I HAD A conversation once with a woman from a nearby neighborhood association who dismissed my opinion of my neighborhood when she learned that I was a renter and didn't actually own my home. She was intolerant of renters because she was more interested in raising property values on her block.
I have a friend nearby -- he owns his home -- who believes that some in his neighborhood association have unrealistic expectations for their neighborhood and are therefore unsympathetic to renters.
"Some homeowners aren't willing to work with the people who are already living here," he says. "This is Baltimore, but they'd rather this place looked like Williamsburg."
The popular opinion is, of course, that tenants do not care for their dwellings with the same responsibility that homeowners do. No question, bad tenants are a blight on their neighborhoods. And I know plenty of property owners who've been burned by their tenants. However, there are also responsible tenants who want to be more than an investment, who want and deserve acceptable living conditions.
Consider this: my friend Bill, who lives in Upper Fells Point near West Canton, has been partially without heat for the last two months. He rents his house and has had to take his landlord to court to get results.
With these recent winter winds and freezing temperatures, he says his house has been alive with blasts of cool air. The curtains flutter, the front door is a prop. Repairs that were supposed to be made by his landlord when he moved in four months ago still hadn't been touched by mid-December.
Bill (who prefers that I don't use his last name) showed me where there was a broken transom above the front door that half-heartedly blocked the cold air with a piece of cardboard and some duct tape. The cardboard was falling down. I could feel the cold air and it was like having an open window in the house.
"At times," Bill said, "when I went to bed, I swore I was camping." He joked about burning spare furniture to keep warm. "And then it stopped being funny."
After unanswered e-mails to his landlord, who lives out of the country, Bill said he attempted to get estimates for repairs on his own and was all but laughed out of one store when he explained his situation.
"They said something derisive about absentee landlords and investors, then handed me a business card and showed me the door." For good reason, these businessmen were unwilling to provide services without a guarantee of payment. Obviously, they knew more than Bill about bad landlords.
The transom was fixed after a day spent in rent court. Even so, the court was a disappointment. I went with Bill and, though I was not familiar with the particulars of each case, rent court did nothing to assuage my suspicion that tenants often get the short end of the stick.
At times, the judge seemed bored by the complaints, which, I'll admit, began to sound alike. Still, these were real people with real gripes who, in some cases, were requesting adequate living conditions.
Bill put his rent money in escrow and is now waiting for the rest of the repairs to be done. He's still without adequate heating and it's been more than a month.
My question is this: Does the fact that Bill's landlord owns property make him more responsible than Bill? Or me, for that matter? Am I to believe that I am less vital to my community simply because I do not own my own home? I find that hard to swallow. Quite the opposite, I think.
Bill could be considered an activist in his neighborhood because he's been demanding the upkeep of his dwelling. It's the broken window theory in action and Bill's still literally waiting for his broken window to be fixed. But because he's complained, he's considered a nuisance by the property owner.
Irresponsible landlords can ruin a neighborhood. It's a simple equation: bad landlords beget bad tenants. They are as accountable as bad tenants for the demise of healthy blocks.
Jennifer Grow is a writer living in Upper Fells Point. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
City Diary considers issues of interest to Baltimore's neighborhoods.