Don’t count on us landlords to bail out the homeless.
“Homelessness” is a human crisis with the same cause as the climate crisis: wealth consolidation. It’s a winner-take-all economy and if you’re not accumulating, then you are a job loss or chronic illness away from poverty.
The lowest earners are evicted from housing daily. Our elected land developers and realtors in the Legislature know this. Operation Rio Grande pushed the “porch pirates,” “scrap pickers,” and all their problems away from an efficient node of food, shelter and health care services and into adjacent neighborhoods, including my Glendale.
There, but for the grace of employer-based health care, go I.
During the Great Recession, I exhausted my unemployment pay and owed more than my West Side Salt Lake City house was worth. Fortunately, I got married and moved into my amazingly kind-hearted new wife’s house. Unwilling to declare bankruptcy, I decided to rent out my old place and spent some time fixing it up with the little money I eventually scraped together. I contracted with a property management company who found a non-profit to pay the rent on behalf of a “chronically homeless” family. It seemed like a great way to keep the house and help some toddlers avoid intergenerational poverty.
Soon after, despite regular visits from a case manager (and the management company), there were shopping carts in the yard, yelling in front of the neighbors, food residue down heat vents, cigarette and other odors, piles of moist clothes, mold on the hardwood floors and beaten walls. Two years of damage and a lost deposit later, the contract ended and I was left with about half a year’s rent lost in repairs, cleaning bills and turnover delay. They even took my washer and dryer.
Housing transition services must be modeled similarly to refugee programs. These take time and that will tie up beds. New tenants must be taught not only how to dispose of waste, but to embrace the value of living in a clean space. To respect rules and the poor durability of our building material choices. In other words, they must adopt new social norms.
So what went wrong? Nothing, according to free-market theory. These rational actors followed the path of least resistance. People who have survived on the streets are enterprising workers and old habits die hard.
The tenants didn’t have a car, so shopping carts were ideal to bring groceries home in, but annoying to return. Anything of marginal value was kept. Even though they were right on a bus line, it was free and faster to call for an ambulance to the ER for routine care and dismiss each $1,500 bill.
I was incentivized by this system to keep the money coming and let the property get trashed, then get tax breaks to fix it back up when they left. But I respect my former neighbors and took pride in the labor of my repairs, so I cut my losses and didn’t offer a contract renewal. I wasn’t going to be a slumlord.
As long as housing is a commodity, then capitalists will use it to create more capital. In that system, compassion is inefficient. Are we really expecting to rely on the kindness of landlords?
If groups like Utah Nonprofit Housing Corp. can provide compassion and housing to the chronically homeless while keeping their properties maintained, then that’s a system worth supporting.
Our leaders planned a shortfall of 400 beds, yet demand is increasing. Send a message to them now to keep the Road Home open until there is a bed for everyone in the new resource centers.
Benjamin W. Jordan is a student, landlord and community-minded resident of the west side of Salt Lake City.