Time to change rental culture

Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth and City Council member Steven Mays are not quite on the same page, but they’re singing a similar tune. Both have acknowledged a fundamental truth about our city. They now publicly recognize that irresponsible rental property management is directly linked to crime.

Both Hollingsworth and Mays have floated proposals to bring irresponsible landlords into compliance with modern standards of rental property and tenant management. Hollingsworth is discussing a proposal to license each rental unit as a business. She has proposed a modest $25 fee for the license. This makes a great deal of sense. Every apartment and every house is a business. The tenants enter a contract with the landlord. The unit is presumed to meet certain standards of safety and habitability.

Unfortunately, they often do not meet basic standards of either safety, habitability or more importantly — human dignity. We have far too many rental units in this town that are beneath the dignity of a human to occupy. The sad thing is, somebody is living in them right now.

With the predictability of tomorrow’s sunrise, many in the landlord community have already started to vociferously gripe. They cite how much they pay in taxes or how much their insurance premiums have risen. What they fail to acknowledge is the disproportionate burden their management practices place on the rest of us.

Every time the police are called it costs the town money. Every time the police respond to persistently troubled rental property, that means they’re not somewhere else preventing crime. Every time the police respond to problems at a rental unit, the social bonds of that neighborhood die just a little. In short, the landlords may collect the rent, but the rest of us pay for it.

It’s time for this to stop. Because most of Pine Bluff’s renters don’t have the power to hire an attorney or stand up for themselves in a protracted legal battle, the landlords have all the advantage. The poor have little voice. This must change.

As Mays suggests in his proposal, we have the culture of landlording practices we do because there are no penalties for irresponsibility. There are no enforcement mechanisms. In short, irresponsible landlords know they can pretty well do whatever they please — even if that means just standing idly by while their “investment” destroys a neighborhood.

According to the latest police statistics, Pine Bluff is currently enjoying the greatest sustained drop in crime in decades. This is largely due to a change in police practices. The police are now operating with the same kind of systematic approach that the rest of city government needs.

Great as this is, they can only do so much. There is a natural ceiling to law enforcement efforts. Unless we change the underlying land use patterns — the dominant landlording practices that pervade this community — the police will reach that ceiling in many neighborhoods.

Simply put, there are many neighborhoods that were dangerous and crime-plagued 30 years ago that are the same today — even though none of the same people live there now as did then. From this we can conclude that it’s not just the people. It’s the conditions for occupying the neighborhood that the landlords have been allowed to set.

In the main, it comes down to pretty simple math. Either we can permit a couple hundred well-financed landlords to dictate the terms of the whole community — which is what they’ve done up until now — or we can set in place real enforcement and regulatory laws that might just make this town a place to which people will come.

As this drama unfolds we can expect that a predictable three or four on the city council to stonewall every bit of progress. They always have. They always will. We can either let that happen or we can make moves to take back the city.