The Pervasive, Pernicious Anti-Renter Hostility in Local Politics

As always, my examples are from Austin but probably apply more broadly.

A majority of Austin households rent, but Austin politics is dominated by the homeowner minority (myself included). There are tons of theories of why renters don’t participate more: renters are as a group younger and poorer than homeowners, and both of those demographics participate in politics less. Renters may move more often and therefore not have had time to develop connections to groups or candidates. But I want to suggest one more narrative: it is draining to participate in a system where people are frequently overtly hostile to you, believe your voice matters less or not at all, and far from being shamed for it, are celebrated.

The fact that renters are viewed as outsiders in politics is so plain to those who participate that it hardly seems to merit proof, but I’ll try to document a tiny sliver of it here.

I’ll start with a trivial example, something fairly easy to brush off. In a city planning session for Imagine Austin, I suggested the city needs to consider the effects of its policies on renters and not just homeowners, and the discussion leader (a city staff member) coded this as “inclusion of nontraditional residents, like renters”. I do believe his heart was in the right place, but as a renter at the time, I felt more unwelcome to know that because I was part of the renter majority, he saw me as an exotic and not just a neighbor. Similarly, from the statements of goals for the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, a private organization that nevertheless wields considerable power:

Again, this could even come off as endearing: they know that they have an issue with renters and want to overcome it. But it also sends a clear message to renters that this is not their organization. They are to be tolerated, even though...  And this is a neighborhood association in a neighborhood where the vast majority (~80%) of residents are renters! Okay, so not so bad. Well, after some people felt unwelcome by HPNA, they formed a more open neighborhood association, and that’s when the claws came out:

Tell us how you really feel, Betina! Okay, that’s just one person. This kind of hostility to the majority of your neighbors couldn’t be that widespread, could it? Well, widespread enough to make it into the campaign literature of a runoff candidate in renter-heavy District 4, Laura Pressley, who pointed out that her opponent had 0 “Years as a Property Tax Payer” (i.e. he is a renter, not a homeowner):

Okay, but Laura Pressley, even though she is on the Executive Committee of Austin Neighborhoods Council and earned enough votes to put her in the runoff, is completely crazy* also believes lots of stuff most people don’t and ultimately lost the election. Does this stuff matter? Well, it’s pretty much the official policy of ANC, one of Austin’s most powerful civic organizations. Here, from ANC’s official comments to the city on CodeNEXT, and why they took positions against welcoming new housing into core neighborhoods:

As we all know, unless you have enough wealth to invest in property, you can’t have emotions regarding the place you live, nor should your opinion matter. Am I being too harsh? No, not nearly harsh enough.

Let me set this next clip up. Austin has intensely detailed rules on “residential compatibility” outlining what a house may look like, what modifications can be made to it, etc. This is footage from the Residential Design & Compatibility Committee, an official committee of the city of Austin with “sovereign power” (i.e. final say) on whether to grant waivers to these rules. The man in front of this committee has sought to enclose his carport by installing a garage door. Under the rules, a house may not occupy more than a certain percentage of his lot (known as Floor Area Ratio or FAR). Garages count toward that space; carports do not. With the carport enclosed, he’d go over the allowed space, so he needs a waiver. He has presented a petition with 52 signatures from nearby neighbors of his. After some early trepidation from President of ANC and RDCC Commissioner Mary Ingle (actual quote: “I would hate for this to start a tsunami of garage doors appearing on carports”), the commissioners get around to discussing the letters of support:

Commissioner Lucy Katz: “If we have 52 people in the neighborhood who say that they’re okay with it, then it’s their neighborhood. They’re not renters. They’re owners.”

After some discussion, they get to counting the letters in favor.

Commissioner Karen McGraw: “I found about 40 in favor in the backup and they all say ‘resident’; they don’t say ‘property owner’. Some of them are likely to be–I mean, whether it matters or not–some of them are likely to be residents but possibly not property owners.”

The fact that Commissioners could be explicitly looking to identify whether the people who have chosen to make their voices heard are homeowners and thus worthy of mattering belies the idea that the fault lies entirely with the renters for not participating, rather than with the city for choosing to stifle or ignore that participation.

