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Momentum Grows for Renters’ Rights Amid Housing Crisis

By Sasha Forbes

Millions of people living in the U.S. are struggling to secure one of the most basic of human needs – a home for themselves and their families, but action to reinforce renters’ rights in several states is bringing hope in the fight to secure housing as a human right.

Oregon, for example, made history this year by passing the first statewide rent control law – including an emergency clause to put eviction protections into effect immediately. It signaled recognition by state officials on the urgent nature of the dire conditions created for so many by a lack of affordable housing, increased eviction and displacement. It also marked a significant break in the long-held anti-rent control positions held in many states.

Proponents in Colorado, Illinois and Washington – as well as in the cities of Philadelphia and Providence, R.I. – are all hoping to build on years of organizing and activism to reverse decades-old rent control bans to stop the spiral of skyrocketing rents, evictions, home insecurity and the subsequent growing threat to families’ well-being and access to opportunity.

As noted in a previous SPARCC report, 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. But rising rental costs are out of reach for millions as a result of the economics of market-based housing policy and the nation’s long history of systemic and racial inequities, particularly through discriminatory residential planning and zoning practices.

In the recent report, Our Homes, Our Future: How Rent Control can Build Stable, Healthy Communities by PolicyLink, the Center for Popular Democracy and the Right to the City Alliance, it’s estimated that nearly 6,300 evictions occur each day in the United States. Eviction Lab estimated that in 2016, 2.3 million evictions were filed in the U.S., with single women of color with children at the top of the list, highlighting the need to focus on women, racial and gender justice in housing.¹

Renter protection laws are crucial to securing housing, enhancing the health and well-being of tenants and protecting against housing vulnerabilities that are exacerbated by natural disasters and climate change.² And while the list of renter protection legislation is growing, so is legislation that will address climate change like mandates on energy efficiency and consumption in buildings, which can have a significant benefit for tenants by reducing energy bills. 

The following are highlights of several recent actions taken to protect tenants:

Jump to a state: Colorado | Florida | Georgia | Illinois | New York | Virginia | Washington

CALIFORNIA

Several California cities have passed rent control and just-cause evictions policies over the past few years and many more are working to do so. The state-level Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act passed in 1995 limits how cities implement rent control by setting limits on the types of policies that can be passed, and it limits a city’s ability to update “date of construction” provisions in ordinances. The 2018 effort to repeal Costa Hawkins failed, but advocates kept it moving with new packages aimed at protecting renters. The bills below are up for consideration in 2019.

  • The “Keep Families Home” package includes three housing bills to protect 17 million tenants across the state of California. The package includes:
    • Anti-Rent Gouging (AB 1482, Chiu) – protects renters from sudden rent increases by linking rent increases to a formula based on the Consumer Price Index.
    • Costa Hawkins Reform (AB 36, Bloom) – reforms state restrictions on local rent control by giving more power to local jurisdictions to amend rent control laws and exempts small landlords from the reforms.
    • Just Cause Eviction (AB 1481, Bonta) – extends just-cause eviction protection to every renter by safeguarding against unjust evictions.
  • Rent Registry (AB724, Wicks) – proposes to compile state data on evictions and how and where rent is increasing across the state by establishing a rental registry.
  • Eviction Defense Fund (SB 18) – funds eviction defense (potentially supporting local efforts for a right to counsel) and emergency rental assistance.
  • Source of Income Ban (SB 329) – bans discrimination by landlords against tenants based on their source of income, such as Section 8 Vouchers (see the recently passed legislation in New York below)
  • The proposed Right to Organize legislation (SB29) would protect tenants from eviction and landlord retaliation when they collectively organize or participate in a rent strike or tenant association.
  • Toward the implementation of the contentious new regional housing plan in the Bay Area – CASA Compactseveral legislations have been introduced that would have an impact on the state level. For example, AB1486 would strengthen the Surplus Land Act, clarifying agencies and parcels subject to the surplus land act with the goal of prioritizing affordable housing.

Additionally, several cities and counties across California are now engaged in efforts to launch tenants’ rights clinics, create local just cause eviction ordinances, create rent stabilization ordinances and train people to organize for renter protections.

Resources: Public Advocates: Press Release, Tenants Together: See here for map of rent control campaigns across CA, Urban Habitat: Strengthening Communities Through Rent Control and Just-Cause Evictions, Medium, Megan Abell: What You Need to Know about CA’s Renters Rights Bills, and SAJE – Strategic Actions for a Just Economy

COLORADO

There are a series of renter protection bills in the Colorado legislative committee, including a renewed effort to repeal a ban on rent control in the state. Advocates have received some major victories recently, and Colorado renters have gained several critical protections and supports, including:

