Through respectful two-way communication, landlords and tenants can break the cycle of mistrust, neglect and decline that takes such a toll on our city's homes and neighbourhoods.
By Tanya Ritchie
Published December 02, 2011
No home is an island: the "worst house on the block" diminishes us all. To keep it in good shape, every house has a number of interested parties.
If there's a mortgage, the biggest stakeholder is generally the bank or mortgage company - but this is only in financial terms, and most likely they don't really care much about the property beyond that mortgage being paid.
Next is the owner of the house, whose interest is much higher, especially if this house is owner-occupied. If the house is rented, then the tenant has an interest in that house. And lastly, the neighbours and community surrounding this house also have an interest in it.
What do I mean by "interest"? I mean that these people or companies are better off if the house is better off; it is a benefit to them if the house is occupied, maintained and enjoyed.
So why do we see so many houses in a state of disrepair? The most obvious answer is that the interested parties lack the means, ability or inclination to tend to these buildings in a suitable manner.
For example, a retiree, not so limber any more, children grown up and moved away, unable to keep up on the maintenance and unable to afford a contractor. Often neighbourhoods age at the same rate and communities face a decline until a new generation steps in and takes over.
But we can't blame our derelict neighbourhoods on seniors, can we? What about the ones we might call slums - neighbourhoods where houses are often occupied by tenants and absentee landlords ignore everything but the monthly rent cheque?
I've been a hands-on landlord for about ten years now, and all the houses I own are within a few minutes' walk from my own. When people talk about "bad" neighbourhoods, I am angered. Every house is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; it is in my interest, in my neighbours' interests and in the city's interest to ensure that these slums do not carry on as they are.
But how do we go about remedying a problem that is so manifest in the image and psyche of the city? If I may use as examples tenants and neighbours I have had over the last decade, I'll try to illustrate why this problem recurs and try to suggest how to fix it.
This is a pretty basic one. Some landlords buy into the myth that downtown Hamilton is dirty, disreputable and dangerous. The property is cheap, so they buy it, put in tenants, and that's all. Once the property is unlivable, they renovate it to re-rent or re-sell. Perhaps they even leave it vacant as a tax dodge or tear it down.
A family who once rented from us came from a third-floor apartment. They had two small children who could see daylight through their roof - and not through a skylight.
However, many tenants have treated me as though I were such a landlord - I can only assume based on previous bad experience with neglectful landlords. If something in the apartment breaks - through no fault, but just wear and tear - I am immediately called a slumlord.
Once, an extreme rainfall caused damage to downspouts and roof of a property, resulting in a leak inside. Obviously there was nothing to be done in the middle of the storm, but as soon as things were safe, the roof was patched ad hoc, and a professional roofer was called to quote and repair the damage.
But it took four weeks for the roofer to come out and replace the roof, which was not soon enough for the tenant, who decided to stop paying.
In these two parallel cases, we see reasonable versus unreasonable landlord behaviour. A landlord who simply will not fix a problem needs to be educated as to his responsibilities, whereas a landlord who fixes a problem properly, but is reliant on circumstances outside his control, should not be condemned.
If it is true that tenants can become jaded about their landlords and assume neglect will be the normal state of affairs, it is equally true that landlords can become jaded about their tenants.
Usually, tenants adhere to what we call the 90-10 Rule: ten percent of tenants cause ninety percent of problems. There are the ones who simply don't clean up, there are the ones who can't so much as change their own light bulbs, and there are the ones who try to grow marijuana.
Alongside these bad examples, there are the ones who treat the property as though it were their own, as house-proud as any home owner, who clean and garden and love the place.
Though I have seen a handful of cases where tenants willfully damage the property or break the law, most often the problems that arise with tenants are ones of simple cleanliness.
We would never seek to prevent a tenant from having a pet and have had great experiences with tenant pets - but often pets are not housebroken and this is disastrous.
