Here’s How We Get Housing That’s Both More Affordable AND Better Quality

By U Cast Studios
April 11, 2024

Here’s How We Get Housing That’s Both More Affordable AND Better Quality
Image Courtesy Of Pixabay

For a season of life, my husband and I owned and managed a small, century-old apartment building in Winnipeg’s inner city. Because I also worked part time and we had young kids at home, my own day-to-day involvement was limited, but my husband was on duty/on call 24 hours a day. It was a family affair.

This article was written by Emma Durand-Wood and originally published by Strong Towns.

Though I’d been a renter myself for many years, living in student housing, apartment blocks, basement suites, rented condos and everything in between, I’d never been on the “other side” of the housing world. During this time, I learned a lot about the nature of housing as a business. There were so many things I’d never thought about or had to deal with. I’d been lucky; I’d always had good landlords and good roommates, and privileged to have steady work that meant I was never late on my rent. Becoming a landlord to tenants in a struggling part of town was a real eye-opener.

Striving to be ethical landlords providing a quality service meant understanding that the landlord-tenant relationship was a two-way street. Just as we wanted tenants to be respectful toward the building and their neighbors, we had an obligation to them in terms of how we treated them. A critical part of that was how well we maintained the building.

I learned about legislated rent increase guidelines and began to grasp that if we didn’t increase the rent a little, regularly, then one day we’d find ourselves without the required reserves to make big necessary repairs.

The apartments in our block were modest, but we did our best to keep them in good shape. We were always reminding our tenants to let us know about any issues with their suites so that we could address them—things like leaking taps or sticky windows. When a tenant moved out, we always assessed what could be repaired, freshened up, or replaced, and then worked at improving the suite. We did big renos and everyday maintenance pretty consistently, as a matter of holding up our end of the agreement, and protecting our business and investment.

On a broader scale, I learned about the regional vacancy rate and how that affected the rental market. When the rate was higher (meaning, there were more available places to rent), tenants could be choosy about their housing. When it was lower (fewer vacant units), it was landlords who had the upper hand. The big lesson here was that if we wanted to attract and retain good tenants, then we had to provide good housing.

At the same time as I was learning all this, I was paying more attention to the whole industry in general. News about “renovictions” caught my attention. That’s what happens when a building has been neglected to the point that major renos are unavoidable, tenants are evicted to enable the work to be done, rents on the renovated units are jacked up, and a whole new set of tenants moves in. But renovictions are also done disingenuously as a predatory landlord practice, where the need for major renovations is exaggerated for the sole purpose of getting lower-paying tenants out and higher-paying tenants in.

A lot’s been made of the role that ample supply plays in housing affordability, but less about the impact on housing quality. The biggest lesson I learned was that low housing supply creates a perfect storm, leaving tenants vulnerable and landlords in a position to exploit them. We saw buildings in the vicinity run into the ground while every ounce of rent was extracted from them. We vowed to never be that kind of landlord—but we could see the conditions that had contributed to it happening.

In a market with scarce supply, landlords hold all the power. They can demand higher rent and pull shady tactics like renovictions, but they also have no real incentive to maintain the quality of their buildings. Many of their costs are fixed (mortgage, property taxes, utilities) but maintenance is more discretionary, and it’s often the first thing to be sacrificed. This can leave tenants who have few other housing options with low quality accommodations and a reluctance to leave, even though it’s not suitable.

On the flip side, when there’s a lot of supply, landlords have to up their game if they want to attract and retain tenants. Turnover has costs (advertising, cleaning, maybe a month or two without rent, etc.), and tenants won’t stick around if they have other options.

Landlord-tenant laws and renter protections can only go so far. At a certain point, effective protection for tenants comes by virtue of having actual choice in where they spend their rental dollars. When there is abundant housing choice, everyone benefits. The abundance serves as a sort of natural mechanism to protect both sides’ interests.

If more supply is important for improving housing affordability and quality, how do we get more of it? Two common ideas out there are that we need large-scale federal housing programs and to incentivize private investors to build a lot more multi-family units. But there’s also incredible potential sitting untapped, right here in our communities, in the form of incremental housing.

It’s the idea that neighborhoods should be able to grow to the next highest level of intensity by right. So, if you have a single-family home, you should be able to add a second unit, without having to apply for a variance. If it’s a duplex, it should be able to become a triplex, and so on. It’s the sort of approach that prevents the type of dramatic, disruptive upheaval from quickly and radically changing how a neighborhood looks and feels, and instead normalizes and encourages gradual but continuous adaptation and evolution. The kind of neighborhood where the residents aren’t always up against developers; they can be the developers, themselves. Returning to a culture where incremental housing is the norm is a key Strong Towns focus.

The other advantage to increasing small-scale landlording is that personal relationships carry weight. The owner is often living on site or involved on a practical level. Owner and tenant alike are incentivized to get along and hold up their end of the agreement when they know and see each other regularly. Of course, this isn’t a certainty, but it’s more likely to be the case than in a situation where parties are mostly nameless and faceless to each other, the rental relationship reduced to a mere financial transaction. When housing options are abundant, this positive aspect of small-scale rental housing also puts pressure on bigger housing providers to keep their own quality up.

Providing housing isn’t always easy or straightforward, as we learned firsthand when we managed our apartment block. But it is something that many people could do if afforded the opportunity: homeowners with suites they could rent out or land that additional units could be built on, or communities keen to pool their resources and develop co-op housing, or citizen developers who’d like to replace a deteriorating single-family home with a small multi-plex.

These housing options—the ones that fall somewhere between single-family houses and large apartment complexes—are what’s known as “missing middle housing.” They’re dubbed “missing” because while building housing in this way was once the norm in North America, it has been nearly zoned out of existence now. The opportunity to live in, or create, housing has been hindered by restrictive, prohibitive and exclusionary zoning policies. The result is that our system now relies on ever-increasing individual wealth or large private investment concentrated in the hands of ever fewer hands, leaving out more and more of us.

Missing middle housing and incremental development are not the entire solution to the housing crisis. We need many responses, including deeply affordable, income-geared public housing. But they can play a critical role in ensuring that each resident of our towns and cities has a safe and affordable place to call home.

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