Renters are the true American underclass

Lower classes

We don’t fear;

Let ’em rent —

But just not here.


All right — let’s take a moment off from our lamenting of layoffs, foreclosures, 401(k) sags, and property value shrinkage. It’s time to shed a tear for renters. They get no respect. When Washington dreams up programs to buttress the economy and help people hang onto or improve their homes, they invariably focus on homeowners.

There’s a good reason for this. Politicians think renters don’t vote. Unfortunately, there’s much truth to that. Renters tend to move a lot, from district to district, and hence have a hard time seeing how it matters much to them who gets elected. So let’s forget ’em! We need to take care of people who are more likely to go to the polls.

That certainly sounds like democracy, even if not necessarily good public policy. The results are familiar. When major subsidies emerge to buy a home, only minor subsidies emerge to pay the rent. Mortgage payers get federal help to lower payments; rent payers more often get evicted. The lucky ones end up staying with kin. The unlucky ones go to homeless shelters. The really unlucky go under a bridge.

Yes, billions of bucks go to bail out banks and mortgages, but the number of Section 8 rent subsidies remains nearly flat. In New York City at last count 127,000 residents were sulking on the waiting list, pining for a certificate. Meanwhile 36,000 of them were biding their time in shelters. Those under bridges or on subway grates are harder to count.

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One upside of this downturn is that renters with stable jobs have found that it’s a good time to buy. As in previous recessions, house prices have plunged in many places and some young people are able to become owners much sooner than they ever expected. Landlords are often hurting, too, so some permanent renters can alternatively strike a deal in a spiffier town or neighborhood than they’re accustomed to.

Mostly though, the trend is toward greater economic segregation. Government programs prefer new construction over subsidies to existing buildings because construction creates jobs. But that building activity, in turn, goes mostly to towns that have space, largely suburbs, and they often don’t fancy building apartments. Consequently, restrictive zoning typically determines that those apartments that do get built go up in cities, where immigrants and other lower-income folks already live. The suburbs get single-family homes. The resulting impact on schools and services is plain, and the geographic separation of rich and poor is further widened.

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One insightful Senate plan to make lemonade out of all these lemons is for the feds to subsidize towns that zone to promote dense housing near mass-transit stops. That reduces the need for cars and creates busy spots attractive to local private investment. Works like a charm in Brazil. In the Good Old US of A, however, outside of downtown most folks don’t want dense housing. It draws the “wrong� people. They just burden the schools and don’t pay much in taxes.

So as you can see, our system doesn’t offer much succor to renters, even though they make up a third of the population. Being poorer, on average, and less likely to vote, they contribute little money to political campaigns and few votes to electoral majorities. Who needs ’em? Plus they make real voters and taxpayers angry when they clamor for services or the right to integrate the suburbs.

It’s not surprising then, that America has developed a big underclass, getting bigger by the day.

Columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk.

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