rhino!UP News 2020

rhino!UP for November 15th

Elections have consequences (for housing and activists).

Unless election run off lightning strikes twice in Georgia on January 5th, soon-to-be President Joe Biden will be forced to compromise with the Republican controlled Senate to make his campaign promises a reality. How will this effect housing? A pandemic, climate crises, and fraught election passions have masked the long term needs of renters.

Emergency rental assistance. The House and the Trump White House failed to make a deal before the election because both thought they'd be better off politically after the election. Then both Nancy and Trump lost! For now, the Republican Senate in the driver's seat. Austerity is their road map for the Corona relief package. Fight for what you need, but expect less.

Appropriations. The Senate also controls the FY21 appropriations that will fund the government until September 30, 2021. Don't expect expansion of housing programs. This bird has already flown.

Fiscal stimulus/Infrastructure. Biden's first chance to shape housing policy will most likely come in the form of an Infrastructure package in early 2021. Incentives to build more affordable housing *could be* a part of that package that is designed to put the country back to work. Advocates should start lobbying these ideas ASAP. Think shovel ready and focus on job creation more than suffering families. Partner with housing providers.

FY 2022 Budget Plan (late February or early March) will provide another opportunity to begin to reshape Federal housing policy. Funding for Universal Housing Vouchers, Lead Safe Housing for Kids Act (LSHKA), and the "greening" of public and subsidized housing could be elements of the FY22 HUD budget. Each comes with a price tag that the Senate will be reluctant to pay. Enacting tax reforms or making cuts to other programs could be the trick to making the FY22 budget a genuine change document.

Housing and Climate Change. If Greening Federal Housing doesn't show up in the FY22 budget, it could turn up in some form in the Biden Climate plan. Stay tuned!

Racial justice. If LSHKA doesn't make it into the FY22 budget, it could appear as a part of Biden's pledge to address racial equity. African American and minority communities are particularly hard hit by lead poisoning, which contributes to life long impediments that hamper social equality.

Presidential powers. Both Obama and Trump showed that executive privilege provides an alternate pathway to change. President Biden is likely to rescind or replace Trump's regulations on Fair Housing issues. An interesting question is whether Biden decides to rebuild HUD or to shift "housing" programs to other departments. A past example is the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program (the largest Federal housing subsidy) is administered by the Internal Revenue Service. Will Biden pick a "housing person" for the "H" part of the acronym or a big city mayor more familiar with the "UD" mission of the agency?

Why should RHINOs care about all this? There are 3 levels to consider:

  1. As influencers, RHINOs can use policy knowledge to illuminate the dark alleys of DC for their local networks. Combatting the idea that "nothing is happening" can raise the awareness of your grassroots citizens.

  2. At the advocate level, knowing the housing policy choices helps you focus your messaging about the local impacts to your local Reps.

  3. And, at the activist level, building a citizen base around popular issues can push local Reps to get behind "the folks back home."

Finally, like the disclosures at the end of a TV drug advert, RHINO reminds you that lots can happen between now and the inauguration, financial collapse, foreign threats, persistent pandemic symptoms, another climate crisis... you get the idea. Thanks to Darrick Wade of CLASH for helping me think through these ideas. S.

rhino!UP October 25, 2020 Why should renters vote? What difference could it make?

2020 could go down in the books with 1968 as a turning point year in US history. In 1968, Richard M. Nixon beat "moderate" Hubert Humphrey on a law and order platform and put an end to the coalition that created the New Deal and the Great Society. When Nixon flipped Southern Democrats and nervous suburbanites based on their fears of civil rights changes and urban unrest, an era of progressive Federal housing policies began to shrink. On the downside public housing began a slow decay and funds were shifted to private owners to own and manage "subsidized" housing developments. On the positive side, Nixon set in motion a limited housing voucher program (Section 8 Vouchers). Low income tax credits were devised to build new "middle class" projects by offering tax credits to investors.

Both Clinton and Obama basically continued these well entrenched housing policies, while tinkering with increasing regulatory protections of civil rights and increasing HUD spending on social-worky programs to address "special need" populations (example: "Housing as a platform"). Without majorities in the House and the Senate, Presidents Clinton and Obama continued the transfer of public housing dollars away from public housing towards private investors (Project based Section 8, RAD) and made only small improvements in funding for Housing Choice Vouchers.

