When you hear the term Tenement, a modern apartment building does not immediately come to mind. In my mind, I picture the slums depicted in Jacob Riis “How the Other Half Lives” or something of that nature.

Recently though something came to the forefront of my mind, as an honest landlord, where I realized that this is an issue of the present as well.

A local building, which is a short term hotel property, has been being used as long term housing. However, since it is under the hotel laws, the owners have not been held to landlord/tenant laws. Even worse, they have not been held accountable to modern day health codes. I am not sure what all they have been subject to, but in my observation mold, bugs, vermin and other issues such as electrical violations have let this building become basically an unsanitary mess. Those that are desperate for housing, unable to find other housing, are being taken advantage of, by the owners. Charged high prices, without a lease agreement to protect them, as renters, while the owner collects the rent without the laws in place to keep them accountable.

The city approved the sale of the building and someone, whom hopefully is a reputable company, is going to gut the place, and turn it into long term housing, which will protect the tenants more than it is now, plus offering clean, safe housing.

The issue is, the townspeople not understanding all the nuances, went into an uproar about the people that will be displaced. My concerns are many fold, but as I was studying the issues of tenements, I realized this is an age old problem.

  1. There is a housing shortage
  2. People are desperate
  3. There is a mixture of honest people, needing a place to live, a way to make a living and maintain their properties, as well as the dishonest people, that will seek to take advantage of a situation on both sides.
  4. There are honest renters and dishonest renters.

You have to look at the complete picture. A dishonest owner will see a need, and use it to their advantage. They realize they do not have to repair a place that is too far gone for basic repairs, when they are rent it out to those that are desperate. The other fact is though, when the health department, city and possibly county gets involved, they realize that this is illegal.

In Jacob Riis’ time, there were laws on renting out sleeping spaces. However, landlords violated them and because people were desperate, they took what was offered. Sleeping 13 people in a room that was so small it would only fit a full sized bed in it, is criminal. Fires would break out and so many people died.

Last week, an apartment building burned down in the Bronx, USA. It killed 19 people, including 9 children. The smoke detectors were non operational, which may or may not have been the tenants causing them to malfunction. But what was the owners fault, was they did not provide a working heat source, combined with possible poor wiring, which caused the issue. Add to that the lack of working smoke detectors, this tragedy occurred.

The question often asked, is why would occupants be so apathetic to allow themselves to live in unsafe living conditions.

  1. There is a housing shortage.
  2. People are desperate.
  3. Honest people get into a bad way, and are taken advantage of by crooks that are looking to make money.

I managed a property for a time, where the owner was seeking to make as much money as possible with doing as little work as possible to the property. The home had plumbing and electrical issues. It could be a wonderful place, but needed some help. In a context of where people are desperate for rentals, it is easy to get people in there without fixing the issues and get money coming in. Most of the time, the tenants are not apathetic, they are desperate, often because something is counted against them. They may have credit issues, past evictions, poor references, criminal history or the like.

They end up being in places, such as the slumlord hotel that is working to be reframed, and remodeled. They, sometimes are, hard working, clean individuals, but many times they are the ones that messed up a time or two in the past and cannot rent a long term place. It might be due to lack of savings, job history, illness. Or it can be drug use, jail time, evictions and other distasteful history.

The thing is, we should not be against progress, when the people that misuse tenants are called to the carpet, despite our desire to help those that are being taken advantage of. It can be both.

We can encourage honest landlords, keep laws in place that help landlords keep good renters in their properties, support both tenants and landlords in upkeep and pull the plug on the dishonest ones.

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