  • Grants for Property Tax Rent and Heat (HB19-1085) – increases property related expense assistance grants for low-income seniors and individuals with disabilities.
  • Rental Application Fees (HB19-1106) – requires landlords to be transparent by providing information on why potential renters’ applications were rejected, requires landlords to itemize how they use application fees and refund any unused fees within 20 days.
  • Residential Health and Safety Act (HB19-1170) – enhances the rights of tenants to pressure landlords to maintain healthy living conditions. This bill allows renters to withhold rent if landlords are not properly maintaining units, like dealing with mold which can cause chronic illnesses and make a home unlivable
  • Time Period to Cure Lease Violation (HB19-1118) – extends the amount of time that tenants have to resolve a problem (such as paying past due rent) before eviction proceedings begin. Currently residents have 3 days to fix violation problems and with some exceptions, new rules would provide a tenant with 10 days.
  • Extend Notice to Tenant Before Eviction (HB19-1118) – increase the time given to tenants between notifying tenants of an agreement violation (unpaid rent or other, non-substantial, agreements) and initiating eviction procedures from 3 days to 10 days.
  • Mobile Home Park Act Oversight (HB19-1309) – the bill provides a host of protections for mobile home owners, including extending the time period between the notice of nonpayment of rent and the termination of any tenancy.
  • Eviction Legal Defense Fund (SB19-180) – establishes an eviction legal defense fund for tenants facing eviction (see here for a similar program in New York City). The fund would provide grants to qualifying non-profit organizations to provide legal representation, counseling and advice to tenants facing eviction.

And there is one more bill on the calendar:

Resources: Denverite: It’s the session for landlord-tenant issues in the Colorado legislature, United for New Economy, 9 to 5 Colorado, Colorado Homes for All, Mile High Connects

FLORIDA

Housing justice advocates helped lawmakers introduce a suite of bills that represents the most comprehensive renter protection proposal that the state has seen: If passed, SB1794/HB1283 would offer:

  • A just cause eviction clause protecting renters from unfair evictions
  • Requirements for leases to be provided in the preferred language of the renter
  • A “right of first refusal” offered to tenants when their buildings are up for sale by the landlords
  • A rule for landlords to pay back 3 times the cost of the security deposit if the renter’s security deposit is not returned within 30 days of the end of a lease
  • A moratorium on evictions during natural disaster or state of emergency
  • Protection for survivors of domestic violence, dating violence and sexual abuse
  • A prohibition against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation
  • A requirement that application fees be returned in cases in which there are no available units and that landlords must not charge excessive application fees

There is also legislation introduced (H6053) that would remove local rent control restrictions.Resources: Next City, Capital Soup and Organize Florida, Community Justice Project, Vamos4PR, Miami Workers Center, Manufactured Housing Action and Faith in Florida, Miami Homes for All

GEORGIA

Similar to the win for healthy housing in Colorado, Georgia passed the Healthy Housing Bill (HB346) that wouldallow tenants who live in unhealthy and unsafe homes to file code enforcement complaints without eviction retaliation. The bill helps to keep landlords accountable and offers a pathway to repairs that brings the home to a safe and healthy condition.

The bill would require landlords to pay $500 plus one month’s rent and legal costs if they wrongly try to evict the tenant.

Resources: Atlanta Journal Constitution, Right to the City Alliance, and Housing Justice League

ILLINOIS

Rent control has been banned in Illinois since 1997, limiting local jurisdictions from creating their own rent control ordinances. Over the past year parts of Chicago have passed referendums to “Lift the Ban” on rent control. The new bill in the Illinois House (HB 2192):

  • Proposes to end the 22-year ban on rent control and develop six regional rent control boards across the state. The boards would regulate rent control regionally and would be made up of seven elected members.

Resources: Crane,  Illinois Policy, and Lift the Ban Coalition

OREGON

Oregon passed the nation’s first statewide rent control bill  (SB608) in February 2019. Rent control was banned in the 1980s in Oregon and has made its way back given the housing pressures facing the state. The bill:

  • Includes an emergency clause that allows rent control and just cause eviction to go into effect immediately
  • Caps annual rent increases at 7 percent of the Consumer Price Index
  • Eliminates “no-cause” evictions, except during the first year of tenancy. During the first year, landlords can give 30 days written notice for eviction
  • Exempts new construction for 15 years. Subsidized rent is also exempt, which refers to housing run by private owners who receive subsidies for lower rents to low- and moderate-income people.

Resources: The Oregonian, Oregon Community Alliance of Tenants

NEW YORK

New York has the longest history on renters’ rights in the country, passing the first rent control policy in the 1940s. Advocates scored a victory in April 2019 with the passage of the Source of Income Discrimination bill (S.3303 Parker) (A 5.891 Mosley). The source of income discrimination bill ensures that landlords will not be able to discriminate against tenants based on lawful sources of incomes such as Section 8 Housing Vouchers, veterans benefits, child support, disability benefits and other types of non-wage income. This will impact nearly 600,000 New Yorkers who depend on non-wage income.³ Presented as part of a campaign for housing justice and universal rent control, there are several other bills in session to expand tenant rights across the state, including:

