“What’s With The Homeowners vs. Renters Stuff?”

Culturally-speaking, it’s easy for me to identify with the homeowners in my neighborhood. People tell me I look like I have a mortgage; and I believe them, because neighborhood panhandlers won’t leave me alone (please don’t backtrack across 24th street after midnight to tell me your tale of woe–I’m still checking myself for bullet holes weeks later). Also, I’ve never felt the need to pee in board member Tim Dray’s yard.

In other words, I get it. I’m a descendant of homeowners, after all. But I don’t feel like that cultural understanding is going both ways. I worry that modest-living, yard-less, childless, dog-less renters are a thing certain people can’t wrap their minds around–except as a poor life choice or a moral failing.

So, in the wake of Bill Lindeke’s excellent column on the issue of renter outreach by neighborhood organizations, there’s a minor theme from the comment section that’s bugging me. It’s something I’ve heard before: the idea that the interests of homeowners and renters are perfectly aligned, and that outreach really is a cosmetic matter (and it’s just too hard anyway).
What do renters want that’s different from homeowners?

I understand where this sentiment comes from. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where a neighborhood association focuses on non-controversial, quality-of-life issues: safer streets, better parks, neighborhood events, and the like. But that’s not how it works in my neighborhood. Lowry Hill East is about housing and development (check out our task force coverage). LHENA is, and has been for much of its history, about stopping development. LHENA has even spun off two anti-development sister organizations, Healy Project and MRRDC, both run by current and former board members.
The problem with this is that housing policy is an economic issue. For homeowner and renter alike, your home is typically your biggest monthly expense. But the distinction between homeowners and renters is one of economic class. Homeowners tend to be wealthier. On average, renters are younger and more likely to be a racial minority. We have no problem understanding class conflict as it applies to much broader political debates over things like taxes and health care. Maybe it’s less apparent when it comes to issues in our own backyard.
Here’s a personal example of where our interests diverge: I feel very differently about my rent increasing than my neighbor does about her property value increasing. It’s only rational that she might favor a housing market that protects and promotes her property value (and parking, sky views, quaintness, and quietude). Not to speak for all renters, but I’d prefer to have a housing market where supply meets demand–for my own financial well-being.
This is not about tokenism, or diversity for diversity’s sake. If my neighborhood association is going to spend their time trying to set economic policy for our city (and I’d really prefer that they scale back their ambitions), then I’m going to raise hell about how unrepresentative they are. Policy-makers at all levels already favor a cohort that’s older, wealthier, and whiter. There’s no need to introduce an additional layer to the political process that will work against the interests of younger, poorer, often minority citizens.