Rental ordinance results from the politics of division

A better way to get safe, secure, and stable housing is with other, more entrepreneurial, measures — and without vilifying those whose perspective is different

BRATTLEBORO — At the Dec. 15 Selectboard meeting, when the board discussed an ordinance to restrict how much rent can be required of new tenants, I found the thoughtful and constructive tone set by its chair, Tim Wessel, and the rest of the board very refreshing, especially as I have been so focused on the profoundly dysfunctional national political scene for so long.

Some of the comments from the public, however, proved that our little town is not immune to the politics of division - and that vilifying those whose perspective is different is now part of our political discourse.

As a longtime Town Meeting representative, I would tell people how extraordinary it was to participate in a process where it seemed clear to me that we were all there to take care of this town we all call home. Other than the couple of times when we debated expressing our disgust with our foreign policy, it was nearly impossible to tell what anyone's political leanings might be.

* * *

As a longtime rental property owner and manager, I found it equally distressing that so many feel that the relationship between a property owner and a renter is by its nature adversarial. If that were true, I would not still be in the business over four decades later.

I mentioned this disturbing perspective to another small-time rental property manager. His response was that he really enjoys the company of his tenants, many of whom, like mine, have been renting from him for a long time. He added that the only time that the relationship becomes adversarial is if it involves a “shitty tenant or a shitty landlord.”

Just as with any other business, having satisfied customers is important. From a purely business perspective, turn-over is not usually desirable.

When I have someone for years, or even decades, I get invested in their success. I have several tenants who have rented from me for decades. The longest term renter would have been homeless several times over if it were not for my active intervention.

In several cases, I have had people return, with one person waiting six months for his old apartment to become vacant again so he could have it back. I have been blessed to have the children of prior tenants choose to rent from me also.

* * *

I have suggested in the past that being a property manager is no way to become popular. We get to deal with all the challenges that come up with property ownership, as is the case for any other homeowner, except those who are occupying our buildings do not always treat them as well as if they owned them.

We are on call 24 hours a day for all manner of mechanical as well as interpersonal challenges. On top of that, we have the great fortune of addressing unpleasant situations that attract some colorful characters with short-term, self-serving attitudes toward other people's personal property.

When you own a home, you have little to no influence over how your neighbors affect your peace and safety. If you are renting, at least from me, your quality of life will be relatively protected.

But I digress….

* * *

As Tim so eloquently said, we are trying to resolve a policy difference. We all agree that safe, secure, and stable housing is important.

I believe that this ordinance as passed will have the opposite from the desired effect.

The program that has the ability to elegantly solve this problem, and a host of other economic and social problems related to the financial causes of housing insecurity, is HUD's Section 8 rental subsidy program.

In recent years it even allows for the purchase of a home, also funding anything over 30 percent of your income. It is a wonderful and very-well-run program, but it has been very poorly funded for decades.

I have been trying to persuade Rep. Peter Welch, Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Sen. Bernie Sanders to promote the idea of fully, and retroactively, funding this program, and including qualifying current homeowners.

Instead, they have been passing bills that create a patchwork of temporary and ill-considered measures that make no improvements, structural or otherwise, to our situation.

* * *

Speaking of long term and structural changes, there has been a tendency of some on both the left and the right to promote the idea that capitalism and socialism are incompatible.

I bring this up in part because some in this debate have made blanket statements about the evils of capitalism. For those of us who are still interested in understanding the facts prior to passing judgment, it is interesting to look at where the greatest entrepreneurship occurs.

Sweden is an interesting case study, with an unusually high rate of entrepreneurship in the world - way ahead of the U.S. It seems that when there is a well-funded and -thought-out safety net, people feel free to take some risks.

I would have thought that making sure that everyone has the essentials would be something most people could get behind.

And I would have thought that feeling like you can leave your job working for “the man” to pursue building a business doing what you love, without losing your health care and perhaps your home, would also be something most could get behind.

I am trying to suggest that there might things to learn from those outside of our “exceptional” country, as well as from those right next door with different experience and perspective.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates