Atlantic Cities

When Renters Invade the Cul-de-Sac

When Renters Invade the Cul-de-Sac
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About a week ago, I walked through a two-bedroom row house for rent in my neighborhood, a place where my husband and I thought we might upgrade from our second-floor apartment to a front porch and a little back yard. The size was good. The porch fan was an unexpected plus. The floors were hard wood. Then I walked into the kitchen, and and my shoulders sank.

There it was: the exact same kitchen I've had in every rental property where I've lived for a decade. Cheap particle-board cabinetry. Cracked white faux-counter tops. Peeling linoleum floor. This is the ubiquitous rental kitchen. Really, I'd pay more rent per month for a quality oven. Renters like sink disposals, too.

But if I'd like to have a non-linoleum floor, it feels as if I'd have to buy a home to go with it.

This particular kitchen finally drove home for me – at least where I live in the Washington, D.C., area – that rental property owners have little incentive to invest in more-than-bare-minimum amenities. (Have you seen Mike Riggs' kitchen? This is actually a photo of it.) I know one professional couple with a lovely kitchen. Their landlords used to live in that home themselves, before moving out. But a rental property bought for rental's sake? Why bother to upgrade in a landlord's market?

This disheartening realization floated back to mind when I read this recent New York Times piece on the tragedy of owning a home in a suburban cul-de-sac where renters are slowly invading. The trend, the Times reports, has "raised the ire of some homeowners whose tidy subdivisions have changed, seemingly overnight, into a parade of strangers." (Never mind that this rise in insidious renters is actually fueled by former homeowners who've changed status since the housing bust.)

There is a widely held perception – argued forcefully by the realtor industry – that only homeowners will care about their yards, their neighbors or their neighborhoods. And yet, someone owns all of the homes I've ever lived in as a renter. And they've cared little for the interior spaces that only I and my guests experience.

The devaluing of rentership cuts both ways. Landlords invest little into rental properties, creating a second-class tier of homes. And then the rental's neighbors cry that the people who live there invest little in the community. I'm sure some people can produce personal evidence that they've poured real money into their rental properties (or that, as renters, they've had kitchens I would envy). And of course such people and examples are out there. I'll also bet that the renters who live in these valued homes value them, too, and care for them accordingly.

I also acknowledge that, yes, a lot of renters (especially younger ones) aren't invested in the places where they live. But the tone of this Times story is a little over the top. In it, renters occupy (and create) the "seedy underside" of otherwise nice communities. The people quoted here practically equate them with criminals.

Here's a quiet cul-de-sac In Memphis, a city where the homeownership rate has dropped 10 percentage points since 2005:

On a recent evening, parents pushed strollers and lawn mowers droned, children played on a tire swing and in one driveway, a longtime resident and his grandson tinkered with the fat tire of a slick red drag racer.

But there was a seedy underside. Jimmy Fumich, a homeowner and air-conditioner repairman, said he had been in court that day as a witness in an animal cruelty case against a neighbor, a renter, who had left a dog chained to a stop sign in the heat. She was already in trouble, he said, for breaking into an empty house on the block.

Mr. Fumich, who is Ms. Holcomb’s brother, mentioned a couple of meth houses and one that had been used as a brothel. All were rentals. Police department records show that major crime in the area, which does not include drug offenses, has actually gone down since spiking in 2010.

Here's a nice community cherry-picked from suburban Atlanta:

When investors started buying town homes in the small, Atlanta-area community of Austin Park, where units that once sold for over $100,000 now go for as low as $30,000, homeowners did not at first enforce a rental cap because they preferred landlords over vacant units that were no longer paying association dues.

After a summer of loud music, barking dogs, prostitutes and two tenants served with a murder warrant, the board changed its mind, said Joi Aikens, the president of the homeowners association.

As long as we're constructing trends with random examples, I'd like to counter that I know a lot of renters, and none of them are prostitutes, murderers or dog abusers.

Here is the last line of that story, which is just too perfect:

Across the street, their neighbor Monica Costict is the last homeowner left on the cove. She, too, is looking to get out of the neighborhood and buy somewhere else. “When we leave,” she said, “we’re going to rent out the house.”

I'm sure she won't worry much about the condition of a kitchen now intended to accommodate whatever kind of people would live in a community where she would not live herself.

Top image: trekandshoot/Shutterstock.com

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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