Press "Enter" to skip to content

When landlords are popular, something’s wrong

Essay by Ed Quillen

Affordable housing – May 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

For a few days in late March, we must have endured the busiest telephones in town. Alas, the constant ringing was not caused by people asking for advertising or subscriptions. We were popular because we had a house to rent: two bedrooms, fenced yard, and we don’t care whether our tenants smoke tobacco, raise children, or keep pets.

It was never my life’s ambition to become a landlord; that’s an irony of life in Central Colorado.

In 1988, we needed a bigger house because our kids were growing, as was the workload for our home-based enterprises. At the time, real-estate prices were depressed, and we enjoyed a large selection as we shopped.

Almost every block in Salida sported a couple of “For Sale” signs, and each fortnight or so, we’d look through a purloined copy of the “blue book” (a book published by the Chaffee County Board of Realtors which has a description and picture of every parcel under the Multiple Listing Service — for reasons unknown to me, they attempt to keep this useful tool to themselves, and discourage its circulation among the rabble who buy houses from them).

We’d pick two or three houses, then call Jean Dilatush at United National, and she’d show us around. We liked Jean because she never gave us a hard-sell — she just let us look at the house, and she never said stupid things like “You’ll love this cozy kitchen” when one of us had to step out so the other one could open the refrigerator door. We found a house we liked, made an offer, got a counter offer, and struck a deal in early 1989.

So far, so good. The plan was to sell the old house quickly and use the proceeds to buy down the mortgage on the new house. We listed the old house — the two bedrooms with the fenced yard — for $30,000.

After two years, without any offers, even insulting offers, we lowered the price to $28,500. Still no offers.

But during those 30 months, we had no trouble keeping the house rented. Despairing that we would ever sell it — the only people here then were people who couldn’t afford to buy any house, even a cheap one, or people with too much money to want a small house — we took it off the market, raised the rent by $50 a month, and put some money into long-deferred maintenance and repair.

IN 1995, our decision to keep that house looks real smart. Realtors call with news of potential buyers who might offer amazing sums, and rents have risen enough to make landlording rather profitable.

But I want to stress that it wasn’t our clever financial foresight that led us to keep that house. Nor was it any deep and abiding personal faith that Salida was going to “boom” someday and we should hold on to that real estate because it was sure to appreciate. Landlording was mere happenstance because we couldn’t sell that house for $28,500 in 1991 when we desperately needed that money.

Now to the most recent adventure in finding a tenant. When the house was open before, we typically got about a dozen calls. We’d set a day to show it, and pick from the four or five who remained interested after seeing the threadbare carpet and crooked trim. I’d call the others and wish them well. Everybody seemed rather cordial and relaxed.

Not this time around. More like three dozen calls. And many of those three dozen callers called repeatedly to check on the status of the house.

We put an ad in The Mountain Mail on Wednesday, prepared to say the house would be open for showing on Friday morning and available for occupancy on Sunday. By Wednesday evening we’d answered at least twenty calls, and no one wanted to wait until Friday. Most came by while we were painting, scrubbing, raking and patching. A few wanted to sign a contract right then, insisting they had arrived first — although they hadn’t.

By Thursday morning, so many people had trooped through or called repeatedly, that it seemed like we would never be able to finish painting a single wall. Some were anything but cordial or relaxed — they were obnoxious and demanding.

It would be tempting to say “well, they’re just newcomers, and they don’t understand that things run a little slower and easier hereabouts.” But some of the pushiest potential tenants insisted, more or less, that they deserved to rent the house because they’d been born and raised in Salida.

So there’s no point in blaming “newcomers” for a decline in civility. Try as I might, I couldn’t guess whether an inquirer had just rolled in from California or had instead been hand-delivered by Doc Leonardi and taught by Betty Cable.

YOU CAN’T REALLY BLAME PEOPLE for pushing so hard to find an affordable place to live with their families. Our ad was the only ad for a house for rent in The Mountain Mail that week. Little wonder that people were so desperate that they’d call three or four times, and get surly or worse in the process.

Although, I don’t blame those people for pushing so hard, I moved the worst offenders further down on my list of desirable tenants. I don’t like that kind of “winning through aggression” behavior, and I try not to reward it.

