Over the last decade, the percentage of renters in America has fluctuated between 33 and 36%. Yet, in spite of the fact that ⅓ of all Americans are renting their housing, there seems to be a notion in many neighborhoods and towns that owners are the main people who matter and the only ones who are going to be valuable members of their communities.
Indeed, I have encountered many community development organizations whose entire focus is increasing the amount of homeowners in a given neighborhoods and connecting them with grants, loans and classes to help them keep their houses looking nice and safe. This is an admirable mission and clearly has a positive impact on the people and communities that it serves. However, I have also encountered the opposite end of this owner-centered sentiment: an utter dismissal of renters as merely “transient” and “disengaged” in their communities, which sometimes becomes outright anger and prejudice towards them.
I remember joining an older friend at an open house as she was in the process of house-hunting and, upon arriving, she quickly dismissed the property because there were “too many apartments” nearby. She assumed that this meant her neighbors would be loud, messy, and young. This stereotype is woefully inaccurate. To begin with, most people have, at some point in their lives, rented. So, to suppose that all renters are loud, inconsiderate young people would be to suppose that everyone has been loud and inconsiderate during some period of their lives, which I know is not the case. In my job rapidly rehousing homeless families, I work with many landlords who have had some of their tenants for decades. I’m sure the Strong Towns readers who are landlords themselves can attest to the length of time that some tenants choose to stay in a particular place.
Furthermore, while nearly half of everyone under age 30 is a renter, a full 41% of all 30-44 year olds are also renters, and almost a quarter of 45-64 year olds are renters. Although the stereotypical middle class aspiration may be buying a home when one marries and has children, and then paying that home off for a few decades until one fully owns it in their 60s or 70s, that’s clearly not the reality for millions of Americans. In fact, in the last ten years, renting has become more prevalent among almost all age groups. With all this in mind, I think renters should be more fully welcomed into their neighborhoods and respected as the diverse, engaged community members that they can be.
As I’ve said before, I believe a Strong Town has available housing options for all of its residents, no matter their age, abilities or income, and in order to create that accessibility, some housing needs to be rentals. In addition to the affordability factor, there are other reasons that strong citizens should support and welcome rentals in their towns. For one thing, 21% of renters use public transit, biking or walking to get to work. By contrast, just 4% of owners take something other than a car to work. This is likely due to the locations of renter-occupied versus owner-occupied buildings; 57% of rental units are in multi-family buildings which are more likely to be located in dense, transit-friendly neighborhoods.
Conversely, most homeowners own single-family houses, which are far more likely to be in less dense (sometimes suburban) neighborhoods with less access to transit, bike paths, or sidewalks. The difference in transit usage may also be a result of the difference in income between owners and renters; because owners can afford to buy a car, almost all of them use it as their main form of transit. Meanwhile, renters are less likely to be able to afford cars and more likely to choose a less costly alternative to get where they need to go, like biking or riding the bus.
And, as those of you who have been involved with the small scale developers movement know, rental properties create important opportunities for people--even those of little means--to make a profit and better their communities by buying and renovating buildings to rent to their neighbors. One final benefit of rental properties is that more than half of all rental units are in multifamily buildings, as opposed to owner-occupied homes, of which, just 5% are in multifamily buildings. Denser living such as this--even if it’s just in a duplex as a opposed to a single-family home--is better for the safety of neighborhoods, for the development of economic activity, and for the environment.
Someday, I do want to own my own house or condo, and I want that goal to be more attainable for others. But for now, I would like to be valued as an equal member of the community where I live, in spite of my current status as a renter. I am engaged in my neighborhood; I walk and run here often, I frequent many local businesses, and I work to keep my neighborhood safe and clean. I hope we can treat renters as people with just as much potential to be strong citizens as anyone else.
Rachel Quednau is a Midwesterner currently working to end homelessness in Milwaukee, WI. She draws from her experiences living in New York City, Washington, DC, Walla Walla, WA and Minneapolis, MN to help her build better places wherever she is. Rachel writes for her blog The City Space, and also for Urban Milwaukee. One of her favorite ways to get to know a new city is by going for a run in it.