rhino!UP February 2021

You say equality and I say equity February 21, 2021

The difference between "equality" and "equity" is a boundary between conservatives and progressives with President Biden stuck in the middle. When Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas asked Secretary designate Marcia Fudge (rhinoUP, Jan 31) to distinguish between equality and equity in policy making, he was blowing a "dog whistle" to conservatives who would oppose policies that were built around the idea of racial equity. Later he asked: "Is it ever fair to treat people differently based on race?" Fudge replied succinctly "No."

"What's the difference between equality and equity? Equality means treating every citizen the same. Alas, since many in the US start from a position of disadvantage, treating everyone the same means that many stay disadvantaged. Equity involves sharing the benefits of social wealth to lift up the have-nots. For conservatives, equity means "special rights" or "quotas" or "reparations." They oppose compensation for past inequality that could undermine their "white privilege." Football coach Barry Switzer captured the idea when he told the Chicago Tribune "Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.

The idea of skewing social benefits towards a favored class is nothing new. For decades, conservatives used redlining and highway construction to provide economic incentives to white suburbs over inner city areas. No wonder ex President Trump was worried that Democrats would "abolish the suburbs." Ironically, the suburbs gave Biden the margin of victory. There's also the issue of uneven taxation where investors pay a lower rate of taxation than their workers. A tilt back towards disadvantaged citizens is a "normal" change of strategy.

Resistance to equity strategies arises from the notion that economics is a zero sum game: your gain is my loss. In her new book The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee shows how the right has used racism to promote the idea of the zero-sum game. Disadvantaged whites were indoctrinated to believe, the more "they" get; the more you lose. In the real economic world, both poor whites and Blacks would benefit from policies that shift power, income, and wealth downward.

Another argument used by conservatives is the myth of the deficit. When voters are convinced that there's not enough money for all, they want to make assistance conditional, temporary, and marginal.

Finally, the conservative view of equality is rooted in the Declaration of Independence assertion that "all men are created equal," but we know that's not factual. Jefferson, who penned the phrase, was himself a slaveholder. His wife and daughter couldn't vote because they were women. His white male employees couldn't vote because they didn't own property. Equality is aspirational. It turns out that equity now is the path to equality in the future. No wonder that ex President Trump wanted to rewrite US history.

How can advocates support moving towards a just society?

1. Explain the zero sum game to skeptics. New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg quotes Heather McGhee: " 'Communicators have to be aware of the mental frameworks of their audience...And for white Americans, the zero-sum is a profound, both deeply embedded and constantly reinforced one.' ”

2. Preach the gospel of economic equity that benefits the whole economy through the magic of markets. When low income people have more buying power, they don't have to rely on payday lenders, slumlords, and off-the-books or gig employers. As spenders and savers, economically empowered citizens can stimulate the official economy to new heights. They can save for a rainy day or make a downpayment on homeownership. Social workers can become financial planners, instead of bureaucratic gatekeepers of categorical programs.

3. Learn to "sell the steak, not the sizzle" to reluctant Trumpists. They too can get a living wage, rental assistance, and student loan forgiveness all without having to sacrifice their social values. Don't try to change minds. Just let them live their way into a new way of thinking.

4. Be patient with the change process. With tight margins in the House and Senate, big changes won't come instantly and the push back will be endless. The goal is that your neighbors will be able to say they are better off than in 2020.

rhino!UP Extra 2/21/21

Sat, Feb 20, 2021, Marc Novicoff (Marc the Intern) writes on Matthew Yglesias' website Slow Boring to demand that the Biden Team Stop marketing race-blind policies as racial equity initiatives.

Marc cites a number of recent articles and statements that explicitly announce economic equity as a racial justice issues." HIs subhead is: "The country is already sold on a left-of-center economic agenda. Why complicate it?

Maybe, but rhino!UP is sticking with the argument that avoiding the Tom Cotton trap is a primary concern for the Biden Team.

