Great Neighborhoods and a Sense of Community: Where do Renters Fit In?

I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to homeownership versus renting.  I’m a 38-year-old who has never owned a home, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  I don’t want the responsibility of owning a physical structure; I’ve never been good at maintenance.  And what if job opportunities or other reasons cause me to want to move?  Plus I don’t have children, so there’s no need to lay down roots next to the right school.

I’m fine with being a renter, but it feels like society constantly telling me I need to buy a home.  Not only is homeownership the “American Dream,” but you even get a big tax break (the mortgage interest tax deduction).  Why does it feel like renters are second-class citizens?  After all, according to a 2013 report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies, 35% of all U.S. households in 2012 were renters.  And while renters tend to be younger (40% are under age 35), more than a third are “middle-aged” (between 35 and 54).  We’re a big part of the nation, its communities, and its neighborhoods.

And yet, are we?  Do renters have a sense of community in their neighborhoods?  Do they (we) attend neighborhood meetings?  Probably not very much, compared to homeowners.  We may have other communities we’re part of:  at work, on sports teams, in social groups, or with housemates.  But what about relationships where we live, in our neighborhood?   The Sightline article “Coloring Inside the Lanes” made me feel warm and fuzzy about the community that developed in Portland neighborhoods after intersections were painted.  But I got the feeling the “intersection repairs” were mostly in single family neighborhoods and I pictured the people as homeowners with families, rather than singles living in apartments.  Has this type of project (or something similar) been done in intersections surrounded by apartment buildings?  Or would that even make sense?

If renters are less involved in their neighborhoods, my guess is mobility is a big part of the reason.  Census data from 2013 found that 25% of renters moved between 2012 and 2013, compared to only 5% of homeowners.  For myself, frequent moves are part of the reason that, although I’m very involved in city-wide causes and organizations, I’m not involved in my neighborhood.  I’ve moved three times since coming back to Seattle eight years ago.  Ironically, after living in Uptown (aka Lower Queen Anne) for a couple of years, I finally got involved with the local neighborhood association, but then ended up moving a few months later.

Perhaps the sense of community for renters is our coffee shop, workplace, or favorite bar – which may or may not be in our neighborhood.  Could “parklets” create a sense of community for everyone, including renters, in their favorite commercial districts?  I don’t know, but I can more easily imagine renters hanging out in one in a business district than being involved with a neighborhood intersection mural.

The “Soul of the Community” project by Gallup and the Knight Foundation interviewed people to find out what draws them to a community.  From interviews with 43,000 people in 26 communities, they found three top qualities draw people to a place:  places for social opportunities such as entertainment venues and places to meet, openness to newcomers, and physical beauty.  I’m curious if their survey drew different responses from renters and homeowners.  Perhaps the welcoming part is where we can all do better – to welcome new renters and homeowners to neighborhoods and communities.

Seattle City Club thinks Seattleites can do better at being neighborly.  The Club recently released a “Civic Health Index” measuring a number of ways local residents engage (or don’t) with their communities.  The report found that Seattleites score high relative to other cities in measures like voting in local elections, volunteering, and involvement with schools.  But we scored low on measures of “social cohesion” such as talking with neighbors frequently.  Unsurprisingly, the engagement with neighbors was lowest among the 18-29 year-old category.  In a Seattle Times Op-Ed last week, Seattle CityClub Executive Director Diane Douglas pointed to the large number of newcomers to the area as part of the reason Seattleites don’t know their neighbors.  That and the “Seattle Freeze.”  She believes Seattleites can become more connected through physical places like public transit and parks, groups such as neighborhood associations or alumni organizations, and events like block parties and festivals.

Should renters be more involved in their neighborhoods?  Perhaps I am creating a goal that is not widely shared; perhaps renters don’t want or need more involvement with their neighborhood.  But it seems to me that public agencies, community groups, and interested people (like me) have a responsibility to make it easier for renters to get involved.  If they know what the options are, they can make the choice.  Furthermore, while renters may not have as strong a stake in a particular neighborhood and its development projects, the high demand for rental housing in certain neighborhoods shows that renters have preferences in the types of places they choose.  Therefore, renters have an interest, and perhaps an obligation, to pay attention to how these neighborhoods are created.



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