The Carbondale Observer

News and commentary about Carbondale, Illinois and SIUC

Better Regulations for Better Housing

with 8 comments

I was driving south on Poplar last weekend and I noticed that the “for sale” sign in front of the house on the northwest corner of Poplar and Walnut (5oo W. Walnut) had been replaced with a “for rent” sign. I sighed when I saw the number on the sign and realized that Home Rentals bought the property.

I have to admit, I felt pretty deflated. Of course Home Rentals bought the property. Home Rentals buys everything. I don’t need to spell out what that means. Another of Carbondale’s nicest older homes is in the hands of a company whose reputation among long time residents is…well, let’s just call it less than sterling.

I subscribe to the Arbor District email list, and I was heartened to see that the Arbor District is monitoring the situation. It really clarifies the issues to see an officer of a company with a “less than sterling” reputation enjoying a life of privilege and ease while watching the quality of Carbondale’s housing stock decline noticeably. I hope the members and board of the Arbor District will maintain their vigilance and continue their efforts to improve the quality of life in Carbondale.

I also saw the post on the Carbondaze Gazette offering the following information:

The company has looked at the growth of the medical industry in the area and believes, with suitable renovations, it would make an ideal rental for medical professionals moving to the area.

I really don’t know what to say to this. Will the renovations involve covering the brick with clay-colored vinyl siding? Is the company capable of maintaining a property in a condition that would appeal to medical professionals? Readers can draw their own conclusions.

I don’t begrudge people wealth and success when they achieve it by doing something productive and useful to society and the community. It’s a lot harder to accept it when people get rich by doing harm to people and communities. It’s tough to see bad behavior rewarded, and it’s a rebuke to those who think unregulated free markets always produce good outcomes.

Carbondale’s economy has four main pillars: education, medical services, retail, and real estate – especially residential rentals. Real estate has generated a lot of money for some people in Carbondale. Some landlords build nice properties and maintain them well. They provide a valuable service to the community.

Others build insta-slums or they buy nice properties and let them decline. They intentionally allow over-occupation, which can drive down the value of neighboring properties. They cover their properties – and huge sections of the town – with the same cheap, ugly siding. And they get rich doing it.

I like to believe that people can change for the better. Some would call it naive, and maybe it is, but I know that at least some people can stop behaving badly. If a person or company – a landlord, for example – had a bad reputation and wanted to change it, the behavior would need to change.

That would mean maintaining properties in excellent condition, making sure to obey restrictions on occupation (especially in R-1 districts), building attractive properties that enhance the community rather than detracting from it, evicting problem tenants, and generally being a good neighbor. If the behavior changes, the reputation will change.

Of course, not everyone wants to change. Some people don’t care whether what they do improves or harms people and communities. As long as they’re making money, they’re happy. That’s a shame. It’s also why we have regulatory power. Clearly our existing regulatory structure hasn’t prevented bad behavior. It may be time to look at new policies and regulations.

A strict set of design standards could prevent some of the unfortunate aesthetic outcomes. Zoning reforms could prevent the shabby urbanism that makes up most of central Carbondale. A different approach to property taxes could make slums financially unfeasible. People are sometimes suspicious of change because so much change is for the worse, but we should remember that change can be for the better.

It is the city’s responsibility to regulate in the public interest. The county may also have a role to play. But the ultimate responsibility belongs to the citizens. Local government will respond to pressure from citizens. If it doesn’t respond, local government is easy to change. I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone that there are elections coming up next year.

Comments are welcome.


Written by The Carbondale Observer

August 30, 2012 at 7:45 am

8 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Strong citizen property rights are one of the pillars of our society. You are suggesting you want to start down a slippery slope. Review the TV show Fraiser and their Home Owner’s association for example. It is madness to think you want city bureaucrats involved on a case by case basis. As you might have already noted, they really can’t stop Home Rentals, they just screw things up for the honest people.

    Rental property is just a service industry. It is like restaurants and clothing stores, they will exist as long as there is a real industry bring in the money to pay people who need them. I certainly agree that SIU and the medical center are the job creators in Carbondale, along with a couple of factories and small companies. Rental, retail and restaurants just are. If one expands, another contracts, because there are only so many dollars. One factory job created, equals 3 or 4 service jobs. One service job created, subtracts a different service job from somewhere else in the ecosystem. This is just economic development 101, there is nothing to it. The Carbondale statistics align with this very closely. Rental is an employer, but restaurants employ far more people, so should they be named a major something?

    Finally, your faith in the Arbor District is interesting. I’m not certain it is justified. They will throw mud at others, no doubt. Beyond that, their agenda is far from certain. Certainly a big stink creator, but does that help?


