Roots of Revitalization

Social Change Through Action In Pottstown PA

Protester’s Perspective September 1, 2011

                                             The Sociological Perspective

By Teri Jensen-Sellers

Lately, I have been referred to as both radical, brazen, and OUT OF LINE! I  would like to explain why I feel so strongly about local blight and the social ramifications of slumlord property negligence! What is so “radical” about asking a SLUMLORD to maintain his rental property and to pay taxes? When SLUMLORDS avoid both of these acts of decency, they are being criminalistic.  Breaking code violations and tax evasion are illegal, and  this makes SLUMLORDS public enemy’s. So said slumlords are rumored to be telling borough officials and the Historic Area Review Board  that we were blocking traffic on the street while we protested their contributions to local blight on August 26th. I can assure you were we on the sidewalk, and letting traffic through normally, as several police officers who passed us can verify!

I am not sure why people are afraid to stand up for the right thing? Business owners know that nearby blighted properties influence their professional image, and caring residents don’t want the crime or trash associated with these properties. I was hoping for more people to demonstrate these SOCIAL NORMS AND VALUES, as I expected more neighborly solidarity. The slumlord situation here in the borough can be defined as  “Orwellian” a scenario, thought, or societal condition that is identified as being detrimental to the welfare of society. The public apathy to the situation can be defined as “Torporous” as in a state of lethargy and indifference.

“The Broken Window Theory” originated in an 1982 Atlantic Monthly article by sociologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. The basic outline for this theory reads: “A major factor in determining individual behavior is social norms, internalized rules about the appropriate way to act in a certain situation. Humans constantly monitor other people and their environment in order to determine what the correct norms for the given situation are. A disordered environment which is littered, vandalized and not maintained sends the signal:  this is a place where people do as they please and where they get away with that, without being detected.  As people tend to act the way they think others act, they are more likely to act “disorderly” in the disordered environment.”

Unmanaged rental properties encourage urban blight which evolves into the broken window social phenomena.  Sociologist, Rachel Ranis of Quinnipiac University states that the Broken Window Theory begins “when the little things are neglected – broken windows, graffiti, petty crime – it snowballs into full-blown urban decay quite quickly, and it’s hard to bounce back from that.”

What does this do to family units within the urban environment?  Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay who were part of the Chicago School of Thought in Sociology, and the think-tank behind“The Cultural Transmission Theory”,  foresaw several negative consequences when culture or localities become scourged.  The Cultural transmission Theory predicts that in unmanaged areas such as run down neighborhoods, delinquency becomes accepted, and generational. Worse crime becomes acceptable and so do unsupervised children.  Professor Jennifer Huck of Indiana University of Pennsylvania claims that” “Reduced levels of child supervision will result in poor school achievement, with a consequent reduction in stakes in conformity and an increase in deviant behavior. Poor, dense neighborhoods tend to be mixed-use neighborhoods. Mixed use increases familiarity with and easy access to places offering the opportunity for deviance. Unrepaired buildings leads to greater concerns for personal safety among area residents.These concerns lead to further decreases in maintenance and repair; to increased delinquency, vandalism, and crime; and to even further deterioration in safety and the physical environment—all resulting in offenders from other neighborhoods being increasingly attracted by the area’s perceived vulnerability.”

WOULD YOU WANT YOUR CHILDREN LIVING NEAR UNSAFE BUILDING STRUCTURES AND LOCALLY TOLERATED CRIMINAL ACTIVITY?

As the parents of two young sons, my husband and I will do ANYTHING to protect our boys from this kind of social destruction, and that is why we are protesting! SLUMLORDS WILL NOT TAKE AWAY MY FAMILY’S RIGHT TO LIVE IN A SAFE, CLEAN AND DECENT TOWN!

                                              

                                   The Homeowner Perspective

By Katie Jackson

By this time, each summer, I’d usually find myself feeling thread bare, weary and plum exhausted by the chaos and noise of a neighborhood that could be the Poster Child for the Broken Windows Theory.  The relative calm of this early September is almost palpable, a welcome relief for homeowners, conscientious landlords, good tenants and visitors in our downtown neighborhood.  

Law enforcement has stepped up their foot and bike patrols, police supervisors are frequently seen on our streets.  We have a dedicated, hard-working Borough Manager in Jason Bobst, Codes Enforcement is re-tooling for swift action while the new Guardian Angels are a welcome site.  Well rested, re-energize residents are stepping up to the plate to take back their neighborhood, working with each other and with the borough.

Our load lightened, this reprieve has given many of us the opportunity to re-group and connect with one another. We’re not expending all of our energies being watchful of our streets, calling the Police, calling Codes, picking up the trash in our yards, on our sidewalks, streets and alleys.  The Mercury experiment to refrain from reporting on the antics of elected officials, for the month of August, has also contributed to a kinder, gentler sensibility. I feel a renewed spirit among people in my neighborhood and Pottstown in general.

I find myself spending more time in front of my home now, visiting with neighbors, imagining my block in it’s glory days and envisioning the potential.  The predominant, neglected rental properties that scar this once grand old working class neighborhood beckon me to tell their story.  

At one time the homes here were proudly cared for by the people who owned them. They provided the warmth, comfort and nurturing that the word “home” conjures up for me. They were the keepers of the laughter and joy of holidays, new babies, birthday parties…all of  life’s celebrations, as well as the losses and sorrows of those who came before us.   Safe from the elements, solace awaited at the end of a busy day, as residents found peace and comfort within the confines of their homes and their neighborhoods.  The homes near downtown were also the foundation of a community of friends, family, business and industry that once thrived here and completed the circle of “community”.  

