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Power of home

The Power of Home: Whether I rent or own, the place I live is home.

July 2, 2017: A Neighborhood is more than houses
Rachel Dissell analyzes the impact of St. Rocco's decision to raise rents, raze units. "Vacated St. Rocco Church-owned homes force Roehl Avenue blight, residents say."
From the article: "Berchin wanted to spend her last days in the grey-shingled home, in the shadow of St. Rocco Church, where she was baptized and attended school, and where she was surrounded by caring neighbors who checked on her, shared meals with her and called her 'Mom.' But the neighborhood she knew is no longer there. Those neighbors also left the street last year, after their landlord, St. Rocco Church, decided the residents of the 10 single and multi-family homes it owned on Roehl Avenue and one on W. 33rd Street must vacate.

   A story about the mental health costs of the Flint catastrophe reminds us of how much we depend upon "home" to be a "haven" from the risks of the world. In the broadcast, Dr. Vicki Johnson Lawrence, a professor of public health and health sciences at the University of Michigan-in Flint talks about the mental trauma imposed by the invasion of lead into the lives of her neighbors and co workers. One of the four founding principles of RHINO back in 2011 was "household stability," in recognition of the fact that tenants need a level of control over their dwellings that is comparable to the control of a "home" owner. In fact, that sense of control is the secret sauce that transforms a dwelling into a home. 
    Recently, housing advocates have focused on locality as a key factor in family success. The zip code is destiny mantra has been supported in study after study. Living in low crime, high opportunity communities improves life outcomes for low income families. But too often, housing advocates minimize the emotional cost of living in a dwelling where a tenant cannot protect his or her family. That emotional insecurity is a fact of life for most low income and minority renters across the country. But moving to safer localities is not the whole answer.  
    In considering the mental health costs of lead poisoning that can haunt a family's life for decades to come, advocates should not overlook or minimize the impact of all of home health issues that shape the experience of living in a place where tenants cannot control their living conditions. Vermin, mold, and bed bugs can have a devastating toll on low income renters, sometimes amounting to PTSD. And yet, professionals can't easily measure these psycho-social impacts and so once the extermination has taken place, the problem is "solved." For housing advocates, "healthy homes" (RHINO priority 4) must include mental health impacts that can persist for decades. 
    A destabilizing factor in rental housing is harassment by management staff. Here's a typical example. "My wife and I live in HUD Section 8 Project based housing. We are in our 5th year. Management here treats tenants as if the tenants are management's 'charge'. As if they are our tutors or our kindergarten teachers. We have a chapel that they are dismantling ...with the excuse it will be a recycling center (yeah! sure, right!).. They never asked us." It is hard for households to feel at home when management operates like an occupying power!
    Harassment can be subtle like hallway cameras, intrusive inspections, or casual and persistent disclosure of personal information by management staff. But harassment may be overt as yelling, name calling, blaming, threatening, doing self-help eviction, making quid pro quo sexual demands, or imposing arbitrary restrictions...what one tenant calls "house arrest." HUD is making some strides at addressing the worst of these abuses with new guidance on harassment, but too many properties are run by little dictators. 

    Besides relying on the Ohio Landlord Tenant Law, Fair Housing laws and HUD regulations to stop "unreasonable" and "discriminatory" treatment, advocates might want to think about Ohio's laws against Elder Abuse. Many of the cases that come to RHINO's attention are cases where senior citizens are being harassed and intimidated by management staff in ways that might violate the Ohio Elder Abuse statute. (ORC 5101.60) which defines elder abuse as "...the infliction upon an adult by self or others of injury, unreasonable confinement, intimidation, or cruel punishment with resulting physical harm, pain, or mental anguish" and lists a wide range of social service professionals who are required to report suspicions to Adult Protective Services (APS) to investigate. APS staff seem pretty familiar with addressing physical abuse, but may need to be convinced that "mental anquish" is another type of elder abuse. When a tenant slips a note to a public health nurse that "living here is like being in jail" more inquiry is warranted. 
    So where can advocates begin to address the tenants' need to feel in control of their dwellings so that the dwelling can become a real home and not just another form of shelter? 
  • At a practice level, rental advocates need ready to help tenants resist arbitrary or capricious rules that are designed to undermine a tenant's control over her/his home. The tenant who is not allowed into the community room with her support animal must be supported in challenging the manager who is clearly in violation of the tenants rights. The manager who insists on her right to attend any meeting of tenants should be challenged. Tenants whose friends and family members have been "banned" from visiting should be supported rather than encouraged to move. Too often well meaning advocates take the attitude that tenants should put up with these dehumanizing rules in order to keep a roof over their heads. 
  • Organizing tenant communities (another original RHINO goal) is another way to re-balance the interests of owners and tenants. But in most cases tenants don't organize until there is a crisis and advocates aren't laying the groundwork for organizing in anticipation of a "Rosa Parks" moment.  Without strong organizing support systems, who are you going to call? 
  • New legal protections (RHINO Goal 2A) could be critical. Even though the prospects of enacting "just cause" protections, or mandatory legal representation at eviction, or stronger retaliation provisions are Sandersque right now, this is the time to start laying the foundation for legal reforms that will contribute to rental housing stability. 
    Change arises at opportune moments and may be propelled by catastrophes like Flint, if advocates are prepared to act when the time is ripe. Other times, change is propelled by the slow accumulation of evidence, like the Gautreaux project, which has been on-going for 50 years. Sometimes a timely judicial decision will bring a big last year's Supreme Court decisions on landlord liability for damages to tenants and guests from known hazards...but only if someone wants to challenge the conventional wisdom.