Monitoring Needed For Existing Rentals

Fifty-one percent of housing units in Jamestown are rented, higher than at any point in the past 50 years-and up from 42 percent in 1960. But what does this mean? Is 51 percent too high? Or could it possibly be too low?

It could very well be the latter, due to the fact that households have changed dramatically over the past few decades, while our housing stock hasn’t. In other words, more people would likely be renting today if the options were better.

And why is that? Primarily, it’s the rise of the one-person household. In Jamestown, as in many urban areas in the U.S. and the developed world, the prevalence of households with a single occupant has risen sharply in just a few generations. Twenty percent of Jamestown’s households had just one person in 1960. Today, it’s 36 percent-a low figure compared to places such as Cleveland, Atlanta, Minneapolis and Seattle, where the rate is over 40 percent.

Households are generally smaller today for several reasons. Young people are putting off marriage until their late 20s or 30s, or later. Many seniors live alone because they never married, lost a spouse or are divorced. And many middle-aged adults live by themselves by choice, or due to a life transition.

If you add single-occupant households in Jamestown to those with two people, you get a combined 67 percent of the city’s households. The days when large nuclear or extended families filled the city’s homes-as they did for much of the early and middle 20th century-are clearly over.

And that has created a mismatch between the types of housing that many households would prefer, and the housing that’s available. The thousands of homes built between 1900 and 1930 for growing families that leapt at the chance to leave outdated rentals in the city’s industrial corridors for a new Bungalow or Dutch Colonial, are less appealing to a single person today. Although some younger people would like to own a home by themselves, and many seniors would love to stay in their home for the rest of their lives, the prospect of empty rooms and a yard to mow drives many to look to the rental market.

And for many would-be renters, the options are unappealing. Population loss, stagnant home values, and low rents have stunted the production (or retrofitting) of housing more in line with today’s households, resulting in a rental stock that lacks the quality and amenities sought by middle and upper income renters. The popularity of new market-rate housing in downtown Jamestown, such as the Wellman Building, has shown a level of pent-up demand for modern rentals that few predicted for a city like Jamestown.

Other factors, too, drive the rise in renting, from high poverty rates that prevent aspiring homeowners from reaching their goal, to job insecurities that discourage the planting of long-term roots.

The bottom line is that renting makes sense for more households today than it did a few decades ago-and we can expect that trend to continue.

So, what can be done to address this disparity between our households and our housing stock?

First, we have to do a better job of monitoring the quality of our existing rentals. Less than an hour away, Erie, Pa., has been inspecting and licensing rental properties since 2007, and the results are promising: fewer fire deaths, fewer demolitions and fewer undercapitalized landlords willing to gamble with the city’s housing. Monitoring of rental conditions is especially important in cases where single-family homes become rentals-the situation at more than 1,500 houses in Jamestown.

Removing the least desirable and least salvageable homes while reusing existing structures to create apartments that fit today’s households-as we’re witnessing downtown-is another promising approach. As poor-quality housing is removed, using the empty lots as side-yards or driveways for adjacent homes, or as gardens, can add to the functionality and value of the remaining stock.

We can also think more experimentally about our housing. Small houses are becoming popular as space-efficient options that allow privacy and pride of ownership, while removing some of the burdens of typical homeownership. Groupings of 600-square-foot houses in place of demolished homes or vacant lots would be an interesting way to contribute new density and vitality to areas near downtown, while providing an appealing ownership option to a single-person household.

The durability of our built environment makes this adjustment a difficult and gradual task. But the alternative-finding square pegs for round holes-isn’t much of an option.

Renaissance Reflections is a biweekly feature with news from the front lines of Jamestown’s revitalization.