Children-and-Slumlords-web

Slumlords and Children

“Rat poop” was Miguel’s response when I asked him where his homework folder was. He shrugged and continued eating his snack as I realized the implications of what he had just said.

Miguel, age 7, was a participant in the after school program I work for in a Fresno elementary school located near Downtown Fresno. Like many other struggling students in this academic intervention program, Miguel lived right across the street from the school, nestled in a neighborhood of concentrated poverty.

Slumlords gravitate towards the poor and marginalized so while it didn’t come as a shock that Miguel had just suggested that he was living in slumlord conditions, it was the first time I put a child’s face on the issue. He wasn’t just any child–he was a child who I spent time with regularly and had been investing in.

Slumlords gravitate towards the poor and marginalized so while it didn’t come as a shock that Miguel had just suggested that he was living in slumlord conditions, it was the first time I put a child’s face on the issue.

Miguel’s neighborhood is home to dozens of slumlord properties which means many of the children at the school have the implications of slumlord conditions written across their academic lives. When I approached my boss to debrief what Miguel had told me about his homework folder, she divulged more to me about his situation.

“He is one I really worry about,” she told me.

When I asked why she felt that way she credited it directly to the living conditions Miguel and his family were living in. The trademarks of slumlord housing such as overcrowded units, rat infestations, and other unhealthy environmental conditions meant that Miguel suffered from anger issues, rashes, and exposure to vermin at home. As I learned of Miguel’s far below grade level reading score and declining grades, a correlation between the sub-par conditions of his home and his declining performance in reading and school emerged.

Miguel’s situation reminds me of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Abraham Maslow was a 20th Century psychologist that developed a theory of human motivation, or what humans need to succeed and thrive. In a nutshell, the hierarchy names basic physiological needs and physical safety such as shelter as the most fundamental. Once these are established, more advanced needs like a sense of belonging and esteem can be met. The hierarchy culminates in self-actualization.

Self-actualization, or the ability to fulfill one’s full potential, is the way out of poverty for the kids I work with. But, according to Maslow, their most basic needs must be met first. On a daily basis, children are not excelling at reading and in school because their most basic physical needs are not being met. If skin irritation from unhealthy living conditions at home distracts and irritates them, it is much more difficult for them to concentrate on school work. If rats are eating their homework, it makes it immeasurably harder for them to succeed.

Simply put, substandard living conditions mess with kids’ most basic needs during the most formative years of their lives. In this sense, slumlords are at the root of denying kids the path to self-actualization by negatively influencing their education. Miguel’s story is just one example of this. If we are serious as a city about investing in our future, we must target slumlords because sub-par housing affects kids far beyond the walls of their homes.


Names and institutions have been changed and/or omitted to protect the privacy and safety of minors