In a better world, even contemplating, hedged or not, the choice to deny a voice to some of your neighbors because they don’t own a home–whether they are renters by choice or financial necessity–would earn you an immediate rebuke and put you outside the pale of politics until you apologize. Back in our world,  it apparently puts you on a committee with sovereign power. And, in Mary Ingle’s case, it puts you as one of the few citizen voices selected to brief City Council during their policy deep dives.

So what does it matter?

In the scheme of an individual person’s life, probably not that much. This is not apartheid. Renters still live in most parts of the city; there are no separate “renter” water fountains. Most people who attend a meeting like this and get a bad feeling of being unwelcomed, shrug the city committee or the civic organization off as busybodies and find something else to get interested in. It’s not so much that they’re uninterested–within a month of establishing a more inclusive neighborhood association, Friends of Hyde Park had more members than the decades-old HPNA–it’s that they’re uninterested in putting up with the nonsense and hostility that they had to put up with in order to participate.

But the net effect of all these people getting interested in politics and then cycling out is a city whose policy is seriously skewed.  Powerful neighborhood associations dominated by the homeowner minority regularly try–and succeed–in limiting the creation of rental homes in their neighborhoods. This drives costs up and ultimately drives many people out of the city altogether. The most popular policy endorsed by the most candidates in the last election was a homestead exemption–a tax cut that specifically targets homeowners and not renters, and may end up being paid for by raising taxes that renters ultimately pay.

How do we fix it?

The politics of the last couple years have offered great hope in this area. I was very pleased to see Councilmember Delia Garza will request that any analysis of the homestead exemption take into account what effect it would have on renters. City-wide organizations arguing for welcoming all, homeowners and renters alike, have been formed in Austin: (AURA) and San Francisco (SFBARF). On the hyperlocal level, more inclusive neighborhood associations like Friends of Hyde Park have formed. I would encourage people struggling with the frustration of feeling like they are something apart from the old politics to not waste your time trying to join organizations that don’t want you and just go straight to those who do. If you aren’t welcome in the old politics, you are welcome in the new politics.

On the broader level, we need to push for a cultural shift in which it is no longer considered acceptable to discriminate against your neighbors because of their homeownership status. In which, even if you secretly harbor an animus towards those who rent, you know to keep it to yourself or else lose your position in the policymaking apparatus. And a future in which all may participate in city politics without anybody questioning where their down payment is.

* Laura Pressley has objected to my characterization of her above and advised me that I was “potentially committing libel”. What I wrote was obviously intended as an opinion, not a statement of fact. However, it was an uncharitable opinion and I have therefore replaced it.

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The Pervasive, Pernicious Anti-Renter Hostility in Local Politics

23 thoughts on “The Pervasive, Pernicious Anti-Renter Hostility in Local Politics

  1. Rae says:

    Laura Pressley is in no way crazy, as anyone who actually knows her well could have told you. She has been both an owner and a renter, and her excellent neighborhood work benefits both categories.

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  2. anonymouse says:

    “This is not apartheid.”
    Yes it is. That’s the whole point of zoning, isn’t it? Creating “apartness”, especially from undesirables like nonwhites and renters.

    Like

  3. Terry Mitchell says:

    Well said. Everyone is a citizen. Renters DO PAY taxes — through the rents they pay to the landlords. When taxes go up, the landlords pass the costs along to the tenants. Believe me: tenants pay.

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  4. Larry Sunderland says:

    Blatant aparteid. Watching city council sit silent as racist and classist comments are made in support of neighborhood “preservation” is beyond blatant.

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  5. Terry, I hate that framing. As a landlord, in fact, I never truly “pass on tax increases to renters”. I charge what I think the market will bear (I’m a stupid businessman if I raise rents beyond that based on tax increases or lower them beneath that based on tax decreases). Sometimes the rent goes up faster than property taxes because of supply constraints. Sometimes the opposite happens. Of course costs associated with tenant turnover are factored into those decisions (that is far more on my mind than are yearly property tax changes). I have had years where my taxes went up and the rent I got went down and vice-versa.

