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