A form of second class citizenship results from having a bad landlord. It is remarkably stressful for working people when a property owner is outside the law regarding the state of repair, provision of heat in winter, increases in rent, fire and electrical safety, lighting, ventilaton, crowding, cleaning, and snow removal reasonably expected by a rent paying tenant. Anecdotes about bad landlords and substandard/illegal apartments, particularly in the basements of houses designed for single family living, are never hard to come by. Students, immigrants, low income workers, the mentally ill and retired persons often find themselves in substandard housing because they are economically vulnerable. Exaggerated real estate values also compel property owners to consider shoddy installations of poor quality suites and basement apartments at least as much as simple greed does.
Even a casual use of Internet search terms such as “illegal apartments” followed by virtually any North American suburban place name yields a peek into a massive social change for the worse taking place in North America. This is true from Vancouver to Boston. Such a change represents the mainstreaming of substandard housing and is another feature of poverty associated with traditional urban social difficulty now fully rooted in suburbia.
To wit: Brampton, Ontario, Canada. In 1998 Brampton banned basement apartments. They were cited as unsafe and not appropriate to the single-family ideal of a fast-growing, low-density suburb. Basement apartments were said to be fire hazards that also bring an unwelcome increase in vehicle parking, create unplanned demand for schools, police, libraries, parks and garbage removal. Extra basement-dwelling tenants are even cited for lowering water pressure at certain times of day! There is truth in all these things but the story does not end there. Brampton is now thought to have about thirty thousand illegal basement apartments. Some houses have had such apartments for decades.
Brampton’s situation can hardly be unique. Suburbs all over North America are being forced to adapt to change. A basement apartment represents a cheap, unimaginative, fast, minimalist approach to keeping people housed. The single-family home-based suburb is obsolete. Super-sized monster homes and rooming houses encroach on moderate homes and the result is uneasy. Thing is, where is the alternative? We have barely begun to conceive of what it might look like.
Brampton, to the northwest of Toronto, has just over half a million people and is one of Canada’s fastest-growing communities. In the early 1970s much of it was still agricultural land. Older Queens, New York, home to more than two million, finds the issue of illegal apartments similarly tough. To crack down on all the illegal housing in Queens would make life harder for many tenants who need cheap, basic places to live. At the same time, the illegal units can be burdensome. They represent unsafe conditions, can be crowded, their owners are not paying proper taxes, and tenants may be exploited. What to do?
Housing: illegal conversions
Queens borough president official illegal conversion page
How about the introduction of the rule of law to basement land and substandard landlords? Respect for tenants is already enshrined in the law in Canada and the United States. Slack standards and a lack of inspection endanger people. We have the meltdown in the British and American banking systems to remind us that market-driven openness can be taken too far. A tenant is not a colony to be exploited, they are in a buiness reationship with their landlord. A little more balance at City Hall would help tenants get value for their money.
Landlords have rights and concerns yet many may be in a position to legalize and improve their suites with relative ease and at reasonable cost. Others will need to be shut down, tossed in jail even. The system must enforce existing, reasonable laws. After that, a little imagination and a lot of investment, public and private, should be leveraged to support good housing alternatives. Right now, it seems like North Americans can’t even imagine how to economically house themselves for a world of cultural changes, super storms, global warming, financial difficulty and energy scarcity. This will change one way or another.
image: Scott Forseman via Wikimedia Commons