Housing discrimination is alive and well, and it hurts us all

When Jenny S. was preparing to move to France she planned to rent her New York studio apartment. To gain her tenant’s approval she had to file a pile of paperwork and submit her poor tenant to a interview before the co-op board that had all the coziness of a Senate confirmation hearing. For their trouble, and in accordance with building by-laws, the board took 20% of the lease revenue. After going through all that trouble and having received handsome compensation (about $600/month) one might think the co-op board would be happy with such an arrangement, but no, the policy is done quite grudgingly as the building’s by-laws stipulate that the unit cannot be rented for more than one year out of every ten. And don’t even think of exercising the Air B&B option. No one, not even her mother who lives in the building, is allowed to stay in the apartment overnight. So in a city of 1% vacancy, and outrageous rental rates, there sits a perfectly habitable apartment, empty. Anyone see a correlation?

Well, you may say, that is a snotty Manhattan co-op, but we don’t do that kind of thing here in Portland. Or do we? Residential zoning has restrictions on multi-unit dwellings. Adding a rental unit or converting a single-unit into a multi-unit is likewise restricted in some neighborhoods. Why? it was once explained to me by one homeowner that “we don’t want to be a community of renters.” Homeowners are stakeholders and care about the neighborhood, or so the reasoning goes, whereas renters are not invested in their communities; which means they hang old sheets with a nail over their windows instead  of proper curtains and fill their back porches with pizza boxes.

Aside from the fact that this stereotype is just not true, and that homeowners are just as likely to let their property go derelict (ultimately homeowners are the one’s responsible for any property) it is my impression that renters are nicer–when was the last time you heard a renter say “can I help you?” when you cut across their lawn?

But more to the point, adding a rental unit can help the home owner afford their home, and areas of high density (i.e., lots of renters) like Munjoy Hill and the West End are some of the most valuable land in the state. Density creates neighborhoods that are vibrant and walkable and supports neighborhood businesses (the Munjoy Hill location of Rosemount Market is the highest grossing of their three stores).

It is a something of a mantra in the civil rights movement that discrimination hurts us all. As housing discrimination against renters is somewhat hidden, so will the benefits of more dense and diverse neighborhoods until which time the restrictions are lifted.

Zack Barowitz

About Zack Barowitz

Zack Barowitz is a writer, artist, and flâneur. He is the radio host of "This Land Is" on WMPG Tuesday nights at 7:30. His work can be seen at ZacharyBarowitz.com.