There have been more than a handful of cases where tenants cannot abide by garbage collection bylaws, and try to put out too many bags, don't know how to recycle and inevitably use their backyard as the city dump. These issues are compounded when lack of cleanliness leads to pests.
Quite recently I received a request from a tenant to call an exterminator, as he had a problem with mice and roaches. I called the exterminator, who came out in only two days to treat the house. Afterwards, however, I received a note attached to the bill - treatment was most likely ineffective due to the extremely unsanitary living conditions.
What we are faced with is an impasse. Cynical tenants do little or nothing to clean or improve their homes because they know their landlord is a slumlord who doesn't care about the place and won't do anything to repair it. Fed-up landlords do little or nothing to repair or improve their houses because they know that their tenants are slobs who will ruin or damage anything they put in.
I know well the despair of walking into a newly-vacated property to see what tenants have done to it, sometimes in only a few months: what was clean, renovated and welcoming is now filthy, damaged and overrun with pests. But I also know the misery of tenants who live without hot water or with broken windows, through no fault of their own.
The result of this is a cycle of neglect, and it is the houses themselves that bear the scars.
With so many interested parties, surely the opposite should be true, but perhaps the Bystander Effect comes into play here - because there are so many parties, none of them feel a great responsibility to the house.
In my own experience, breaking the cycle by being a communicative, conscientious and courteous landlord is sometimes effective. Tenants who come in with low expectations will stay longer and treat the house well, a good relationship will develop, and in the end we will be sorry to see them go.
In other cases, unfortunately, no amount of good intention will improve a situation and help rendered to tenants is perceived as weakness, and disrespect for the property only increases.
Inevitably, it is the house and the neighbourhood that suffer. In several cases of recalcitrant tenants, I have had unhappy neighbours, fed up with behaviour or mess. I have also had wonderful tenants who have had problems with their neighbours - often because of a slum landlord!
This negativity often leaves good people with the feeling that they have no option but to move away, and we have lost great tenants because of issues with "bad" neighbourhoods.
On both sides, communication is the most important factor. If a landlord demonstrates to a tenant - even before they have agreed to rent or signed a lease - that the landlord's primary concern is for the welfare and comfort of the tenant, not for the rent cheque, then a relationship can grow.
But it has to be mutual. A tenant must demonstrate that they will treat the house as though it were their own, not simply a place to crash while they're passing through. If something breaks - tell the landlord. If you missed garbage day - tell the landlord.
Similarly, if the landlord has called a contractor and a broken window won't be fixed for six weeks, give the tenant a timeline. Be honest and communicate.
If the tenant can't pay the rent, tell the landlord in advance, even if you only suspect that you might not pay. I would rather be pleasantly surprised when a tenant who said they'd pay late actually pays on time, than rudely surprised when a tenant who did not communicate shows up a week late.
Negotiate about gardens, snow removal and lawn cutting, gutter cleaning, graffiti removal and other issues that are no fault of either party. If your taps drip or your toilet runs, if your door has a draught or your lights are flickering, tell your landlord. We are not psychic!
The same thing goes for neighbourhoods in general. It helps to have a clear line of communication with your neighbours. If your neighbour's gutters are leaking and flooding your basement, let them know that it's a problem. Suggest a contractor or offer to assist yourself.
Introduce yourself and ensure that they have your name and number, and you have theirs. For landlords especially, it's often invaluable to have good neighbours who have the interests of your property and the welfare of your tenants in mind.
We must move forward with the assumption that we are dealing with reasonable people on all sides. If the tenant cares about the property, the landlord will be more than happy to improve it as well. And, of course, if the tenant cleans up and the landlord doesn't have to pay for garbage removal and exterminators, the landlord will have money for improvements.
And if, after all that, you are stuck with a slumlord who won't hold up their end, or a tenant who trashes the place, then you have a few options. If it's a minor problem, can you just deal with it yourself? If you can't, can you compel them to deal with it?
Sometimes communication breaks down. In these cases, check out the website or get in touch with the Landlord Tenant Board and find out your rights and responsibilities.
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