On Saturday, Feb 20th, Politico Playbook notes "Presidents are often at their most powerful — and most cautious — in the first year of their administration. They arrive with political capital to do a few big things before the honeymoon ends, so they must be careful how they spend it. For Biden and his administration, that’s meant studiously avoiding the kinds of cultural issues that have tripped up some of his predecessors early in their terms."

As evidence of this sense of caution, Politico Playbook cites non committal responses to questions about a commission to study racial reparations and expanded gun control.

rhino!UP argues that Biden is less interested in holding on to the progressives than he is about winning back the conservative populists.

One can envision a Biden game plan that goes like this:

  1. Covid Stimulus under reconciliation gets enough Republican votes in the House and Senate to say bipartisan, while providing tangible entitlement benefits for financially disadvantaged households (including some form of $15/hour minimum wage.)

  2. Next a massive infrastructure bill gets substantial Republican support as a Xmas Tree spending bill). Biden can claim "unity," save Texas (from itself), and pick up new Texas Dems in 2022.

  3. Then, a second reconciliation bill that overturns the Trump tax cuts of 2017 and funds some additional entitlement programs like Universal Vouchers. No Republican support for this one.

Specific bills for racial, ethnic, and gender equity will hold til after 2022.

Challenging Self Help Eviction rhino!UP for February 14, 2021

This week's discussion on the RHINO network about a family of nine displaced by fire is a reminder about the persistent problem of self help eviction. After getting emergency shelter from the Red Cross, the tenants were that they could not return to their rental home because of the conditions and because the landlord planned to renovate the home for his own use. When TerriB asked for advice, a number of Rhinos in the discussion urged "get to a lawyer." Here's why!

Ohio Revised Code 5321.15 forbids a landlord from barring a tenant from the home except by eviction. Here's what the law says:

A) No landlord of residential premises shall initiate any act, including termination of utilities or services, exclusion from the premises, or threat of any unlawful act, against a tenant, or a tenant whose right to possession has terminated, for the purpose of recovering possession of residential premises, other than as provided in Chapters 1923., 5303., and 5321. of the Revised Code. Translation: the landlord must go to court to remove a tenant from the premises even if the tenant owes rent.

(B) No landlord of residential premises shall seize the furnishings or possessions of a tenant, or of a tenant whose right to possession has terminated, for the purpose of recovering rent payments, other than in accordance with an order issued by a court of competent jurisdiction. Translation: the landlord cannot seize or dispose of a tenant's belongings without a court order.

(C) A landlord who violates this section is liable in a civil action for all damages caused to a tenant, or to a tenant whose right to possession has terminated, together with reasonable attorneys fees. Translation: A landlord can be ordered to pay the attorney fees for a tenant who brings a legal action to recover possession of their rental home or belongings.

And, If the tenant is current in rent and the home is truly uninhabitable, then the tenant can ask the court to order the landlord to provide cash for shelter until the end of the rental agreement.

The problem of "self help eviction" has gotten worse since the pandemic. Landlords heard about the eviction moratoriums and decided that they don't need to bother with the court.

Tenant advocates can take a couple steps to discourage self help eviction. One is to educate the public through news stories, public service announcements, and social media. Remind tenants and landlords of the provisions of ORC 5321.15. Another step could be reaching out to first responders like law enforcement, Red Cross, and rental assistance providers to protect households in crisis from displacement. This kind of "continuing education" should be repeated every couple of years, before there's a crisis.

It's not us! Security Deposit Insurance needs some scrutiny

Another RHINO "incident" this past week called a different issue to our attention. A rental homeseeker in Cincinnati called after he paid his application fee and passed his background check only to be told by the property manager that he needed to put down a cash security deposit, find a co-signer, or sign up with "RHINO" for assistance. The manager told the homeseeker that she would have "RHINO" get ahold of him to make arrangements for security deposit assistance. When no one called, the homeseeker went on Google and found RHINO's phone number and called us.

