Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Guest Blogger Danilo Pelletiere: A Three Step Process for Seeing Renters in the Recovery

The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) has been tracking the issue of renters in foreclosure closely for the past three years. From this observation, NLIHC now sees that policy makers, from the local to the federal level, both public and private, appear to be moving through three stages, not unlike the stages of grief, as they come to accept the role of rental housing in the recovery and in their communities.

In Stage 1, denial tinged perhaps with some anger, renters are seen as part of the problem. When the housing market shows initial signs of deterioration, assistance is often limited to “owner-occupants,” existing homeowners or prospective buyers. These efforts are often coupled with efforts to fight what is perceived to be localized blight. Renters and landlords become the targets of stepped up enforcement and harassment, along with other perceived threats to home values such as growing immigrant populations (often assumed to be illegal).

In Stage 2, which has elements of bargaining and depression, there is a forced recognition that the problem is broad and that renters are oftentimes in trouble through no fault of their own, facing either eviction and loss of their security deposit due to foreclosure or, short of eviction, utility shut offs, poor maintenance, and harassment. In Stage 2, which has expanded rapidly across communities, the policy response most often remains fairly ad hoc, such as a well publicized Sheriff’s strike in Chicago, or limited to individual cases. In a few states and localities, new renter protections are enacted as a result.

In Stage 3, acceptance sets in, as renters and rentals become a recognized part of the solution. Policy makers move beyond promoting homeownership and just protecting existing tenants to actively including renters and rental units in their plans. In this stage, communities often begin or repurpose rental inspection programs in a way that seeks to protect communities without discouraging landlords who are operating in good faith. They may also welcome policies that allow owners to become renters but also allow renters to move in with the option to buy in the future. Finally, they may accept new multifamily and single family rental as needed economic activity and a necessary housing option for many Americans.

While advocates for a balanced housing policy and a speedy recovery can work, wait and pray for this process to occur city-by-city, county-by-county, and state-by-state, we also need to take steps at the national level to assist this transformation.

Danilo currently serves as the research director of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, where he is responsible for directing the Coalition’s data analysis, public opinion, and rapid response research efforts.

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