A few years ago, I was involved in local community work that entailed knocking on doors to ask people about their experiences living in Meadville. That work generated a lot of dialogue, but there was one conversation I’ll never forget.

It was with a woman — call her “Rita” — who was a senior. She walked with a cane and was bit stand-offish at first (as are most people when strangers knock on their door). Eventually, she invited me in for a chat.

Rita lived in what some might call a “bad” neighborhood. Sidewalks were cracked, garbage was scattered across the streets and many houses were in disrepair. Rita’s house was no different. The first thing I noticed was a missing step leading to her front door; it left a hole the size of a basketball — the kind of thing that, if you didn’t see it, could easily break your ankle. “That’s a disaster waiting to happen,” I thought as I rang the bell. My concerns were exacerbated when I first saw Rita.

She came to the door in a blue duster and house slippers, moving haltingly, despite the help of her cane. In a clumsy attempt at an icebreaker, I said: “That’s quite a hole you got there,” to which Rita replied: “Yeah, I’ve been asking the landlord to fix it, but he hasn’t done anything.”

“How long’s it been like that?” I asked. “Since I got here,” she told me. “And how long’s that been?” “Six months,” she said.

Six months! That seemed outrageous, especially given Rita’s mobility issues.

“Do you have any other problems with the house?” I asked. At that point, Rita invited me in. She showed me her kitchen. “Look at the ants,” she said, pointing to a corner where they were crawling under a crack in the backdoor. The infestation was bad — but it wasn’t the worst of it.

“And when I got here,” she continued, “there was a bucket of (excrement) in the living room.”

“What?!” I wasn’t sure how to process what I’d just heard.

“Yup, I guess the plumbing didn’t work or something, so they used the bucket.”

Rita wasn’t sure who “they” were — maybe the previous tenants? Maybe a squatter? But in any case, the landlord did nothing. He simply rented to Rita, bucket and all.

How can you live like this? I thought. And why move into such a place to begin with?

“It’s all I could afford,” Rita said, explaining she was on a fixed income, and most of the rentals were out of her price range.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” I asked. “I don’t think so,” she said apprehensively. “If I complain too much, I’m afraid he (the landlord) will kick me out. Then I’ll have nowhere to go.”

This is the reality of renting in Meadville.

Or at least, it’s the reality for people like Rita, who are on fixed incomes and have no choice but to live in substandard housing (if you can call a bucket of feces in the living room “substandard”) due to a lack of affordable options.

When people are desperate for a place to live, as many are (according to the 2019 Crawford County housing study, 53 percent of Meadville renters are “cost-burdened,” meaning they struggle to pay rent), this gives landlords an advantage. As long as renters like Rita have “nowhere to go,” landlords have no incentive to clean up their crap.

Of course, not all landlords are like Rita’s. Some are genuinely concerned for their properties, if not their tenants. But the reality is, good or bad, landlords hold the power.

Yet the proverbial “slumlords” are rarely held accountable, certainly not in any official capacity.

For instance, the housing study doesn’t contain one word about "landlords;” but it does contain countless references to "renters” and “rental markets,” as if the sort of conditions suffered by people like Rita are simply determined by an abstract force — "the market” — as opposed to people who profit from it.

The problem of speaking in terms of “markets,” however, is that it obscures an underlying conflict, albeit one nobody wants to talk about for fear of upsetting those who “lord” over the market. The conflict becomes glaringly apparent in Rita’s case: namely, the rental market is a system of fundamental economic inequality — a small portion of the population owns rental properties, while most everyone else rents from them (in Meadville, renters are the majority; 59 percent of houses are renter-occupied).

This inequality in ownership, in turn, generates inequalities in living conditions — because they control the property, landlords get to set the terms of renting. The result is a kind of systematic extortion. Basically, landlords tell renters, “if you want to rent from me, you have to accept my terms. If you don’t like it, try living somewhere else.”

But for people like Rita, who can barely afford to pay rent, that “somewhere else” doesn’t exist. Her options are determined by the prerogative of landlords who put market opportunities for profit above the safety and needs of renters.

The question is: How should we deal with this conflict, where “market realities” interfere with the necessity of providing poor people with a decent place to live?

I’ll suggest an answer in my next column.

Joe Tompkins lives in Meadville and teaches at Allegheny College; he’s also a landlord.

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