Ruins for Rent in the State Capital

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

Mississippi is one of only two states where renters have no rights to protect them from the whims and follies of their landlords. Jackson, the state's capital city, had only one inspector to enforce its housing code for 80,000 dwellings— until the Jackson Daily News ran a four-day series detailing the area's deplorable housing conditions. City council members responded with site visits, two more inspectors were hired, but many problems remain, including the lack of a renter's bill of rights. The first article of the November 9-12, 1986 series, by William Rabb and Jimmie Gates, appears below. 


Jackson — Jackson is infested with hundreds of substandard rental homes that will deteriorate further unless the city hires inspectors, enforces housing codes and encourages extensive redevelopment from the private sector, a three-month investigation by the Jackson Daily News shows. 

Too many with too little live in deplorable conditions, and city government has too often looked the other way. A four-day series that begins today will also show: 

♦ Only bare-bones, minimal efforts are made by city officials to inspect and improve low-income rental housing in neighborhoods in west and central Jackson. 

♦ The problem in Jackson is worse than in some larger cities — and it's spreading as houses age. 

♦ Renters have much less legal protection in Mississippi than in other states. 

♦ In Jackson, 10 times more federal money is spent to renovate owner-occupied homes than is spent to rehabilitate or build new rental property. 

♦ No more public housing is being built as federal money is cut 

♦ Private-sector help from several organizations is available, but so far has provided very limited renovation in Jackson. 

Ed Stevens, director of the city department that inspects houses, and some landlords say the problem is here to stay — it simply isn't feasible to repair housing that doesn't make much profit in the first place. 

Besides, "a shack like that is better than no home at all," Stevens said recently. 

Critics, including at least one city council member and two former city housing officials, say the landlords who own scores of these tiny, low-income homes are prominent lawyers, insurance agents and real estate managers who have contributed to election campaigns of city hall candidates. Enacting legal safeguards and enforcing the city's housing code is politically unpopular, they say. 

Whatever the reason, it's clear that the quality of rental housing in Jackson is left almost entirely up to the landlords. 


City Efforts Minimal 

The city Community Improvement Department that oversees housing inspections has operated with one inspector for almost 80,000 homes for three years and with only two inspectors for a 16-month period in 1985-86. Almost every other Southern city the size of Jackson has at least six inspectors, surveys show. 

Reports of campaign contributions filed at city hall show one of the largest landlords donated money to Mayor Dale Danks Jr.'s re-election in 1985. Danks and Stevens deny that landlords influence the city's inspection policy. 

"I don't recall any property owner ever asking me to interfere on his behalf, because I wouldn't," Danks said. 

"Man, this is bad. How'd y'all find this place?" Stanley Williams, the city's lone inspector, asked two Daily News reporters on a recent tour of the West Side subdivision. 

Stevens, who is Williams' supervisor, warns that substandard conditions are worsening because of dwindling amounts of local and federal funds to upgrade housing. But Stevens said his department finds itself choosing the "lesser of two evils" — "Which would you rather have, a home that's in bad shape, or no home at all?" 

Williams must spend most of his time condemning abandoned structures and rarely has the hours to examine occupied dwellings. Other than telephoning landlords about violations, little is done to enforce the 1985 Jackson Housing Code and catch deterioration on the front-end before homes require thousands of dollars in repairs, Stevens said. 

Landlords who don't make repairs are not fined or penalized as prescribed by the housing code because the legal process takes months and would end up costing the city more in legal fees than the fine itself. Stevens said court and city legal officials disagree with him. 

The bottom line, Stevens said, is that forcing repairs costs landlords money, which raises rents and forces tenants out. 

"The problem is there's just no money to be made in it anymore," said Joe Ellis Joseph, who owns more than 30 rental homes and renovated several of them. "You can either fix the places up out of pride of ownership and lose money, or you can let them go and make what you can." 

While the costs of repair materials and labor have risen considerably over the years, tenants' incomes haven't, he said. Rents often won't cover the cost of repairs, but rents can't be raised. "These people are paying the maximum amount they can," he said. 

Billy Brunt of Jackson, who owns seven dilapidated rental homes on Gum Street, said he would love to renovate, but it would cost too much. He can't go to the bank and borrow money that might cost him $500 a month to repay when he is making only $200 a month from rent, he said. "I don't raise the rent because of the type of area the houses are in," he said. 

Brunt agreed that the city could strengthen code enforcement to prevent unscrupulous landlords from taking advantage of powerless, poor renters. "I believe there should be stronger guidelines for what is defined as adequate housing" he said. "The standards now are so low." 

Other landlords who own scores, even hundreds, of low-income rental houses declined to comment to letters and telephone calls by the Jackson Daily News. These include: Jackson attorney M.A. Lewis, Jr. who has an office in Deposit Guaranty Building downtown; Zachary Taylor, Jr., owner of Taylor Insurance Agency in Deposit Guaranty Building; his brother Kirk Taylor, who is in the printing business; real estate broker Seymour Schwartz, who operates Schwartz Realty Co. in Jackson; and real estate developer John Hart Asher. 