Ragged, worn, and often aluminum clad you can still gleen glimpses of the beauty of the rich architecture and craftsmanship that adorn many of the structures that remain. I can see, in my mind’s eye, how some of these homes, (but not all of them to be sure), of could be brought back to respectable service and grace returned to their rightful stature.  Today, these homes tell a story of the more recent indignities they have endured and their tenacious will to hold on in hope of better days to come.  Some will make it and sadly, some will not.

The heart and soul of “my” neighborhood has been broken, but not destroyed, by a system that richly rewards greed.  It is a system whose only sustaining beneficiaries are the negligent absentee property owners who turn a blind eye to the degradation of their rental properties, who blatantly defy the borough, the law, the people they rent to and the taxpaying residents of Pottstown.  We pay, we pay and we pay again for their heartless misdeeds in our neighborhood.

This summer has given me a glimmer of hope, of courage and commitment to our borough. As the old homes continue to tell their recent histories of indifference, neglect and abuse, they are being heard.  The message is resonating with residents and borough officials alike as we begin to work together to reclaim our identity, our homes, our neighborhoods and redefine our values, our sense of belonging and our purpose.

We’re rolling up the welcome mat,  we’re saying “no thanks” to those who are motivated only by the size of their bank accounts and we have the State of Pennsylvania on our team.  The onus is on the slumlords now.

  

                                         

The First Anti-Slumlord Protest. August 2011. courtesy of The Mercury.


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7 Responses to “Protester’s Perspective”

  1. Alan Says:

    Hmmmmmmm. I wonder who is getting her Master’s in sociology? ;)

  2. Joe Loftus Says:

    Katie, your perspective is much appreciated and spot-on. However your condemnation of landlords who fail to keep up their properties is somewhat misguided.
    The economic climate has reduced any profit in rentals that had previously provided the necessary funds to accomplish costly maintenance. Couple this with ever increasing taxes, and energy costs and you begin to see the dilemma.
    Believe me Katie most, if not all landlords would sell these properties in a heartbeat, if the RE market wasn’t in such terrible shape.
    You must remember that there is a ceiling to rents here in Pottstown, which can not be breached, or the building will remain vacant.

    • roots of revitalization Says:

      Joe:
      Building maitenance does cost money, however cleaning up trash does not! Responsible landlords make sure that their rental sites are litter free and do not allow bags of trash to pile up in the alleys. SLUMLORDS ignore the trash all over yards and sidewalks!

      Teri Jensen-Sellers

  3. Joe, because you were so polite in pointing out what you perceive as my misguided perspective, I, in turn will refrain from whipping out the fake hanky and snorting my usual feigned waaaaaa waaaaaa when landlords whine about their lot in life.

    I was making a concerted effort to craft a reply to your comment when I spied “Landlord Bob” from my kitchen window.

    Bob and Sue own several rental properties in Pottstown, including the duplex two doors up from my house which they bought about the same time I bought my home. A couple times a month they can be found making repairs, chatting with their renters and taking time to solidify our budding friendship by keeping us in the loop about home improvement bargains and comparing notes on repair issues.

    Over the past few years I’ve learned that Bob and Sue both work full-time, raise a family, care for aging parents, maintain their own residence, (with acreage), and babysit their grandkids at every opportunity. They still carry mortgages on all of their rentals, keep their properties tidy and in good repair, pay their taxes/ municipal fees on time, every time. They choose to make their rents affordable – below the “ceiling”, (as you call it), so they can attract and keep working, responsible tenants. They won’t rent to Section 8 for the extra income because they know the cost of evictions, repairs, headaches with the neighbors and the borough far exceed any financial gain they might realize.

    So I asked, “Bob, are your rentals profitable, even now in this difficult economy?” “Yes,” said Bob, “we make a profit”. “Why then,” I asked, “in your experience do you think so many other rentals property owners claim hardship and strife leading to failure?” Bob simply replied, “there’s only one answer ….

    “GREED AND LAZINESS”

  4. Olive Says:

    I’d like to know what the slum property owners were doing with their extra dough when the economy was bright and rosey? It’s obvious that the run down and blighted properties didn’t get that way over night or even as of 2007 when the economy headed South.

    Um Joe, you sit on the Planning Commission as of May, 2012? It’s curious that you would come out in defense of slumlords…is there any particular reason for this?

  5. Olive Says:

    I’d like to know what the slum property owners were doing with their extra dough when the economy was bright and rosey? Even then they weren’t behaving as “heros” of the rental housing market here. Bad business plan? No business plan? Maybe the Borough needs a resolution about just letting anyone jump in the rental property management game. MontCo Community College, in fact, offers courses in Land Lording (101) maybe it should be mandatory. And maybe land lords should have business licenses like every other business.

    It’s obvious that the run down and blighted properties didn’t get that way over night or even as of 2007 when the economy headed South. By the way Joe, it can also be said that there’s a lot of homeowners who would like to sell and get out because they’ve had it up to HERE with the greed and neglect of slum property owners.

    Have you checked out the rental rates of late? Hell, you’d think this was San Francisco or something. Have you gone into any of these rentals? Some friends were looking for a clean house downtown to rent but every place they looked was qualified Section 8 and STINK omg. Appliances were filthy and some as old as 1950′s style, no insulation, old windows, peeling paint and a price tag of $1050 for 2 bedrooms???? No, Joe, the ceiling in Pottstown has been raised because of voucher housing and still the slumlords can’t be bothered to clean up their properties? The real travesty is that HUD let’s them get away with this.

    Um, Joe are you the Joe Loftus that sits on the Planning Commission as of May 2012? Your comment is curiously defensive of slumlords, any particular reason why?


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