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Keeping Renters in Their Homes Through Collective Action

By Sasha Forbes

More U.S. households are headed by renters than at any point since at least 1965. In fact, renters have become the majority in almost a quarter of the nation’s 100 most populous cities. In Memphis, that number is as high 58 percent and in Chicago, 51 percent.

Renters in the U.S. are more ethnically and racially diverse than homeowners and tend to either be in their 20s and/or have lower incomes. Households earning less than $50,000 per year have a homeownership rate of about 45 percent compared to an 80 percent ownership rate for higher-earning households.

All that might make sense considering it takes capital and resources to own a home, but renting in its current state in America is not a solution for lower-income people, many of whom are one paycheck away from homelessness.

Rental costs are becoming out of reach for millions who are at the mercy of a national affordable housing crisis at the center of a disconnect between housing prices, what people earn, and decades of institutional and systemic housing inequities.

The rent-earnings disparity

A full-time worker in the United States, in fact, needs to make at least $20.30 an hour to afford an apartment with two bedrooms at the national average rent of $1,056 a month. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25, creating both a shortage of homes for residents who need them most, and little promise of wage increases to make homes affordable.

To make matters worse, most renters have little say over what they pay each month, meaning rents can go up exponentially, especially in newly sought-after urban neighborhoods – sometimes creating chronic housing insecurity and displacement. Often, renters have been in these neighborhoods for generations, embedding robust cultures and social networks that are then appropriated and/or destroyed. It’s a historical pattern of designed disenfranchisement that marks a past of segregation, redlining and forced evictions.
City leaders and stakeholders must understand these root causes if we are to move forward, become more resilient and thrive.

Finding solutions

Cities, towns, communities, residents, housing justice advocates and other stakeholders, and local and regional government leaders, are taking action to implement policies that legally protect renters and tenants from unlawful eviction, mistreatment, uninhabitable and inefficient homes, and skyrocketing rents.
New York City, for example, recently launched an anti-displacement pilot program that requires landlords to obtain a “certificate of no harassment” before getting a permit to alter, demolish or shape units in some neighborhoods.

Addressing these issues requires commitment towards inclusion and centering healthy, safe and affordable housing as a right — not a luxury that is wholly subject to unfettered market forces.

These tenant rights policies are part of a series of anti-displacement and community stabilization strategies that define housing as a human right and stress housing policy reform focused on affordability, accessibility, long-term stability, quality of housing and community control as outlined in the influential Rise of the Renter Nation report by the Right to the City Alliance.

While such strategies don’t guarantee that renters will stay in place, they go a long way toward protecting the most vulnerable against housing insecurity – the disabled, the elderly and low and moderate-income renters in communities of color. They are crucial for community stabilization and sustainability.

Gathering the facts

To provide an overview of the need for tenants’ protection, the intersection of climate and health issues and some of the policies working to advance tenant rights, we have published an issue brief under the auspices of the Strong, Prosperous, And Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC), which is focusing specifically this year on investment without displacement.

What the SPARCC cities – Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis and the San Francisco Bay Area – and other regions understand is that working on equitable rental policies that include resilient, energy-efficient and healthy homes will help lower health costs, increase opportunity, reduce pollution and improve people’s lives. They see their work in this area as key to future success for low-income residents and communities of color, and for all of society in terms of greater health and prosperity.

Addressing these issues requires commitment towards inclusion and centering healthy, safe and affordable housing as a right — not a luxury that is wholly subject to unfettered market forces.

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