How Renters Can Be Neighborhood Advocates

37% of all American residents rent their homes and yet the voice of renters is often underrepresented in local decision-making.

Unless you live in a big city like San Francisco or Chicago, where a large percentage of units are rentals, tenant concerns can easily go unnoticed, especially when many neighborhoods have rental units interspersed rather than clumped together in clear zones. In fact, another surprising statistic about rental housing in America is that a full 35% of it is single-family homes, and an additional 18% is 2-4 unit buildings. That means more than half of rental housing in the US is not gigantic apartment buildings but modest houses and small duplexes, fourplexes, etc. That type of housing is all around us, yet because it blends with single family owner-occupied homes, it’s often overlooked.

There are, especially in big cities, examples of tenants uniting around specific issues that directly impact them, particularly when it comes to housing, but on day-to-day neighborhood issues like speeding cars, trash collection and capital improvement projects, not as many.

Invisible Renters

Personally, as a renter, I feel somewhat invisible. For our readers who are renters, maybe you can relate to this (And for those who own, there was probably a time in your life when you rented and can remember this experience). I don’t directly pay property taxes, so I can’t use that as leverage in conversations with local leaders. In addition, due to the concentration of apartments in my neighborhood, I am merely one resident out of perhaps 300 people who live on my block. That means a lot less than if I owned one house out of thirty on my block. (Of course, that also means more collective voices if I were to get all my neighbors to rally around an issue. More on that in a minute.) I rarely receive notices about neighborhood meetings and when I do, they have almost always already occurred by the time I get the letter. In short, I feel disregarded and ignored as a tenant.

There are also the insidious stereotypes of renters—that they are transient, that they don’t contribute to a community as much as owners, that they don’t make good neighbors, and so on. How many condo associations and home owners associations have policies about what percent of their units can be rentals and how much they’ll allow rentals to live in their community? How many people, when choosing to buy a new home, consider how much of the surrounding homes are rentals and look upon a high percentage unfavorably? These negative views are another reason it can be harder to make your voice heard as a renter.

Of course, there is a kernel of truth to some of these perceptions: Renting is a short-term proposition and many renters do move more often than homeowners. The renters in my neighborhood tend to be younger, some are in college or graduate school, many are childless… So they aren’t as tied down. I’ll confess that it’s only after living a year in my current apartment and signing another year’s lease that I’ve begun to feel like I’m truly a part of this neighborhood and am familiar enough with the issues here to begin to be a neighborhood activist. But just because I and others in my situation aren’t living in our homes for decades, that doesn’t mean we care any less about our streets, our sidewalks, our businesses, and our parks than owners do.

Perspective from a Seasoned Neighborhood Activist

To get some perspective on this topic, I contacted friend of Strong Towns and former mayor of Seattle, Michael McGinn, because I knew he had experience in citizen-based advocacy. Last year, he wrote an article for Crosscut (a news site based in the Pacific Northwest) specifically talking about the challenges of renter engagement and the prejudices renters can face.

While McGinn rented in Seattle for several years, he says he didn’t become incredibly active in neighborhood issues until after he bought a home in the Greenwood area. In our conversation, this trajectory is something that McGinn and I recognized as fairly typical: While renters can move frequently, purchasing a home means a multiyear commitment to a neighborhood, so owners can more easily become invested in neighborhood issues. It’s not that renters don’t care, it’s just that they’re less likely to be concerned with long-term problems.

One of the issues McGinn first became interested in was getting sidewalks in Greenwood so that he and his neighbors could safely walk to the grocery store, take their kids to school, and so on. The desire for sidewalks led him to attend some neighborhood meetings, which eventually landed him the role of head of his neighborhood’s community council. He didn’t set out the do that, but his passion for the issue of pedestrian safety led him there.

In our conversation, McGinn stressed that his research and his experience in neighborhood activism shows that, just because a group calls themselves a neighborhood organization or says they work to represent the whole neighborhood, that doesn’t mean they actually do. A recent report that McGinn sites in his article showed that in every Seattle district council (a form of local government), no more than 40% of the councilors representing any district were renters, and for many of the councils, the amount of councilors who rent was less than 10%. This is in spite of the fact that the Seattle population is over 50% renters. Failing to represent renter can also mean cutting out the demographics that typically rent (young people, people of color, etc.).