Housing challenges during the pandemic Part 2

The past year has been unlike any that most of us have witnessed during our lives. While natural disasters and pandemics in specific parts of the world have occurred with growing frequency, the global scale and magnitude of COVID-19 will remain as one of the most devastating and disruptive events in world history. No country has suffered as much as the United States, losing over 523,000 lives as of this writing. The economy is in a downward spiral from which it will take a long time to recover to the pre-pandemic levels of January, 2020. The economic slowdown continues to have a big impact on all major parts of the economy. Rental housing has been in the limelight with a lot of media coverage highlighting the difficulty that many tenants have experienced trying to pay rent, the assistance that they received from the federal and state governments, eviction moratoriums, landlord decisions on eviction, etc. Expectedly most of the focus has been on the tenants. As in academic research over time, the current crisis has shed less light on the landlords, the challenges they go through during difficult economic times, and how they navigate through to sustain their businesses.

At the core of the rental housing is the complicated relationship that exists between landlords and tenants. Nothing better captures this than what one landlord had to share in her survey response – “I offered to let them pay a little later because they’re good stewards of my property and I’m not an a……. They have not needed to take me up on that offer.” As we can expect, the nature of this relationship varies depending on the characteristics of the landlords and the tenants. The general perception however has always been one where the tenant has less power and the landlord is the one backed up by different types of regulations they have at their disposal that they can enforce on the tenants at any available opportunity. Stories in the media further this perception by mostly focusing on stories of tenant stress. Seldom does one come across positive stories of landlords assisting tenants in one way or another. The visuals of an eviction are such that it becomes difficult for most to go beyond the tenant to understand the landlord’s situation and perspective. In no other time during the last 50-60 years has this relationship been tested more than during the ongoing pandemic and the resulting impacts on tenants and landlords.

While we have become accustomed to this general stereotyping of the landlord as the ‘enforcer’ who is making it difficult for the tenant at every available opportunity, nothing is farther from the truth. Landlords are not a monolithic group with similar characteristics who behave almost uniformly across the landscape. Landlords are a highly heterogeneous group, dominated by small mom and pop types who own and rent a small number of units. Run as a formal and well-organized business, landlords who own much higher number of properties and units and are usually more visible across communities, especially in large population centers. It is however surprising that housing research has not given more attention to the landlords. As a result, we do not understand the complicated relationship that they have with tenants. Our study is a step in that direction. It goes in depth to understand how landlords have been impacted during the pandemic as well as the types of response they have come up with for their tenants, while trying to keep their businesses afloat.

See https://covidrental.design.iastate.edu/index.html

Housing challenges during the pandemic Part 1

The pandemic has impacted every community across the nation in so many different ways. There has been loss of human life, loss of jobs, continued anxiety over the resurgence and spread of the COVID-19 virus, and political interference in matters relating to public health that have proven costly. The focus of this funded research project is to understand how the pandemic impacted landlords and the rental housing market in select cities across the U.S. Working on this research over the past year has also allowed me to learn so much more about rental housing: the multiple dimensions including the characteristics of property owners, the differences between mom-and-pop owners and larger and more formally organized entities, and most importantly, the vital role that rental housing plays in providing access to housing in every community. I have also learned to appreciate even more the role that landlords play as ‘suppliers’ of rental housing, and the challenges they go through during economic downturns, natural disasters, and now, the pandemic. Having worked in Iowa on housing issues for several years, the one phrase that I was vaguely familiar with was “rental registry.” This ongoing research project was a great opportunity for me to learn more about rental registries. We have investigated what the term means, how they work, how they differ in different places, and most of all, the potential that rental registries have for assisting local government during crises, be it an acute disaster or the ongoing stress of the pandemic. I share here a few things I have learned.

Over the last year, my work has brought me into contact with a number of communities, both small and large. I was particularly struck by a small community with a population of about 3,000 in Central Iowa that has a rental registry. When I asked the local official why the city had created a rental registry, the response was that it allowed the city to establish a communication channel with residential rental property owners. The process to set up the registry was simple. The property owner filled out a form with basic information about their properties and their contact information. They also paid a nominal registration fee. I learned that this fee varies based on location and is often higher in larger metropolitan areas. In its most simple form, the rental registry is a straightforward database of residential rental property owners and their rental properties. While the scope of information may vary by city, this basic information is at the heart of every registry, and is exactly why registries are so important. It provides a mechanism for a city to be in touch with rental housing owners, a very important link that could be used to ensure tenants had a good home and landlords abided by the code to provide safe and sanitary housing. Moreover, the database would allow a city to reach out to them on a variety of matters concerning their residential rental properties.

As a practitioner and educator, I am familiar with how important it is for communities to have affordable rental housing. However, affordability and quality of rental housing do not always go hand-in-hand. As a result, tenants in many instances live in rental properties that are not well maintained, and have to deal with property owners who might be negligent and overlook such matters. In an effort to have safe and sanitary properties, many cities rely on the rental registry as a way to stay in touch with property owners and to ensure regular inspections of properties. Through their rental code, many cities make an annual inspection mandatory. While this may not resolve all issues relating to the condition of the properties, it is a reliable mechanism to assure tenants of decent housing. For example, to address issues of lead in older homes, cities use the registry as a tool to identify and track if appropriate measures have been adopted to mitigate any health effects. This has significant public health implications.

As I spoke with public officials to understand how they were able to collaborate and partner at the local level to provide assistance to tenants and property owners, the rental registry came up frequently. With the scale of the slowdown and the varied scales of assistance that came from the federal, state, and local levels, the registry made the process highly efficient. These cities could better disseminate important information with property owners. While many property owners did not use the governmental assistance, those who did were appreciative of the efforts to keep them in the loop about new programs and policies.

As with everything, rental registries are also a topic of debate. Not everyone supports the idea. While there is a general perception that tenants are for it and property owners are not, that is far from the truth. There are tenants who do like the idea of having a registry to keep landlords accountable, but there are those who are skeptical of it due to privacy concerns. They feel there is too much information being divulged into the public domain about the space they call home. Similarly, there are rental property owners who feel that the registry in essence validates the stereotyping that they are insensitive to the need of tenants and provide rental housing purely for financial gains. A group of rental property owners who support the idea, point out that it provides an opportunity to keep track of the quality of their properties, even if sometimes it means having to spend resources to meet these requirements. And it allows them to hold adjacent property owners accountable when other rental property owners are not maintaining their properties. Overall, the registry is a good concept and we expect more cities across the nation to start having an inventory of their rental properties with contact information for property owners.

*Views expressed in this blog are mine and do not reflect in any shape or form of the institution or my research group partners.

See https://covidrental.design.iastate.edu/index.html