Since 2016, Trump has talked about deregulation of housing construction to increase the construction of more affordable housing. At the same time his administration has agreed to increased spending on existing housing programs that support private investors. Unlike Clinton and Obama, the Trump administration has focused on removing civil rights and fair housing policies.

If Biden wins the White House while Republicans keep control of the Senate, renters can expect "more of the same" housing policies. Like Nixon, Bush, Clinton, and Obama, the housing agenda will include shifting funds.

Footnote of rhino!UP for 10/25/20

National Housing Law Project (NHLP) has a nice summary of four tenant-friendly issues for the next Congress and President to address. Feel free to share with your members.

rhino!UP Newsletter for October 11th, 2020

Will the Corona Recession cause ownership consolidation?

No one knows the impact of the Corona Recession on housing. Industry sources are looking forward to a "big bang" of home sales and rentals as the economy snaps back to pre-pandemic levels. Others, remembering that the Great Recession changed the housing market for a decade: more renters, more investor ownership of rental properties (Wall Street landlords) and more rental scams. What are the risks today?

  • Foreclosure and abandonment. Unlike the Great Recession era when homeowners took the hit, the most at risk property owners today are probably mom & pop owners of rental properties. Chronically under capitalized, these small scale owners are piling up debt as moratoriums postpone rent collection. Even if they can survive revenue shortfalls, many owners could forsake the rental property business for a more stable return on investment. Ohioans may see some relief for property owners from legislation anticipated by the General Assembly. But will help come in time for stressed-out landlords?

  • Seventy-five percent of renters live in unsubsidized properties known as naturally occurring affordable housing (NOAH) properties. A recent article in the Washington Post highlights the risks. "Twin threats face NOAH in major cities, particularly in desirable neighborhoods. The first is consequences associated with properties being bought and improved with such amenities as hardwood floors, stainless-steel appliances and stone countertops. This scenario inevitably leads to rent hikes.The second scenario is an already-underinvested property falling into disrepair and becoming uninhabitable. An estimated 100,000 NOAH properties are razed each year. In both cases, residents leave."

  • Scam resurgence. Many of the NOAH properties at the bottom of the spectrum--those at risk of disinvestment-could be scooped up by bottom feeder investors and used at bait in rental scams. You may have seen their signs on telephone poles or Craig's list ads. The flip side (pun intended) are "contract to own" scams which provide all the disadvantages of homeownership and none to the legal protections of rental.

The 2021 motto for rental housing advocates should be "Fool me twice, shame on me." Shelterforce offers Lessons from the Last Housing Crisis: How to Get Control of Properties. "When the dust had settled and the Great Recession of 2007-2009 was finally receding in the rear-view mirror, it became clear what had happened." The article outlines a number of local initiatives from community capital corporations to land banks that are being used today to save affordable housing units.

California has already learned a lesson from the Great Recession by enacting a right of first refusal on foreclosed properties. The Mercury News. reports on a New California law prioritizes people over corporate home-buyers. "The law bars sellers of foreclosed homes from bundling them at auction for sale to a single buyer. In addition, it will allow tenants, families, local governments, affordable housing nonprofits and community land trusts 45 days to beat the best auction bid to buy the property." NextCity offers expanded coverage of this new law.

The 2020 election could provide some capital to aid community based organizations to acquire and preserve NOAH properties. Creating a Universal Housing Voucher in the FY 21 budget reconciliation could provide an income stream to support stabilization of these vulnerable properties. Universal housing vouchers could also stabilize renter households which were battered by job loss and increasing indebtedness.

rhino!UP October 18, 2020. A New Website for RHINO News

When RHINO began in 2011, I had three goals in mind.

  • Fill a gap in news coverage of rental issues and rental activism. Too often activists around Ohio sincerely believed that they were the only people addressing housing concerns. RHINO was created, in part, to make the links between local activism (services, organizing and advocacy) and similar efforts around Ohio and the US.

  • Share strategies and tactics that are being used to address rental housing problems around the state and the country. Too many housing activists didn't have role models for collective action.

  • Provide insights into how rental housing fits into the larger socio/economic/political landscape. RHINO sought, in the words of Norman Krumholz, to illuminate "who gets and who pays" when housing policy is being made.