"Why didn't you contact me?" He was clearly exasperated. After some more googling, we found https://www.sayrhino.com/, a national insurance company based in California that will "pay" the security deposit for a monthly fee. I explained to the homeseeker that this is a new program just approved by the City of Cincinnati as a "benefit" for cash-strapped tenants.

Turns out there's no contact information on the sayrhino website, so the homeseeker called the property manager back. She promised to resubmit the request. Meanwhile, the REAL RHINO will continue to investigate these services that seem to be popping up around the country. Are they licensed to sell "insurance" in Ohio? Will they turn around and sue the tenant if they pay a claim to the landlord?

Feb 18, 2021. Marketplace. Small landlords face a different kind of eviction crisis. " 'The big trend right now is landlords taking the law into their own hands, because tenants are legally allowed to stay and not pay rent and landlords are desperate,' Tobener said. 'That’s the story: utility shutoffs, lockouts, harassment."

Supply side solutions to affordable housing-rhino!UP February 7, 2021

Recent warnings of an impending housing crisis are fueling the argument that America needs more than emergency rental assistance.This week USA Today asked Are we trapped in another housing bubble? Their analysis concluded that housing prices are rising rapidly during the pandemic to unsustainable levels. Low interest rates, a shortage of affordable units, and high demand are creating an unsustainable financial trap. This past week, Marketplace featured a snapshot of life after the pandemic. Biden acts on evictions, foreclosures, but long-term housing crisis looms. " 'We have a huge shortage of housing for pretty much every income level except the very highest,' said David Dworkin, CEO of the National Housing Conference, which advocates for affordable housing." Today's New York Times features another perspective on the impact of the affordable housing shortage. More and more tenants are slipping into "informal" housing settings because they can't find a place to live after eviction. This as "functional homelessness" that's going unaccounted.

In economics, there's an iron law called "supply and demand." And housing policy advocates are arguing for action on both sides of the equation.

On the demand side, there's no question that increasing the financial supports for families who are rent burdened will improve their quality of life. Rental assistance is one short term "fix," but expanding Housing Choice Vouchers or increasing the minimum wage are more permanent solutions. Providing downpayment assistance for first time buyers is another demand side approach favored by HUD Secretary-designate Marcia Fudge. (see rhino!UP for January 31st). The theory is that increased demand will stimulate new rental units through the free market system.

On the supply side there are a range of policy options being promoted by advocates who say that building more units at all price levels will reduce the cost to home renters and buyers.

  • Changing local regulations that stifle construction. Increasing density by reducing single family zones, decreasing lot size restrictions, legalizing accessory housing in single family zones, and removing construction mandates that raise the cost of construction are all examples.

  • Increasing subsidies for developers to create more affordable units. Federal programs like HOME and CDBG can supply grants, loans and other incentives for building affordable units. Insiders say that both programs are slated for increased funding from the Biden administration. Some hard hit states are creating local incentives for new construction.

  • Preserving and building more public housing units. Senator Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocascio Cortez are promoting the Green New Deal for Public Housing.

  • Ramping up unconventional housing options. Examples include manufactured housing, micro homes, and live-work housing developments.

Could supply side solutions find a home in a bipartisan infrastructure plan? Two years ago, Curbed featured a story focused on a proposal by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) called the Homes for All Act. Housing should be funded like infrastructure. Now Congress has a plan for that. While it sounds like socialism, infrastructure improvement has been attractive to Blue dog Dems and moderate Republicans. Coupled with road, bridge, and public buildings, a housing infrastructure bill could pass without Congressional gymnastics. Matthew Yglesias proposed a similar approach last Fall in Vox.

As pointed out in Shelterforce last week, there's no single answer. Moving from the Inequitable Housing System We Have to the Housing System We Need argues that there are "Three big, but basic, things that we could do right now to get us much closer to equity in housing." Keep people from being evicted, preserve currently affordable units, and produce new housing.

Stepping up Code Enforcement in Ohio RHINO!UP for February 28, 2021.

