When a home is not a home
Unsafe apartments that contain lead paint or are not up to fire code greatly impact working class citizens. Photo courtesy of Ben Wildeboer via Flickr.

When a home is not a home

The frequency at which stories appear detailing the plight of renters is mind-boggling. It leaves many people wondering: why does the relationship between landlords and renters seem increasingly antagonistic? The struggle between the two parties sticks out as a pattern in recent news.

An article published by the Baltimore Sun reported on a new measure being debated in the Maryland Senate. It would strip landlords of their right to evict non-compliant tenants if the unit of the tenant in question poses a risk for lead poisoning. Another article reported on a fire that burnt down much of a complex in Hartford.

The first situation many would view the landlord as being irresponsible and as being clearly at fault. The second scenario, however, will be perceived by many as being much more ambiguous from an ethical standpoint.

Although it may seem like a landlord does not have complete control over the various misfortunes that may affect his complex, these two situations are emblematic of a phenomena many sociologists refer to as “structural violence”. Structural violence is a situation whereby a group of people are systematically barred from accessing that which is needed to fulfill their basic needs and from enjoying certain basic rights.

The relationship between tenants and landlords comes into play in the administration of said structural violence. It may seem like a cliche, but ultimately the root of the antagonism lies in the fact that landlords are more interested in skirting safety regulations than they are in actually guaranteeing them.

Baltimore is a case study into the effects of structural violence. The city is marred by a legacy of segregation and as a result Baltimore’s poor black citizens are relegated to substandard housing conditions.

This form of structural violence, although incredibly pernicious, is not unique to Baltimore. In June 2017, many analysts used the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower in London, England as a jumping off point to discuss larger issues of inequality in the United Kingdom. They also studied the ways in which residents were being neglected by their landlords and their local politicians.

Grenfell Tower was home to mostly poor and working class immigrants. Multiple prominent figures in the UK have even drawn on the concept known as “social murder,” originally coined by Friedrich Engels in his work, “The Conditions of the Working Class in England”. It extends the logic of structural violence and posits that the placement of the working class in untenable and dangerous housing conditions is deliberate.

The metaphor is particularly applicable given that housing conditions are closely tied to the physical and mental state of all residents. The various health risks associated with lead poisoning make the effects poor housing conditions have on physical health seem readily apparent. However, research into the subject indicates that an unstable and fickle housing situation where residents cannot be guaranteed long term safety threatens the residents’ mental health as well.

Although the image of a cabal of greedy capitalists conspiring against the working class makes Engels’ analysis seem cartoonish, there is much to be taken away from it. If landlords choose to ignore the reality of inequality and segregation and refuse to fulfill their obligations to their residents, then they are complicit in the imposition of structural violence on Baltimore’s working class.