Friday, June 18, 2010

Renters don't deserve to be denigrated

(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner)

Stereotyping is a common but harmful practise. Too often, we pre-judge someone based on some grouping they fall into, blaming them for offenses committed by other group members. Done by race we call it racism; by ethnic group, bigotry; by gender, sexism. Most of us realize the harms of these “isms” and try to avoid them, yet still fall into other traps of prejudice.

Debates in Barrie reveal harmful stereotypes about renters, whenever there is a proposal for apartments or townhouses near single-family homes. Every proposed high- or even medium-density development faces the same basic objections: that it will be filled with odious tenants who will cause the buildings to degrade, lowering nearby property values and destroying quality of life. Stereotype alert!

Periodic discussions about allowing “second suites” (dividing a larger house into two separate living units) drag out the same misconceptions. A recent article in the Barrie Examiner stated matter-of-factly that Ward 1 is “plagued by second suites”. I don’t know if that is a quote, a paraphrase, or an editorial insertion, but in any case it’s wrong in several ways.

First, second suites are a form of accommodation, not a disease. Any bad effect must be caused by the occupant, not the unit itself. To say that these apartments “plague” an area implies that any and all occupants are problematic, which is untrue and unfair.

But more importantly, the well-known problems of “party houses” in the city’s north-east are NOT due to second suites. In fact, registering second suites could help reduce the problem.

A “party house” is a home rented out bedroom-by-bedroom to too many people, often students, all sharing one household. In many cases the basement or even living rooms are converted into more bedrooms to rent. The people sharing the home generally share the same attitude towards noise or mess, which can be a big problem if that attitude is lax.

In contrast, a registered second suite requires that each unit has its own kitchen, bath, and living room, and meet fire code. This actually reduces the number of rooms available to rent, so fewer people can fit in the house. It also means two different tenants, one for each unit, so they end up keeping an eye on each other. Neither wants trouble with their upstairs/downstairs neighbour.

But the root issue is that owners and renters are both just people. The common perception that owners treat their homes and neighbours well while renters abuse both is just a stereotype. There are homeowners with run-down properties and tenants whose yards almost sparkle. You can’t tell just by looking at a house whether the occupants own or rent. And renters live in single-family neighbourhoods for precisely the same reasons as people who own there: because they enjoy that lifestyle.

If more existing houses could be legally converted into two-units, it would create more housing of a safe, affordable nature. Discouraging it leaves potential renters with little choice besides inappropriate housing. The only thing accomplished by banning second suites is a worsening of the housing crisis, and the creation of more “party houses”.

Most of us start our adult lives as renters, and most of us will end our lives renting, too, even if we own a home in between. When we denigrate renters, we denigrate ourselves.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is an educator, father, volunteer, and politician.

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