It would seem the math behind renting apartments is pretty simple: You own a property. You rent it out and you charge what you can get (that is, the going rate) based on the size of the rental unit and its amenities.
But the math is more complicated for persons with a modest income. People who know rentals, and particularly the housing situation of people with modest incomes, the guideline is that if someone is paying more than 33 to 36 percent of their income for housing they probably have to cut serious corners for food, transportation, health care or other essential costs. So, if someone is paying $750 a month for an apartment, that's an annual cost of $9,000. That suggests the renters should be earning at least $27,000 a year, nearly twice the minimum wage. But, if they're paying their own heat, that's another $1500 a year. Add electricity (at $1,200 a year) and their housing costs are now $11,700 a year and their income should be $35,000.
That kind of cost is the reason the state and federal governments help low- and moderate-income people pay their rent through affordable housing programs like Regional Affordable Housing Corp. and Bennington Housing Authority properties, or Section 8 housing support.
Being a landlord is a difficult business. But it is a business. Experienced landlords protect themselves by getting security deposits and rent for the last month. Out of the rent they collect they should provide maintenance and garbage, along with other agreed upon services. They must pay property taxes, water and sewer charges, insurance and other operating costs.
Landlords come in many forms. There are those who have a second apartment in their house and rent to someone compatible. Some, however, own multi-family dwellings and rent out several apartments. A few own many properties and rent out lots of apartments.
There are also many types of renters. Most people who rent are helpful, considerate and try to hold up their end of the bargain. But there are, as is true of every part of life, those who don't get it. A friend who had rented out a house to a family recently found $4,000 in damage when the renters left. She's been spending weeks fixing up the house to sell and has found this all to be very discouraging.
While renting an apartment meets a public need, it is a business and one that needs a balance between income and expenses. Many landlords who provide housing to people on limited incomes are able to do so because their tenants receive a subsidy from government agencies. These tenants may get disability checks, Section 8, fuel assistance funds and rental rebate checks tied to the Vermont Income Tax. All of these programs help the landlord by increasing the likelihood that tenants will have the money they need to pay the rent.
I have heard from tenants, over and over again, that the rental housing stock in Bennington has its high points and its really, really low points. Every community has slumlords -- people who put as little as possible into their rental properties and leave problems unrepaired. These apartments are often occupied by the least stable tenants -- those who don't have a great track record of taking care of places or of paying their rent on time. The landlords who maintain their properties and continue to upgrade them, however, have to charge enough rent to cover the cost and earn a profit, which is why some apartments are expensive -- too expensive for those on a modest income.
There's no need to make the debate about rental apartments anything more than it is -- it's about the economics of housing for those who need to rent and those who own and rent out property. It's a business and some landlords run better businesses than others.
Charles R. Putney is a consultant to nonprofit organizations. He lives in Bennington.