“Is This for a Rental?”

Ever gone to a hardware store to buy a toilet, sink, or door and have the salesperson ask, “Is this for yourself, or for a rental?”? We all know that if it’s for ourselves, the owners of property, we’ll be wanting something nicer, better-made, more durable, more functional and often more efficient. If it’s for renters, well, the cheapest crap will do.

Classism is full of ironies and this is no exception. The people who most need to save money on gas and electric bills are the very ones who can’t have solar panels, efficient appliances, or well-insulated buildings. They’re the ones driving someone else’s cast-off gas hog (although some poorer people do want the imagined status that comes with a behemoth).

And will there be more renters in the years to come? Yes. Home ownership was 69% at the end of 2005; now’s it’s 66.9% and falling according to the Wall St. Journal’s MarketWatch. In one year, more than a million people went from owner or potential owner to renter.

What does it mean to be an apartment renter all your life as more and more Americans will be? It means you may never have a garden or a fruit tree; it means you may never have a pet. You may never choose the color of paint on your wall. You may not hang your clothes out to dry on your balcony even though it’s better for the environment and cheaper than using a dryer. You may be forbidden by your lease from buying your own washer because the landlord wants you to put your money into his/her washers.

And picture this: you know you shouldn’t smoke, but it’s one tiny pleasure, one tiny break, one tiny indulgence you hang onto fiercely. You come home from your job at McDonald’s or the Marriott and you just want to sit down and have a smoke. But if you’re a renter in a multi-unit building in several unincorporated areas of California, you can be fined and even evicted! Poor people are more likely to smoke than rich people, but few people ask why. Could it be that it’s one accessible pleasure left to people who often only get one week of vacation a year, who can’t control their work hours, can’t afford a cruise, can’t afford a car that works, can’t afford college—And that one tiny break is denied them. It galls me.

But in unincorporated parts of Santa Clara County, Contra Costa County, Sonoma, San Diego, and Marin, owners are free to smoke in their own homes. Those rich enough to rent a whole house are also fine. Apparently, second hand smoke doesn’t harm kids once their income gets high enough that they can afford a house. But those in multi-unit apartments can be reported, fined $100, then $200, then $500, and even evicted if their neighbors sign a complaint. One hundred dollars is such a large sum to a poor person and a mere nothing to the legislators who devised the law. So neighbor is set against neighbor. Divide and conquer and make life even more miserable for poor people, once again.

I’m no fan of smoking, but the blatant classism of that regulation left me breathless, and my county supervisor, in other ways a good representative, simply didn’t take my objection seriously when I suggested he make the ordinance universal and applicable to home owners too, or drop it. He rather piously brought up the dangers of second-hand smoke in multi-unit buildings as being especially bad. But when you have no choice but to live in a multi-unit building because it’s the least expensive, then you are basically a second-class citizen.

As always, our social betters know what’s good for us. They’ll go home and make their own decisions. Renters can’t.

2 Responses

  1. CP

    The double standard is definitely galling. However, as someone who’s allergic to cigarette smoke and has a (low paying, no-benefits) job that requires healthy lungs, it’s very hard for me to feel empathy for another’s “tiny break” no matter the class. When I was an apt dweller (we now rent a house after losing the condo we “owned” in the crash—ironically it costs the same around here to rent an apt as a low-grade whole house) the second hand smoke (LA county) was almost as destructive as living in the dense smog zone (where rent was cheaper).

    And why is it that pre-crash the only “mortgage” we were allowed to even look at was a subprime—apparently we did qualify for a regular mortgage but the broker could make more money off us if she sold us the subprime (and never told us that’s what we were getting)? And why is it that lower income “homeowners” are only able to “afford” the lower priced but much more costly year-to-year condo as opposed to a single-fam house? That’s the craptasm we got to deal with for all the 120+hour work weeks.

    The energy & water thing as a renter is what galls me. I could earn money from SCE is we could put PVs on the roof. If we could get an insulated wall & ceiling with double pane windows we could save up to $1000 a year on energy costs. But we rent so we don’t get to take care of that or insist the landlord make those basic conservation improvements. We have to pay for the water and the sewer to the city but the landlord gets to dictate how much and how often we have to irrigate her water-intensive plants (she doesn’t like drought tolerant or native plants). We just get to pay for all that.

    If conservation is such a priority to Edison and the State of California, why do we renters not get to have the improvements necessary to meet those energy conservation standards? It’s not like the landlords aren’t making a profit they could reinvest in the properties.

  2. Lita Kurth

    We definitely need some green-blue alliance groups to make this case. It has seemed to me that one no-brainer public investment would be exactly this kind of thing–upgrading as many apt buildings as possible to use less energy. It would provide jobs and save energy. Whether it’s solar panels or double pane windows, insulated water heaters or low-energy washers and dryers, renters shouldn’t be forced to pay for cheap landlords’ choices.

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