After the Great Recession, a new awakening of activism around rental housing and rental rights arose. Now as the CoronaCrisis seems to be coming under control, there's renewed interest in housing code enforcement as a tool for family and neighborhood stability. Over the past two weeks, local enforcement have been in the news around Ohio.

  • On February 18th, WCPO reported on aggressive enforcement in Cincinnati against the absentee owner of a multifamily complex. "...advocates say the region’s shortage of affordable housing means far too many renters live in conditions that are unhealthy and unsafe." The investor owner of the complex lives in Florida, but controls dozens of limited liability corporations (LLCs) which, in turn, own substandard properties around the US.

  • On February 22nd, the Canton Repository reported on an effort by Massillon City Council to raise rental registration fees in order to provide more funds for inspectional services. "Ramping up to an $80 collection fee could raise about $300,000, some of which could assist code enforcement operations each year. Funds may be utilized to pay for dumpsters to place outside rundown rental houses or apartments. That potential benefit aims to assist owners with cleaning up shoddy rental houses and blighted properties." Owners have joined in the debate.

  • Also on Feb 22nd, Cleveland.com reported on a budget hearings at Cleveland City Council where the Department of Building and Housing and the Cleveland Housing Court raised concerns about around the problem of enforcing code requirements against out of town LLCs. "Members of City Council frequently complain that absentee landlords are buying and failing to maintain property in their wards. Several raised the issue again Monday with [B&H Director] Donald and later with Housing Court Judge W. Mona Scott. Scott said tackling the limited liability companies is tricky because the law makes it difficult to pierce the 'corporate veil' and reach the company owners. 'How to hold them accountable? That’s the question of the decade,' Scott said. One strategy might be for the city to seek liens against the LLCs, preventing the sale of their property."

Most cities' code enforcement is based on voluntary compliance. The city identifies a violation, issues a warning or ticket to the property owner and then waives the financial penalty when the violation is corrected. Very few cases end up in court usually only after repeated offenses and non cooperation. This is a money losing proposition for cities that to pay inspectors only to see owners pay a "wrist slap" penalty or have the charges "nallied" after "voluntary" compliance.

At the Cleveland budget hearings, more than one Councilman suggested that making scofflaws pay for their violations could generate revenue for more inspections. More revenue for inspections is the principle reason behind Massillon's move to increase rental registration.

Another barrier to effective enforcement is the fact that housing departments need the permission of the owner or a tenant to make an interior inspection. Without owner or tenant cooperation, cities must obtain a search warrant to do an inspection. Catch 22: you can't get a warrant from a judge without some prior evidence of the conditions that need to be inspected.

Asking a tenant to complain and permit access puts the tenant at risk of retaliation or worse. The inspector might find the home uninhabitable and require the tenant to move. The WCPO story profiles some courageous tenants who decided that they have "nothing left to lose."

At the Cleveland Budget Hearing, Director Donald revealed that there had been a dramatic drop in tenant complaints in 2020, most likely because tenants were falling behind in rent during the Corona Recession. At the same time, the City suspended its routine "health and safe" inspections when the pandemic hit. Cleveland's plan to inspect every rental property every 5 years is now at least one year behind schedule.

Footnote to last week's rhino!UP: Housing code enforcement

  • March 3, 2021. Cleveland.com. North Olmsted’s Westbury Apartments continuing to deal with building violations. "Currently, the three cases against Niederst Management and the Westbury Holdings Company in the Rocky River Courts include violations related to a previous collapse, as well as issues related to an underground garage, balconies and brick walls. North Olmsted also has a case against Westbury Apartments in the Common Pleas Court alleging a public nuisance and seeking injunctive relief to abate building code violations."

  • March 3, 2021. This Week. Reynoldsburg City Council: Rental registry, source of income legislation moves forward. "Council heard the first readings Feb. 22 of an ordinance that would create a registry to track rental properties and landlords in the city and another ordinance adopting a “source of income” law prohibiting housing discrimination based on how tenants pay their rent.