RHINO's primary channels have been the weekly rhino!UP newsletter, the "blurbs" we call member news, and the RHINO website. Throughout this period, RHINO has maintained a core of about 300 subscribers.

Now, nine years later, some changes are in the works.

  • A new RHINO News website has been created as a landing spot for members and the general public. The home page will consist of "Today in Ohio History", "In the News", and the current issue of rhino!UP newsletter. Past issues of rhino!UP for 2020 will be accessible by links from the home page.

  • The old RHINO Backup website will be reorganized by topic in Googles new format. Out of date stories will be eliminated and content from Inclusion Partners and Solving Rental Problems will be added to the new RHINO backup site. Reformatting and editing will *hopefully* be completed by the end of 2020. When fully implemented, the new RHINO backup will be for members only.

  • Another change will be the elimination of classes of membership. Originally, RHINO members were sorted as Providers, Tenants and Advocates, Inclusion Partners, and rhinoUp subscribers. Too much overlap and duplication! Beginning in 2021, members will be merged into a new database. This change will roll out slowly so that we don't lose anyone.

You will continue to receive a weekly email update each Sunday with a pdf version of rhino!UP attached. You can (and should!) share the newsletter with your networks. All free for as long as I can find the time to scour the web and connect the dots. I will be taking holiday breaks at Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years to work on some of these changes.

I also plan to be able to continue to provide free (non legal) technical assistance to activists by phone and email. However, in person/on site consultation will be rare and not free. One silver lining of this pandemic is the expanded availability, accessibility and acceptability of remote work. Hopefully, we will create that capacity together.

In closing, I'm grateful to COHHIO for letting me build this experiment into a useful volunteer/retirement project. In my 50 years in "the business," rental housing activism in Ohio has never been so alive. I believe that RHINO has contributed in some small measure to that new found activism. Thanks to faithful readers, commenters, networkers, and supporters, too numerous to name, for your thoughtful engagement. RHINO will continue to call upon you for suggestions and corrections.

Spencer aka communitymanager@rhinohio.com

rhino!UP for November 1, 2020

Creepy Cleveland landlords threaten tenants for supporting students

In the past several weeks, RHINO has reported about "creepy landlords" in Colorado and New York who "threatened" their tenants to persuade them to vote Republican. The connection was clear the was a partisan.You know, the kind of landlord who bans you from posting yard signs on his rental property and then puts up his own. But a more sinister coercion was reported this week in Cleveland. Warehouse District landlord tells tenants that rent will go up if Cleveland schools tax levy increase passes. Cleveland.com says "The proposed tax increase, which the school district said is necessary to avoid cuts, has garnered support from public officials and the Greater Cleveland Partnership. However, some owners of large amounts of real estate in Cleveland have expressed their opposition. At least one, Doug Price of K&D Group, has said he contributed to Cleveland’s Future Fund, a dark money group that sent mailers to residents and advertised on Facebook against the measure. The ads say the levy will result in increased rents and small businesses closing." Wait, isn't this voter intimidation? Some election officials say yes. Ohio tenants should check with Ohio Attorney General or Ohio Election Commission if you are aggrieved.

The real relationship between rent and owners' costs is far more complicated because of the preferential tax benefits for property ownership. Most corporate owners of rental housing try to cover their operating costs from the rent. They "make money" from the tax benefits of the LLC loophole, Federal tax benefits, and local property tax incentives. In comparison to tax benefits, a 5 mill tax increase is chicken feed. So why try to coerce tenants to vote against property tax increases?

  • The threat of rent increases could be just an anti-tax reflex action like when the MD hits your knee with a rubber mallet.

  • More likely, it could be a way to head off tenant complaints about a rent increase that was already in the works.

  • But the most likely answer is a market rent squeeze. That's when operating costs go up and "market rents" decline. Owners may be forced to dip into profits.

A NextCity report says In the U.S., City Rents Are Falling, and Suburban Rents Are Climbing, based on new research from Apartment List. City Lab proclaims: "Record low interest rates and severe housing shortages had many people already primed to leave the city; the pandemic gave them a push." Similar stories have been appearing in Curbed and ABC News. The Apartment List graph for Cleveland is here: a 1.8% decline in the last month.

If comparable properties in the area are experiencing lower rent revenue, they may start offering signing bonuses or new amenities to lure new tenants. Otherwise, landlords will lose a lot more money from vacancies than they would lose increased operating expenses. Tenants could be encouraged to negotiate and 2021 could be a renter's market for urban dwellers.

