While I may seem like I’d be one of those political types that has a moving collage of bumper stickers for a car, or a yard that sprouts campaign signs every spring, I am not. In fact, I’ve had one 3″x 3″ sticker on my car for 5 years now and one sign in the yard since we moved in two years ago. I am telling you this because the yard sign led us to become involved in an inadvertent social experiment during the last half of 2016.
We bought our place as a stripped-out foreclosure HUD home. In our case, “as is” meant we had to do a lot of work to do before our side of the duplex was livable and the other side was nice enough to rent out. We put a lot of time, effort and money into the rental half, so that it would be a nice place to live and, hopefully, we’d be able to attract long-term tenants. In other words, it’s a lot nicer than our side, even though we rent it out at a below market rate – as all we need out of it is the note payment and natural gas costs, not a profit. We decided not to charge an application fee, as that can be an economic hurdle for a lot of working class families, which were the kinds of applicants we were trying to attract. After all, our city charges every tenant $150.00 for an occupancy inspection and permit, which we thought was already enough when combined with any deposits or utilities initiation fees. We listed the rental all over the Internet, as well as with local housing agencies, non-profits and advocacy groups in the area, and sat back to wait for interested renters.
The phone calls and emails from interested parties started to come in, and I began to make appointments for people to come by and see the duplex. I’d explain we were willing to work with folks on security deposits, we didn’t do a credit check or criminal background check, pets were ok with a vet certificate, etc. From the initial interest, I didn’t think it’d take long to get a renter into the place.
I was wrong. We had some lookie-loos during open houses and a few people who would say they were interested but never called back or responded to further emails. I did begin to notice we’d had a lot of broken appointments and, after a while, I took to calling people who’d made appointments to remind them of the appointment and the address. And still, after two months, no renters.
What on Earth could be wrong with what we were offering? Aside from the totally renovated interior, the private mailbox, private access, off-street parking, patio and fenced yard, what more could we possibly do to attract renters? Heck, we were supplying a stove and refrigerator, something that is very uncommon around here for some stupid reason. So, we dropped the price by $50.00, putting us out of pocket but hoping to come in under some unknown bureaucratic price point. More emails, more phone calls, and more broken appointments.
By month four it was getting a bit weird. We checked our “curb appeal” and since our house number is not easily visible from the street, I took to waiting outside in the yard for folks to show up for their appointments. We also began to patrol both sides of our street for trash each week. Being semi-rural, you tend to get stuff blown from across fields all over the little neighborhood we call home, so we fixed that. We have great neighbors, no crime and kids are welcome and safe here too. And still nothing but more wasted evenings and weekends waiting for no-shows.
After 3 months more, in a last ditch move, I paid a landscaper to come and professionally do the yard and shrubs one week. And, lo and behold, that weekend we had a bunch of people show up, in fact, every single appointment showed up to see the apartment. The only ones from this crop who showed initial interest, turned out to either want to get a better deal (which we could not do as we have bills to pay also) or would not have been able to get an occupancy permit, as their family was too large for the apartment, as per city code. Also, we were offering affordable housing with a no-cost, blind application, not wanting to become slum lords with people stuffed into too small an apartment.
The next week, I noticed that the landscaper had moved the sign in my front yard and had not put it back in its original position. After I’d parked, I moved it back, and the cycle of broken appointments began again. I spoke to my son after that initial burst of renewed interest waned, and mentioned how the broken appointments seemed to follow a pattern that I planned on looking into by going back over the lists of emails, phone numbers, and kept v. broken appointments. This took me a few more weeks and the results led me to see a pattern. I thought I might be wrong or reading something into the data, so I moved the sign back to where the landscaper had put it for a week, and then back to its original site. Sure enough, the pattern was constant and showed trends based on race, but it was not what you might think.
You see, I come from both Anglo-American and Native American stock, and I look like my father not my mother. If you see me sitting and waiting, you see a very tall, very blonde, very pale woman. And, according to those I called and asked about the broken appointments, I gathered that some prospective tenants assumed a white woman wouldn’t rent to them. On the other hand, if you see the sign first, I am not at ALL who you’d expect to be showing you around. I noticed some people turning around at our end of the street and was able to flag them down. I’d ask them why they didn’t want to see the place since they’d come all the way there. With furtive looks toward the sign, they’d explain it was too far from downtown (15 minutes), South County (20 minutes) or Columbia, IL (20 minutes). These were lies, since we are the closest city to the Mississippi River and, ergo, St. Louis City/County in the St. Louis Metro East communities. In these cases, it was the sign.
It’s a rather innocuous sign, black with white letters on a rectangle. Definitely nothing flashy or radical about it. Nor is it something that bothers any of my neighbors, though my sign speaks to only 11% of the population of this city. The sign did not say, “No Trespassing”, “Beware of Dog”, “Please Close Gate”, or even “For Rent”. Yep, that sign was at fault for us not having renters, or at least not white renters following up on their appointments. It simply states something that I feel people need to be reminded of, even in a town that is 89% POC. And, as long as I live here and it’s relevant, the sign will stay where it is. Right there, on the front fence of the driveway, so you see it through your windshield, is a sign that says “BLACK LIVES MATTER“.