Slumlord

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Slumlord, by Albert Lee, New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House. 1976. 155 pp. $7.95.

Many people who approve successive extensions to the welfare system still have reservations about them because of waste, bungling, corruption, and skyrocketing expenditures. But these same people seldom have similar reservations about building and housing regulations and federally subsidized "urban planning": "we've got to 'get' the slumlord, at least." The term slumlord has unfavorable connotations for virtually everyone.

Any such persons—and others who are not personally involved in this issue—should read Slumlord, a fine book that has been little noted and less reviewed. Though it reads like a novel, it is in fact a true story of one man's attempt to improve the slums of Detroit, while making money at doing so. Before the book is half over the central character (who did not write the book, but was interviewed in many sessions by Mr. Lee, who did) assumes rather heroic proportions.

Left to himself, the man who buys up one piece of slum property after another could make a go of it: he puts in new plumbing and wiring, repairs walls and stairways, etc., and dismisses destructive tenants. He can do all this and still make money, even from tenants who are on welfare, because he gets their welfare checks first and takes the rent money out before they see the check.

His principal opponent in all this, of course, is the bureaucracy—in this case, the city government. At first the reader tends to believe that the villains are the tenants themselves, for the moment he has improved a building they stop up the toilets, remove pipes, bash in walls, and so on. But they do this because they know that they can take the owner to court the next day for "violation of housing regulations," and until he makes the repairs again they will not have to pay him any rent (by city ordinance).

Slumlord is an account of how one owner tries to beat the system by making improvements in all the apartment buildings he buys—many of them simply abandoned by their absentee owners, while this owner lives in the immediate neighborhood and is on call 24 hours a day. He soon acquires a reputation for providing habitable apartments at minimal rents; and by selecting tenants skillfully, he earns their trust until at last they seldom vandalize the buildings they inhabit. He uses many different devices—for example, he offers a bounty, out of his own pocket, for every rat the tenants kill. An entire section of Detroit thus becomes well on its way to being resurrected from the ashes, entirely due to the enterprise and indefatigable efforts of one man, operating solely through private enterprise and without public funds.

Meanwhile, he is harassed constantly by demonstrating students from Wayne State University, who brand him "slumlord," take him to court endlessly, and incite renters to action against him. Unsuccessful at this, they succeed in prevailing on the city council to pass a new ordinance whereby the tenants' welfare checks go directly into their own pockets ("to preserve the tenants' dignity"). The result is predictable: most of them spend their checks at once, and the owner is no longer able to collect the rent. Without the rental income, he cannot continue in business: he has bought many buildings on credit, and with no income now coming from these he has to default on the mortgages, and one by one he loses the buildings. In the end he is forced to declare bankruptcy. A part of the city that he has rescued from the rats and the vermin thus returns once more to the condition of uninhabitability: the buildings are vandalized, the heat and light turned off, and the ruined hulks now stand in the darkness, empty, the tenants with no place to go, and no entrepreneur left who has any incentive to buck the impossible regulations. All this is done, of course, with the full approval of the city government, which brands the entrepreneur as a slumlord and requests vast new revenues from the state and federal governments with which to "improve the cities."

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