Thursday, March 13, 2008

Eviction by Fire

This morning on my run to work, I stumbled upon about 30 cop cars and 20 firetrucks in Mt. Pleasant, DC. The fire was almost out; All three hook-and-ladder trucks appeared to be focusing their three-inch beams of water on destroying all that the fire had not, behind the brick walls of the gutted, roofless apartment complex. At least a hundred firefighters milled about, waiting to go home after nearly 8 hours on the scene.

The Washington Post this morning hints that the fire's cause could have been electrical problems resulting from longstanding maintenance neglect.

Why the neglect? The apartment owner was tired of renting to his low-income clientèle. He wanted to get rid of all the tenants, renovate the building, and market the new apartments at much higher prices. Evicting the renters would have incurred great legal expense. The owner's most profitable option was to perform an "eviction by neglect," hoping that the renters would leave when conditions became intolerable.

Instead of taking the hint and moving out, residents organized successfully enough to eek some maintenance concessions out of the owner. According to the Post,
In 2004, tenants from that building and three others in Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights joined with two advocacy groups and forged a deal with the city to increase building inspections and force repairs.
Surely the owner must have felt resentful of this coercion. At the time he bought the apartment complex and started renting out apartments, could he have predicted that in doing so he was effectively losing control of his property?

The tenants clearly had legitimate gripes about maintenance problems. If they had been more successful at organizing, repairs might have been done more thoroughly and the fire averted.

But if tenants in general are given such power over their landlords, landowners will become reluctant to rent out their property. The supply of rental units will fall. The price of new rental units will rise. Renters, on average, will be worse off.

Photo stolen from


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