    In the long-run, in aggregate, as taxes affect costs to landlords, they may induce some landlords to leave the market, which has an effect on supply of rental housing, which then has an effect on price. But this is an indirect, slow, process.

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  6. peri says:

    “If only there were an anti-rentier hostility in local politics…”
    I’m getting muddled: which most offend – those of us living our petty bourgeois lives in our own little rinky-dink single-family homes, or rentiers?

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  7. I get your point here, Dan, but I also think that a lot of this is cause-and-effect. People ignore “renters” as a category because people who rent tend not to be well-organized and vote. As soon as somebody wins an election because of well-organized support from a renting constituency is as soon as this will change.

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  8. Larry Sunderland says:

    The cause is fear of the other. The effect is classism, racism, and exclusion. The responsibility of leadership is to see it for what it is and not shape zoning policy to it.

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  9. Tex Cartright says:

    Bring on the FULL 20% City Homestead Exemption!

    Maybe you newbies to Austin renters can find a way to become homeowners and start saving some equity, ‘cuz otherwise your situation at $1000+ rent is unsustainable.

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  10. Carol says:

    A lot of the argument that Austin is inhospitable to renters is really that sometimes Austin is just opposed to increased density in its old historic neighborhoods much to the frustration of investors and homeowners wanting to maximize their investment. Yes, I agree that there is currently a shortage of housing and that is making our property values insanely overpriced and our taxes just plain unfair. And yes, it’s also making renters pay insanely high rents. It’s not unrealistic or “anti-renter” that when officials are deciding whether a neighborhood is on board with changing their vision that they would value those that actually own property rather than those that are just renting (who, let’s face it are probably more interested in lowering their rents rather than the long term value of the property).

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    1. Hi Carol! Thank you for commenting. I understand that different people have different economic interests. This is precisely why I think it’s so important that, in the interest of democracy, all residents have their voices heard.

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  11. Larry Sunderland says:

    Where do absentee property owners fit in your world view Carol? Are they sub humans as well?
    You are so confident in your assessment of the mindset of the “renter”. How do you come by that belief?

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  12. peri says:

    As tired and feckless get-out-the-vote campaigns suggest, it’s not natural for people to be political creatures, and it’s hard to whip them up without the services of a demagogue. If you don’t have one waiting in the wings, mobilizing renters to achieve your ends seems improbable. If you’re being honest, your campaign ought to be to actually reduce civic engagement generally, in hopes of marginalizing homeowners and old Austinites. 10-1 reducing council to a gallery of clowns was obviously a good first step in that direction.

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  13. Rob D'Amico says:

    I’ve encountered a lot of anti renter comments in the past 20 years of civic activism. But at the same time, as a long-time renter I’ve been welcomed by neighborhood associations who valued what I did: mainly show up and participate. I was a homeowner in OWANA and a renter in the same. A homeowner in Brentwood, a renter in Hyde Park, etc., but I’ve usually been active in working to improve the neighborhood eveywhere I live. Enlightened NA folks recognize the value of renters who are “invested” in their neighborhoods.

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  14. Susan Pantell says:

    Thank you for this post. It expands on only one of many issues and inequities that renters face. As a long-term renter with no interest in owning a home, I especially object to the condescending attitude that renters are just on a path to homeownership, and the way to address renters’ concerns is to help them to buy a home.

    I disagree with this conclusion, however: “I would encourage people struggling with the frustration of feeling like they are something apart from the old politics to not waste your time trying to join organizations that don’t want you and just go straight to those who do.”
    Instead, I encourage renters to join with other renters and/or understanding homeowners to have their voices heard. When you are able to form a new organization, that could work well, but it is often not possible to form or join a new organization.

    Like

    1. Larry Sunderland says:

      For anyone living in the EROC neighborhood district and you are interested in getting involved and organized please contact me at lsunderland@icloud.com. I am on the EROC neighborhood contact team and would love to hear from you and make sure you are in the loop and that you can help shape the conversation.

      Like

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