    September 2, 2012 at 7:28 pm

    • PtG – Long time, no comment. I thought you’d lost interest.

      You’re right that strong property rights are a pillar of our society, but few rights are absolute. You can’t do whatever you want with your property, and you haven’t been able to for nearly 100 years. Zoning is the most obvious limit on what citizens can do with their property. Sometimes that’s good – no one would want a fertilizer plant in the middle of a residential district – and sometimes it’s bad. But the constitutionality of regulation on property use is well established. The question isn’t whether we’ll regulate, it’s what and how we’ll regulate. I’ve been critical of some aspects of our zoning, but no one thinks we should go back to the days when people could do whatever they want with their property.

      I know you hate it when I do this, but I have to question the assumptions in your second paragraph. In reference to restaurants and service jobs, you write “One service job created, subtracts a different service job from somewhere else in the ecosystem.” I think that’s faulty. Let me give you an extreme example.

      Say a resident of Carbondale will only go out to eat at an Ethiopian restaurant. We don’t have an Ethiopian restaurant; the nearest one is in St. Louis (or U. City, not sure). So this person never eats out in Carbondale. Someone opens a new Ethiopian restaurant. Now this hypothetical citizen will eat out in Carbondale. You’ve created a new customer. That’s not enough to keep a restaurant afloat, obviously, but if you create enough new restaurant customers, you can increase the overall restaurant sales and employment. Example: Harbaugh’s opening didn’t result in Denny’s or Mary Lou’s closing, and I’d be surprised if they cut as many jobs as Harbaugh’s created.

      Obviously, the best way to create new customers is to grow the population, and you don’t do that with restaurant jobs. I think that’s really what you were getting at, and I agree.

      Thanks for the comment.

      The Carbondale Observer

      September 3, 2012 at 9:16 pm

  2. Your example is silly of course. Of course, people go on vacation and eat elsewhere, but the same is true for people in the other place coming to your city. It all evens out in the wash. There are metrics about how far people will go to eat, with the numbers decreasing as you have go further. Same reason people shop at the nearest grocery or hardware store, or marry the girl next door.

    Bigger population isn’t the key, the key is more jobs that export anything out of the area, and bring in dollars. Those dollars get washed around in the local economy making more service jobs. The number is 1 real job to 3 or 4 service jobs. You can look it up, if you scratch the surface, you can’t miss it. The best problem for a city to have many jobs, but not enough qualified workers. Have to think about if Carbondale has enough qualified workers…

    It is true, your blog is not very interesting to me of late and I stopped reading. The play by play of city council meetings is boring. But, there is nothing better for a blog then spicy comments. Hope this helps.


    September 5, 2012 at 10:19 am

    • PtG: You write “…the key is more jobs that export anything out of the area, and bring in dollars.”

      I agree 100%. Right now we export educated students to fairly large area and we export healthcare services to a smaller area. I don’t know how you’d treat our retail sector. People from outside the city purchase things here, but we import those things.

      Jane Jacobs wrote a lot about city import replacement and exporting goods and services. She claims that’s the only thing that makes cities grow. Interesting stuff. She also famously argued that the development of permanent settlements preceded the development of agriculture. The conventional wisdom is the opposite.

      You also write: “It is true, your blog is not very interesting to me of late and I stopped reading. The play by play of city council meetings is boring.”

      I’d call that CONSTRUCTIVE criticism, which I appreciate, although I’m not sure you meant it that way. I’ve mostly been writing the city council summaries and commentary, but I’ve been thinking I need to get back to writing more posts about ideas. That’s why I started the blog in the first place. I’ve been pretty busy with other responsibilities, but I am going to make a point of getting more “ideas and argument” posts up. I’m not planning to stop doing the city council summaries and commentary though.

      By the way, when are you going to add an RSS feed to your blog so I can add you to my Google Reader? Are the rumors that you’re moving back to Carbondale true?

      Thanks for the spicy comments!

      The Carbondale Observer

      September 5, 2012 at 9:09 pm

  3. I am just commenting, no real plan on constructive or not. Glad you took it as constructive. It isn’t personal, just a comment. You would have to be a person, to get personal? Can you attack someone without an identity?

    I’ll be in town in a week or so. I have some new ideas.

    RSS feed? I’ll look at the settings on blogger. Glad you mentioned it.

    See you around the block.


    September 7, 2012 at 4:29 pm

  4. I think RSS is enabled now. Let me know if it doesn’t work for you. Thanks.


    September 9, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: