The Grenfell tragedy in which 71 people died a year ago was a shocking reminder of a worldwide problem: When buildings burn down and lives are lost, the media rehashes well-trodden narratives that shame landlords and the municipal inspections that are supposed to keep them in check. This is usually followed by calls for more safety inspections. But this is the wrong way of addressing the problem: a case of too little, too late.
Instead of simply increasing regulation and inspections, governments must remove the opportunity for exploitative profit by insisting on rent controls, providing subsidies for necessary repair work, and re-upping their role—both in ownership and management—of housing, before we are dealing with dire situations.
In addition, my research shows that if municipalities do not invest in housing, even the best of intentions can perpetuate housing inequality. I learned this after three years of researching housing inspections in Chicago. Consistent with other studies, I saw inspectors’ ire at negligent landlords. One inspector told me that after his 20 years of inspecting deplorable living conditions, he prays for some landlords to go to “landlord hell.”
Inspectors act on their anger by doling out as many building code citations as possible and insisting that landlords fix them. Quantitative analyses of ten years of citation data back this up: Inspectors give out more citations to large rental properties that they think are poorly managed. They do try to penalize bad landlords.
But my research also illuminates the unintended consequences of these well-intended actions: rent hikes. My statistical analysis of over 280,000 building code citations and five years of rental data verifies that every citation and violation that is then fixed is associated with a 5.4 percent rent increase, a number that is consistent when normed across properties of the same age, size, value, and neighborhood.
I went on a housing visit with an inspector who ended up citing a landlord for 35 violations, ranging from sparking electrical outlets to a dangerous porch. If these get fixed, my analysis predicts that the landlord would raise the rent from the current amount of $750 to $926 by next year. If the landlord fixed none, the rent would only increase to $771 (based on the average increase for that part of the city). Landlords raise rents to cover the costs of citations.
When good intentions have inadvertent effects, these effects are not dispersed evenly. Low-income and minority tenants are both the most likely to live in poor housing conditions (as demonstrated by a wealth of other studies), and thus also most vulnerable to suffering the brunt of the unintended consequences that my research reveals. Introducing proactive rental inspections—aimed at cracking down on bad landlords—risks making this issue much worse.
To be sure, not insisting that landlords fix up properties is also bad for tenants. But my research shows that many people have it wrong about whose side municipal inspectors are on.
While inspectors can be unsympathetic to tenants, if we consistently ascribe poor motives to inspectors, there is little hope of securing their efforts to improve housing. By misconstruing inspectors’ actions, housing organizations and activists cannot accurately capture how inspections work and are unlikely to be able to effect progressive change at the municipal level.
This is not just about Chicago. Other cities face similar patterns in a dearth of affordable housing, aging housing stock, subpar housing conditions, racial disparities in housing inequality, rising costs of construction, and calls for increased regulations. We can use these lessons learned from Chicago to effect change in other cities too.
Yes, investing in housing will cost money. But new proactive inspections won’t come cheap either. Housing activists could lobby governments to invest in housing instead of calling for increases in its regulation. Additional regulation—even if well-intended—will only perpetuate housing inequality, unless municipalities remove the opportunity for exploitative profit by insisting on rent control and providing subsidies for necessary repair work to existing housing. Governments need to choose investment as an alternative path to increased regulation. Most fundamentally, municipalities must invest in housing. Investment could mean subsidizing repairs, rent controls, or building and managing more state housing.
Though it may seem easier to increase regulations, we should do the hard work now and figure out which kinds of investments make most sense in various communities. Many cities are debating a proactive rental inspection ordinance, as cities realize current housing inspections are incapable of preventing poor housing and negligent landlords. But this new well-intended legislation is also doomed to perpetuate housing inequality, unless municipalities invest in housing itself. We need to invest now.
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