The search for “quality renters”

Springfield resident, registered nurse and real estate broker Mary Ayala attended the Urban Land Institute panel’s presentation on Friday, September 29. She raised an issue during the question-and-answer session about the concern many property owners have in the city, which is how to find “quality renters” to fill apartments and houses. A lot of owners give up and sell, she said, when they find out how difficult it is to locate consistent renters who won’t bring legal and code enforcement problems with them through the door. How much more difficult this is when the renters don’t stay very long, and owners must continue to hunt for people to fill residential spaces.

A neighbor of mine lived with his young family on the second floor of a multi-family house, while renting out the first floor, basement, and third floors as separate apartments. When my family arrived he told us, “The neighborhood is good… quiet, lots of kids.” We raised our eyebrows, but we had to give it to him, the guy was optimistic, a glass-half-full sort of fellow, and we liked that.

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Within about 18 months he had moved out, having purchased a house in a different section of Forest Park south of Sumner Avenue. He didn’t sell the old place, but instead rented it out to a changing cast of characters, and for a while, he put it up for sale. He would come by relatively often, although the sidewalk, yard and curb were never again as clean as when he lived there himself. When I had a chance to ask him about his new home, and why the family chose to move, he said that our street had just gotten too uncomfortable. “Our new place is nice,” he told me. “The neighborhood is good… quiet, lots of kids.”

One family he rented to for a short while seemed nice enough, as the 12-year-old boy befriended my own children and was allowed by his parents to play in our yard. Not so for the daughters in the family, who were never allowed outside their fence. They would instead talk from across porches with my kids. The father was always scowling, but would at least wave a hello. Eventually they left, and the owner told me, “I thought they were good people, religious, because the man had a Bible under his arm.” No references? “I didn’t think I had to bother.” But now, he said, he thought they were dealing drugs out of the place, so he ended the relationship. They also couldn’t afford the rent anymore, he said.

So it goes: in a different house on my street, tenants have changed half a dozen times in the last year. For a while one apartment was occupied by two women, each with at least one baby, maybe two. One drove a minivan school bus, and the other was a nurse or a nurse’s aide. They had a lot of plants on their outdoor balcony for the period of time they lived in the place, and one day, the plants had simply disappeared. Where did the women go? Did they find a better place to live, maybe less expensive? A different elderly couple living on the third floor of the same house was from New York City. They had family here, they told me, but they didn’t last a year. With disgust, the old man told me, “This is no good a place to live.”

According to Ayala, there are a lot of factors that make the real estate industry in Springfield a challenge, among them the trend that realtors, and even employers, will often push buyers or renters away from certain parts of the city, or out of the city completely. To help buck the trend, Ayala said she wants to gather realtors together to try to pitch the city to renters more effectively.

Listen to Mary Ayala talk about the search for “quality renters” (mp4, 1.9 MB)

There is more to the issue than what realtors can do, but I agree that it’s a piece of the puzzle. From what I observe, it seems as though there is a steady stream of newcomers, and these newcomers do not necessarily know where to settle, or what given neighborhoods are like. They test the market by getting a place where they may think they can get by, but they don’t seem rooted. There is a willingness to move, and to do it several times over, at a pace that must eventually catch up with people and—so I imagine—feel rather exhausting. When whole populations are doing this, a neighborhood can’t begin to stand on its feet. Getting a sense of its characteristics is like taking a photo in a crowd of moving people and imagining that it might remain the same the next day.

What I believe the city could use is not necessarily “middle-class people” who will do what it takes to move in—possibly hampered by a sense of loss or righteous piety in the process, if moving to Springfield feels like an act of charity—but rather more people of any income level who are willing to learn and discover what a good neighbor means, and might stay in one place long enough to make that learning known and felt right where they live. These people already exist, and they’re already in the city, but there is little support system for them. It must be the same way for realtors, or anyone trying to “talk up Springfield”—people in the region seem to want to believe that it’s a sinking ship, determined to have lost hope.

Author: Heather Brandon

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