoid risky tenants, so these units go not to the neediest, but to people who could make it on their own anyway.

Lost neighborhoods, too

The loss, however, is not just housing, but livable neighborhoods. The erosion of the local owner’s control over who lives in their house, the denial of speedy evictions for nonpaying or troublesome tenants — these undercut the natural authority of the most immediate local leader and foster crime and poverty. Especially, we are tearing down our ethnic communities. Stigmatizing landlords as bad has been a perfect camouflage for rampant discrimination against working-class immigrant families just starting to get ahead and the positive role they could play in their communities.

The only solution is to reform the laws and make owning rental property once again attractive for small owners.