Leehey: Property managers, not residents should shovel sidewalks

Cameron Leehey

I always laugh when people who move to Iowa tell me in October that they think it’s cold out. If you’re one of those people, allow me to welcome you to deep winter in Iowa, the real deal. As I’m writing this, it’s a balmy 17 degrees outside — 5 degrees warmer than the projected temperature for the day. And I’m glad for that because, like many of you, I do the greater part of my traveling in Ames either on foot or by bus.

But it’s not the frigidness of winter that bothers me — any Iowan worth his salt knows how to adapt to our unusually fickle and extreme weather — it’s the thick, slippery snow pack that seems to be ubiquitous on our sidewalks.

The snow pack, as you may have observed, is the consequence of a high-traffic sidewalk that has been neglected by whomever was charged with the task of shoveling it. You may also have observed a pattern in the locations of snow pack sidewalks, I certainly have: In front of rented houses in student neighborhoods.

I don’t mean to point fingers at the tenants of any of those houses; I sympathize with their dilemma. A couple of years ago, I lived in a rented house with four other people. The terms of our lease agreement stipulated that we were responsible for snow removal, which sounded simple enough — we only had about 10 yards of sidewalk to handle. But, like everyone who has ever had roommates has learned, even simple things become complex in the perpetual collective action problem created by living with roommates.

Each time it snows, somebody has to shovel. Maybe at first turns are taken or agreements are honored, but soon enough college living intervenes, and people forget whose turn it is. The snow sits on the sidewalk, gradually being packed beneath the boots of passers by until eventually the powers that be present an ultimatum of some sort, prompting an overdue shoveling. Of course, by then it’s too late — the best that can be done is to scoop the powder off of the hazardously slick layer beneath.

This is the necessary result of the incentive system created by such a shared responsibility between roommates who are each waiting for the other to shovel the walk before the city issues a ticket. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I propose that, rather than permitting this vicious cycle to perpetuate itself year after year, we mandate that property owners, not tenants, be responsible for snow removal. They are, after all, the best suited to get the job done.

Property managers are already handling many of the rental houses, so snow removal would involve nothing more than the hiring of additional hands to perform a systematic job. Each time it snows, a hardy group of individuals in the private sector already pry themselves from their warm beds to clear driveways and sidewalks before the sun even rises. A measure requiring property owners to shoulder the responsibility of show removal would only mean more work for local business.

The cost incurred by the property owners, should they object to my suggestion, could be factored into the rental fees for their various properties. The property managers, employed by property owners, exist precisely to coordinate necessary upkeep such as snow removal. I do no contend that they should bear the cost; I merely point out that they are best suited to handle the responsibility.