Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Other America – Chapter 57

(I originally published this on The Campaign To Change America blog, Daily Kos, and Progressives, South Bend in 2007.  It was in reaction to my encounter with the community of West York - now slated for demolition.)

Don Wheeler
As an independent home inspector I am typically hired by would-be home purchasers to assess the buildings they have contracted to purchase.  Although the homes are sometimes in rough shape (generally these are vacant), normally they are not.  Occasionally though, they are worse than rough and people are living in them.  I was in such a place last Friday.

The home (a duplex) was located in a subdivision of sorts located in a small town about a half hour from South Bend.  On the map you might think you were looking at a mobile home park because of the narrow winding streets.  But these are all stick built fixed homes which I would guess were built in the 1950s.  Like mobile homes however, many if not most are built on concrete piers and skirted – instead of being on continuous foundations.  This is a very unusual type of construction for our area.

My guess is that this development probably was built by some large employer, probably offering production work and likely long gone (now) from the area.  These were likely “built on the cheap” and thought of as disposable.  Meanwhile most of the homes remain.  

As you’d expect, generally the people living here are disadvantaged and some in multiple ways.  If you’ve ever lived among people in these circumstances the social and conversational patterns would be familiar.  As I worked on the outside I overheard complaints about the landlord(s), hassles with government aid agencies, the gauntlet (unending) presented to make receiving disability benefits from the Social Security program so difficult, etc.  The social patterns however, are much like that of any compact neighborhood.

Once I’d inspected the exterior of the building, I started in on the west unit.  I’d noticed the residents were not particularly clean and the reason soon became apparent. There was no gas service.  That meant no heat, no hot water and no range.  I was told that the gas company had cut them off although they’d made the payment at the last minute.  A miscommunication between the office and field personnel – while unfortunate – is not always avoidable, but they’d been waiting several days already to have their service reinstated.

I started with the attic.  Though the day was comfortable (around 70 degrees) the attic was stifling.  It was obvious that the roofing was failing due to poor ventilation.  Another symptom was the mold throughout.  Aggravating the problem was that when the heating system was active the heat runs were not all connected to registers.  This had the effect of dumping much of the heated air right where you don’t want it – in the attic.  Add to that, there was only about two inches of insulation.

Back down in the “living area” what was really striking was the mold throughout.  It’s true that the place was untidy but that had little to do with what I had seen.

The east unit seemed somewhat less untidy and had all utilities active, but when I opened the door to the utility area two things stood out.  The first was that the furnace covers were off and there seemed no way to reattach them.  The residents of this unit told me the furnace had failed sometime during the winter, a technician had come out and nothing had happened since.  Obviously, they’d had no heat any time since then.  The second thing that stood out was the herd of the boldest, most lethargic cockroaches living in the room that I’ve ever seen.

You might think that it was beside the point, but I endeavored to have a look under the structure.  Opening the access I was greeted by a massive flock of juvenile mosquitoes.
No ventilation here either.  I could go on and on about the problems with this home – and for my client, I did.

At some point, a young woman drove up and parked outside.  She was later identified to me as “the landlord”.  She seemed pleasant enough, and the tenants spoke with her amicably and at great length.

As you can probably tell I found this experience pretty upsetting.  I’ve said to people since then that I don’t think I would sleep making money off people whom I put in this kind of abode.  And how do you look them in the eye?

A couple or so years back my wife and I inherited a small sum from my beloved grandmother.  We decided to invest in real estate and at the same time do a small gesture towards eliminating poverty housing – a cause Habitat For Humanity is rightly famous for.  We bought two modest homes, one needed only minor work and the other was a pretty serious rehab.  Don and I (yes that’s his name too) worked for a few months on the second home.  A home needs to work properly before one worries about the aesthetics.  We addressed both and eventually we offered “our baby” proudly to prospective renters.  We got tons of applications and wound up with a great tenant.  (In The Other America --Chapter 58, I’ll tell you what happened to her.)

There is a way to do this the right way…a way where everyone wins.  Someone with a bit of money can take the opportunity to make a return from renters while providing them a place they can proudly call home.  This is how it should work.  I’ve now been at both ends of the equation.  I’ve certainly lived in poverty housing in the past – though nothing a bad as I’ve described here -- and I’ve rented nice places.  Now that I’ve experienced some success it seems reasonable to require of myself at a minimum to do some good while I’m doing well.

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