"Landlords tell me that as soon as they fix something, these people will tear it right back up and start complaining again," Stevens said. 

Debra Bell, a University of Mississippi property law professor who has worked for tenants' rights much of her career, and some state legislators say such logic is flawed. They say many landlords can afford to make the minor repairs needed to keep a home livable before major repairs are needed, and affordable vacancies can be found for many renters. 

Unlike nearly all states, Mississippi has no law prohibiting retaliatory eviction of tenants who complain about conditions to authorities. Bills to enact such laws have died in the legislature each of the last 10 years. 

Jackson City Council members voted down a warranty of habitability ordinance this summer, saying it would be too expensive to enforce. 


Thousands of Substandard Homes 

More than 30,000 homes in Jackson are defined as substandard, according to 1986 U.S. Census figures and data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Memphis, Tenn., a city almost three times the size of Jackson, has only about 20,000 homes that meet the HUD definition of substandard. 

Substandard is defined by HUD as meeting one of four criteria: lacking adequate plumbing; crowded or more than one person per room; rent is more than 30 percent of tenant's income; or an owner-occupied home built before 1939 with a value below the $20,000 to $35,000 range. 

About half of the 30,000 total rental units in Jackson are considered substandard. Another 15,000 owner-occupied units are considered substandard. Experts say these numbers rise each year as housing ages. 

The tax reform bill signed into law by President Reagan that ends rental properties' tax shelter status could also hurt low-income renters. Landlords may use the law as a reason for raising rents, because for the first time rental property will have to become self-supporting, experts say. 

Nationwide, the number of homes defined as physically inadequate — 7.6 million — remained constant from 1981 to 1983, HUD reports. The definition includes homes that lack complete plumbing, sewerage, heating and kitchen facilities and/or have electrical problems. The median amount paid for rent in the United States has risen from 22 percent of income in 1972 to 29 percent in 1983, HUD reports. 

Under the Reagan administration, funding for federally assisted housing has dropped from $27 billion in fiscal 1981 to $9.9 billion in fiscal 1986. 

If houses are allowed to deteriorate unchecked, nearby streets are quickly affected and fall victim themselves as property values tumble and owners leave, Bell said. 


Public Building Stopped 

No public housing or federally assisted homes have been built in Jackson since 1983, and no more are planned, HUD reports. The shortage in Jackson is so great that the number of people on waiting lists actually exceeds the number of people in the nearly 2,000 public housing units. Residents wait as long as three years to get into one. 

All federal money for public housing construction may be cut next year under a bill passed by the U.S. House this past session and up for debate in the Senate next year. The bill would halt money for new construction until significant amounts of existing low-income housing are renovated. 

There is a growing feeling in Congress that billions of dollars spent in the past on public housing have failed to provide the poor with decent places to live, and many public housing projects have turned into permanent dilapidated residences, the New York Times reported this summer. Four of Mississippi's five congressmen voted for the bill. Fourth District U.S. Rep. Wayne Dowdy didn't vote. 

At some public housing units in Jackson, such as Whiterock Apartments on Country Club Drive, repairs are slow, and crime remains a problem, residents say. 

Other cities, such as Memphis and Jacksonville, Ha., are turning to renovation of existing housing instead of building new units. Low-interest loans are made to developers who will own and operate the complexes after renovation. 

Although Jackson officials are channeling more Community Development Block Grant money to renovation of owner-occupied homes this year than in 1985, they haven't used any of the money for low-interest loans for repairs of rental housing. The city has relied instead on a HUD program called Rental Rehab, which lost half its funding this fiscal year. 

A loan program in Memphis, started years ago with federal grants, provides more than $1 million a year as loans are repaid. The rehabilitation would continue for three years if federal funding ended, Memphis officials say. 


Private Help Needed 

As federal funding cuts deepen to reduce the huge federal deficit, private groups will be asked to provide more renovation and construction, real estate spokesmen and city officials say. The days of federal bounty are over. 

Church-related groups such as Habitat for Humanity, People's Development, Inc., Operation Shoestring, and non-church related Neighborhood Housing Services this year have renovated or constructed about 31 homes in Jackson, all owner-occupied. 

That many more are planned for 1987, but more private financing and donations are needed to really have an impact on inner-city neighborhoods, said Warren Yoder, director of Operation Shoestring. "We can't let our central-city neighborhoods die," he said. "We're going to stop it." 

"The city can't afford to have mass inspections, and federal money isn't there to provide new housing. We've got to make a commitment to get more private funding involved," said Richard Ridgway, of Ridgway Realty Co. and president of the Jackson Board of Realtors.