In the end, we solved the housing problem for one family, and that’s about all we’re capable of doing. I had to say “no” to a lot of good people, and that’s neither pleasant nor easy. I gave serious thought to renting the house to the first person who’d agree to call all the people who didn’t get the house.

Now that it’s over, I should admit that much of this was our fault, since we failed to anticipate the volume of calls and walk-throughs. But it just never occurred to us that so many people would be absolutely impassioned about renting a small, more than one-hundred-year-old house with sloping floors and low ceilings. Although we harbor an overindulgent affection for the place — even we can see that it isn’t the Writer’s Square dream home touted in the Real Estate section of9

We obviously suffer from a severe housing shortage hereabouts. I talked to people commuting to Salida from Center and Fairplay, to people who had to move quickly because their rental houses were being sold out from under them (one was becoming an art gallery, which seems to epitomize local trends), to twenty-somethings who needed to leave their parents’ homes and strike out on their own, to apartment-dwellers with children who needed more room — you name the housing problem, and I heard about it. People must just look at me and know that I’m a sucker for a hard-luck story.

But it makes you wonder why there’s such a housing shortage, and what the hell, let’s do the fashionable thing, and blame “the government.”

Look back about 120 years to when this part of the world was suffering from its first major invasion. The boomtown Leadville of 1878 may have been dangerous and expensive — but it didn’t suffer from a housing shortage.

THOSE WHO ARRIVED EARLY could erect a wall tent or log cabin or slab shack almost anywhere, dig a privy pit, and fetch their water from the creek. Later arrivals might have had to purchase a lot, and pay a quarter a bucket for their water, but they still had affordable, if primitive, housing. The housing stayed affordable because they were competing only against other working stiffs for a place — given the prevailing wage of $3 a day, no working miner could afford much more than $15 or $20 a month for housing.

(As opposed to the amenity migration today, where you’re competing against wage scales in distant cities if those folks are interested in living here.)

So there was a demand for housing at a certain price, and the market responded by providing that housing. Perhaps it was primitive, but such housing endured to my childhood in Evans, Colo., just south of Greeley.

There were a few families who lived on quarter-acre parcels at the edge of town: privy, hand pump, no electricity, tar-paper shack heated with scrounged wood or coal swiped from the railroad.

TODAY THOSE CONDITIONS would constitute child abuse, and the social workers would have those children — children who dutifully pumped water and split wood every morning — in foster homes.

We also discourage squatting on public land, which is how our pioneers found affordable lots. We pass zoning and building codes that require as necessities features that previous generations regarded as luxuries — electricity, central heat, running water, sewer or septic systems, etc.

Thus in our effort to improve living conditions, we’ve eliminated the bottom from the housing market.

I’m not arguing that people should live without plumbing and the like. But I do think that the government exacerbates housing problems.

Even housing that is comfortable and affordable — that is, mobile homes — is disparaged by local government. Having a trailer next door could lower your property values, and that would never do, would it, so the government forbids it. The modern government’s job is to protect property values, not property rights.

Here’s an analogy — you can spend a lot of money on clothes, but we don’t have a “clothing shortage” in this country. If you’ve got money, you can venture to Banana Republic or Saks Fifth Avenue. If you don’t, then you can go to a thrift store, and outfit yourself for a few dollars.

These cheap clothes might not be as stylish as the upscale duds — but anybody can afford them. Nobody goes around naked in this country unless it’s a personal choice.

In short, we allow people to scrimp on clothing, but we don’t allow people to scrimp on housing. Presumably, that’s because our government has not yet grappled with the problem of unfashionable people, but zoning boards and county commissioners do insist upon stylish housing.

After all, would tourists keep coming, and would millionaires keep building vacation homes, if their pristine views were marred by double-wides? If we want the kind of economy we’re getting, we must keep people of normal means invisible, lest some reality intrude into the amenities of the People of Money that our society caters to.

Governments at all levels have tried to address the housing problem by providing subsidies: if all you can afford is a cheap dwelling, and cheap dwellings are illegal, then here’s some money to help you afford a better dwelling.

That sounds good in theory, and I’m the last one who could complain about government-subsidized housing. We could make the down payment on our first house in Salida because we’d just sold a house in Kremmling — a house we bought for nothing down and $89 a month through the federal Farmers Home Administration. It was plain old porkbarrel spending that converted a gypsy hippie into a solid home-owning citizen.

