mitch: let poor live in empty homes? other commentators: uhh no, here’s why

What we have before us is a typical Mitch Albom column, the kind that runs in the Detroit Free Press/News on a regular basis. It has its cookie cutter three subheading organization, appropriately anecdote-y tone and a few heartrending/warming quotes. But oftentimes, I think that while well-intentioned, this one in particular is not asking the right questions, nor proposing the right solutions.

Albom writes of a two-parent family facing eviction from their moldy, barely inhabitable Detroit rental because they are behind in their $650/month rent payments. Albom’s solution:

But somewhere in this city there must be a place for them. And for other working families who are trying to make it. You hear constantly about houses in Detroit that can’t sell, that they’re giving away, that banks reluctantly take over.

A glut of buildings and an overdose of poverty should make matching needy families with places to live a lemons-to-lemonade situation. I know Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries is trying to help the Wilsons.

Yes, there is a glut of housing in Detroit (though it’s not all good housing stock). In fact, it’s estimated that as much as 30% of Detroit area housing stock and approximately 60% of office space in Detroit is empty, creating fears of increased opportunity for crime with a lessening of neighborhood social cohesion. Albom’s would be a solution if the fix were as simple matching supply with demand. But it isn’t – housing demand is nowhere near matching the excess of supply – because Detroit’s population keeps plummeting.

If Albom’s solution were to be put into practice, diminishing demand for homes for which demand is not currently sufficient,  the result would be nowhere near what needs to happen – an increase in housing prices, a problem to which the federal government is now weighing a policy prescription.

Housing prices necessary for economic recovery aside, the issue worth examining is the availability of rental property. The land(slum)lord is able to rent a moldy home because no competitive market for $650 homes for rent exists. The real problem is not a lack of home ownership, it’s the availability of rental property for families that cannot afford home ownership.  Interestingly, Albom details the family’s history with rending:

“Eventually, they saved up $700, which they gave to a man to let them move into a house which he said he would rent them for $500 a month.

“He gave us the keys,” Kristy recalled. “That same day, we found out he didn’t own the house. And he ran with our money.”

That led them to their current house in Detroit, the one with a sewage and mold problem no human should have to endure. For this, they say, they pay $650 a month. Yet because they are behind on the rent, they’re being evicted next week. My efforts to reach the landlord were unsuccessful, but who would take this place after them?”

Even when the poor are moving able to find a rental property at an affordable price, the regulatory framework is failing. Extortion? Against the law. Mold? Michigan has building codes (though not specific mold regulation unlike several other states). Eviction by slumlord? Legal framework pertains again. This is not a case where calling the landlord would even be logical – his or her disinterest in anything but $650/month has been well-established – but this is a case where you call a lawyer, the housing authorities, and advocacy groups, representatives, or really, like, ANYbody else? My dachshund included.