Trick or treat: LSHKA re-introduced

Emily Benfer reports that the Lead Safe Housing for Kids Act 2020 has been reintroduced in Congress. Here's the story. One big question is "why now?" With the end of the 116th Congress coming in 64 days, the bill must just be a news grabber that will need to be reintroduced next session.

Northeast Ohio lawsuits against CDC Moratorium

Last week RHINO reported on the latest challenge to the CDC moratorium. An update on the Housing Law List summarizes the status of the challenge this way. "Another case has been filed challenging the halt order in Akron, Ohio, though as of yet no preliminary injunction motion appears to...have been filed."


Nov 1, 2020, Columbus Business Journal. The advantages of urban living are still evident in Downtown Cleveland despite residents’ adjusted lifestyles. "Downtown Cleveland is Northeast Ohio’s fastest-growing neighborhood. Between 2013 and 2018, the Downtown Cleveland population grew by 48%, according to census data" The advantages of living in downtown Cleveland are so great that the Downtown Cleveland Alliance paid to advertise in Columbus. (your rent dollars at work,)

rhino!UP for November 8, 2020

Winter heating: dollars and good sense.

Just relax: Elections have consequences for housing advocates, but until the dust settles RHINO's ideas would be just as useless as the rest of the speculating class. Instead, RHINO today focuses on some slightly more predictable aspects of housing in Ohio: winter heating. (check the poem at https://rhino-news.rhinohio.com/home for proof.)

Winter heating is a tangle of issues and concerns for renters. Most winter maintenance is a landlord duty under ORC 5321.04 (A) (4). But sometimes waiting for the landlord to think that your comfort is his concern could take all winter. The householder's goal should be to find a balance between comfort, safety, and cost. Here are some ideas.

  1. Check your furnace and chimney for leaks. Natural gas and propane leaks can be detected by a distinctive smell. Call your gas company. Gas leak blamed for deadly Mercer County house explosion; 2 others injured in blast.

  2. Replace furnace filters. Clean filters let your furnace work more efficiently and remove airborne dust particles from your lungs. Mostly filters are cheap and easy to replace, but landlords often skip routine replacement unless they are paying the utilities. If you have baseboard heating, take off the cover and vacuum thoroughly to pull out the dust.

  3. Unclutter furnace room, especially if you have a flame heating unit. Storing flammables near an open flame furnace is dangerous! Furnace room clutter can also restrict the furnace's air intake that's needed for efficient operation.

  4. Install a Carbon Monoxide (CO) detector. Inefficient furnaces and leaky chimneys can release deadly CO gas into the living space. Odorless and poisonous, CO can put you to sleep forever. Ohio Fire Code requires that landlords install and maintain CO detectors in rental units that have flame heating or an attached garage. This is a new requirement and landlords might not be in the habit of compliance. Give a written notice and wait a reasonable time before bringing legal action.

  5. Replace smoke detector batteries. Red Cross urges smoke alarms tests this weekend. "Since July 1, American Red Cross Northern Ohio volunteers have responded to more than 320 home fires throughout the 31-county region to help more than 1,200 adults and children with urgent needs like emergency lodging, financial assistance and recovery planning." The landlord's duty to replace batteries may be governed by a local ordinance.

  6. Seal the deal. Caulking, door sweeps, and window coverings can reduce cold air from entering through windows and doors. Sometimes tenants need owners' permission to make modifications to the rental unit, so check your lease. Check here for some ideas.

  7. Never use the oven for heat. You could be producing CO risks. You could burn out the heating element of the oven. You could put children at risk of burns.

  8. Safety check space heaters. Both electric and flame space heaters have risks when operating improperly. READ THE MANUAL, GUYS! Then check 18 Space Heater Safety Tips [INFOGRAPHIC]

  9. Control humidity. In a well sealed home the moisture in the air may be too low or too high. Buying a digital humidity meter can help. High humidity can make you feel colder, cause window condensation, and contribute to mold. Low humidity can cause dry skin, scratchy throats, and trigger asthma symptoms. Using your bathroom vent fans or ceiling fans can help by moving most air from high humidity areas to lower humidity. More here.

  10. Dress warmly indoors. Running the furnace and wandering around in your undies is a money waster!