BUT IN THE LONG RUN, these subsidies eliminate low-cost housing. If nobody could afford more than $20,000 for a house, the building industry would spend millions on research, and it would come up with something — mass-produced concrete, straw bales, old boxcars, you name it — to sell in that market. But what’s the point, if subsidy programs will support $100,000 houses? If you’re assured of a market for $100,000 houses, why try to figure out how to build $20,000 houses? I wouldn’t.

Another effect of subsidies is to raise rents. Several prospective tenants asked me if our rental was “Section 8 approved.” It isn’t. Section 8 lets the landlord set the rent; the tenant pays the government a certain percentage of his income, and taxpayers pick up the rest.

So there’s no incentive for the tenant to look for a good deal. If the rent is $800 a month, and he can only afford $200 a month, he won’t be looking for a $200 place, since somebody else will come up with the other $600. And what’s the point of landlords charging $200 a month when they can get $800 a month? This subsidy just makes all rents higher, putting more money in landlord pockets (even landlords who don’t participate, so I shouldn’t be complaining).

BUT IT DOESN’T REALLY HELP house people. Those housing units would still be there, Section 8 or no Section 8, and they would be cheaper without Section 8. Rent control? There are all sorts of horror stories.

After pondering these and other government housing programs — mortgage guarantees, tax deductions, etc. — I’ve concluded that nobody who matters in this country really wants affordable housing.

As long as contractors can stay busy, they don’t care whether they’re building $20,000 houses or $600,000 houses, and the latter might be easier because there’s more room for error. It takes just as much work for a lender to make a little loan as a big loan, and the latter’s profits are better. So also with realty agents — the work of selling the house is about the same, but the commission isn’t. And those of us who own houses certainly don’t want their value to drop.

Add all those groups together, and you may not have a majority of the population, but you’ve got a majority of the people who vote, finance political campaigns, and otherwise run our country. Since our democratic governments reflect the “will of the people” (that is, our governments work to benefit the people just mentioned), then governmental policies will naturally work to raise housing prices — everybody who matters wants housing prices to be high.

Will that change? Probably not. I don’t see any way to build affordable housing now. Residential construction costs are at minimum $60 a square foot, so that 1,200-square-foot house that we tried to sell for $28,500 would cost about $72,000 if we built it today. That translates to about $700 a month in rent, which means the tenant should have an annual income of $35,000, which means an $18-an-hour job, or two $9-an-hour jobs.

Seen many of those lately? I haven’t. Four minimum-wage jobs might do, but what kind of life is that?

Right now in resort areas, “affordable housing” really means “subsidized housing made possible so that employers won’t have to pay their employees enough to live on.”

The Republicans are right when they claim that welfare and other low-income subsidies create an untenable burden for the working poor, but it’s not only because those subsidies demand more tax dollars. It’s also because such subsidies drive prices beyond the means of the average wage earner. Yet to eliminate such subsidies in a country where a minimum wage position can’t pay for adequate food, shelter, or health care in unconscionable.

THE ONLY OBVIOUS ANSWER is higher wages. But the “Contract with America” folks now running Congress are talking about repealing the minimum wage, not raising wages in general.

But solutions aren’t impossible (probably because in this case we don’t have to wait for the Democrats and Republicans to hash it out). A recent edition of High Country News examined Las Vegas, Nev. — a resort town if there ever was one. Burger King offers from $8 to $17 an hour. Chambermaids and card dealers own houses close to work and send their kids to college.

The workers have a strong union, and so Las Vegas, behind the glitter, is a middle-class town of home-owning shift workers — kind of like Flint, Mich., or Leadville, Colo., twenty years ago.

The heavy industry might never come back. But those “good jobs” (and all that comes with them, like people who work full time being able to afford a decent place to live) might come back if some hard-core union organizers would celebrate this May Day by heading for our hills.

Meanwhile, I try to assuage my conscience by setting the rent a little below market price. We could get by with less, perhaps, and that might be more fair to the family in the house. But there’s a family in my house that needs money, too, and if any family benefits from that rental house, why not my own family?

Damn these dilemmas. I used to think that being a capitalist would be more fun.

— Ed Quillen