  • The Good Cause Eviction Bill (SBS2892A/A5030A), which would prevent landlords from evicting tenants if they cannot afford a rent increase above an “unconscionable” amount — defined as more than 150 percent of the regional Consumer Price Index.The bill would also expand protection to tenants in smaller buildings (with less than 6 units) and manufactured homes. The bill is now in the Judiciary Committee in the state Senate.
  • Vacancy Decontrol (S2591/A1198), which calls for a repeal of a loophole where apartments become deregulated once the rent reaches a certain amount, causing those units to fall outside of rent control rules. The bill would re-regulate the units.
  • Permanent preferential rents (S2845A/A4349), which states, “A preferential rent is a discounted rent that tenants pay when the legally registered rent exceeds the market value of the apartment.” (Housing Justice For All). Renters risk paying a higher rent when thelease is renewed and this bill would stabilize rents based on the existing preferential rent.  
  • Eliminating rent hikes due to major capital improvements (S3693/A6322), which would ban landlords from passing on the costs of maintaining and upgrading a unit to their tenants.
  • Rent control relief (S299/A167), which would align NYC’s two systems of rent stabilization by aligning rent control increases with standard rent control board increases.  

Source: Vice, Ankita Rao: Universal Rent Control is a Left-Wing Dream That’s Actually Happening, Housing Justice for All, BanIncomeBiasNY, and Enterprise Community Partners

VIRGINIA

Cities in Virginia have among the highest eviction rates in the country. The newly signed legislation to reduce eviction rates is a great step forward for housing security in Virginia. The legislative housing package passed in March 2019 will take effect in July 2019. It includes several specific provisions addressing the statewide eviction crisis, which is the result of both rapidly increasing rents and some of the least tenant-friendly provisions and constitutional limits on local authority. Changes include:

  • Extra time for residents to pay unpaid rent to satisfy a judgment in order to avoid eviction.
  • Limits on the number of legal actions a landlord can file in court against a tenant, thereby reducing the amount tenants must pay to avoid eviction.
  • Reducing the period of time during which a landlord can use a court judgment of possession to evict a tenant, providing more stability for tenants.
  • Reversing financially onerous constraints on tenants wanting to appeal non-payment-of-rent evictions. Under current law, tenants are required to post bond equal to rent for every month their appeal is pending, up to 12 months.
  • Requiring landlords to provide mutually agreed-upon written leases to the tenant and includes provisions that must be included in the lease.
  • Establishing four pilot eviction diversion programs involving local governments, legal aid providers and non-profit housing partners.

(Bills referenced above include House Bill 1898, 1922 and Senate Bills 1445, 1448, 1627. Additional bills that focus on reducing evictions and increasing housing security include House Bills 2007, 1925 and 2655, Senate Bills 1450, 1626, which have not reached a final vote.)

Source: Office of Virginia Governor and The Campaign to Reduce Evictions

WASHINGTON

Washington State has had a ban on rent control since 1981, keeping cities from creating any form of rent stabilization policies of their own. An ordinance to lift the ban was introduced in 2018, but didn’t pass, upholding the ban on rent control. Following the tenants’ rights victory in Seattle on eviction and with years of organizing, there are proposals at the state level that would:

  • End evictions without just cause (HB 1656 and HB1453). 
  • Give renters more time to pay past due rent (SB5600) and allow judges more discretion in eviction cases. (This law was passed in April 2019 and is awaiting the signature of the Governor)

Resources: Tenants Union of Washington State, Seattle Times, Jake Goldstein-Street, Lawmakers in Olympia Look to Eviction Reform to Tackle Homelessness, Curbed, Sarah Anne Lloyd: Sweeping Eviction Reform Passes Washington State Legislature

Cities at a Glance

(This is not a comprehensive list)

  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – The city passed the Good (Just) Cause Bill requiring landlords to have a just reason for evictions for those with month-to-month leases. (Philadelphia Tenants Union)
  • Providence, Rhode Island – Advocates are focused on a suite of bills that ask for rent control, just-cause eviction, creation of rent boards, relocation assistance if tenants are displaced as a result of landlord actions and eliminating month-to-month contracts. (Direct Action for Rights and Equality)
  • San Francisco, California
    • Renters in San Francisco now have the right to free legal counsel when faced with an eviction proceeding with the passage of the Right to Counsel* (Prop F) bill. Tenants can legally get an attorney regardless of income, age, medical status or time they have lived in the city. (SF Weekly)
    • Through AB 1487 (part of the CASA Compact package), the bill would raise and allocate funding that would be used for affordable housing projects, enhance existing affordable housing and fund tenant protection programs.

*New York City was the first city to implement Right to Counsel in 2017. NYC has since expanded the reach of this program. Newark, N.J., is the third city to implement this program. See the recent report on the first year of the Right to Counsel program in NYC.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

¹Eviction Lab Where Evictions Hurt the Most: https://www.citylab.com/equity/2017/10/where-evictions-hurt-the-most/544238/
²SPARCC: Protecting Renters from Displacement and Unhealthy and Climate-Vulnerable Housing
³Ban Income Bias NY: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ESlA6WXP0LOCsa5AYJw4d-uwbl6ITXK6/view

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