Tenant Protections Are a Cornerstone to Solving the Housing Crisis

I’ve read far too many think pieces, op-eds, and reports that neglect the role of tenant protections as a tool that is vital to solving our local, state, national, and […]

man holding sign that says "We don't tolerate injustice. We deserve to live with dignity."

Photo by Image Michael Fleshman, via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

I’ve read far too many think pieces, op-eds, and reports that neglect the role of tenant protections as a tool that is vital to solving our local, state, national, and international housing crises. Recently, California’s Housing & Community Development office released a report on our state’s housing crisis, and it failed to even mention “tenant protections,” “rent control,” or “just cause for eviction.” Despite a national Renters’ Day of Action last September where thousands took to the streets, the passage of two rent control laws in California at the ballot, and more of these campaigns in the pipeline, the conventional wisdom on solving the housing crisis remains conformed to the simplistic frame of “supply and demand,” and if we’re lucky, acknowledgement that some of that supply must be affordable units. We must do better.


It is not enough to organize around one particular policy. We must protect people who are in their homes AND increase the number of deeply affordable homes AND work to get to the root of the problem: financial speculation on land and housing. While tenant advocates are often leading fights for improved housing conditions, rent regulations, and eviction protections, we recognize that it’s not good enough to freeze things as they are. While we know we must fight for new homes that are deeply affordable and for greater community control of land and housing, we don’t feel that same recognition on the importance of tenant protections from most politicians and the “supply” community.


In a recent video, in which Assembly Democrats in California said they would stand up with our communities against President Trump’s proposed policies, Assemblyman David Chiu declared the importance of “affordable housing,” but no one said anything about tenants’ rights and displacement protections.

There are socio-cultural reasons why tenant issues are not part of the mainstream discussion. In sociologist Matthew Desmond’s recent book, Evicted, living in substandard conditions is often seen as a trade-off for low rent. We have looked the other way when these problems primarily affected the poor, but are learning today that the private housing market doesn’t magically work to the benefit of all. Being a tenant used to be a transitional state of housing for the middle class, but now, homeownership is out of reach for more and more Americans.


In these times, when it seems that very little positive (and likely many very negative) things will be accomplished at the federal level on affordable housing, the traditional avenues of advocacy will have limited effect. Already, many tenant advocates have taken to the streets, to the ballot measure, or collective bargaining with landlords in order to win. Often shut out of the process, we know about being outsiders and using direct action to defeat terrible policy or advance an agenda that wasn’t even on the table.


There is a way to make renting better, and there are alternative models of ownership. A dozen cities in California have had rent control and just cause eviction protections on their books for decades, and dozens more of majority-renter cities have led the way recently on passing regulations to curb rent increases, evictions, and make city code enforcement departments work for renters—all essential pieces of the housing crisis puzzle. The cities of Richmond and Mountain View passed rent control and just cause for eviction protections this past November; Fresno recently won a routine inspection program to fight back against slumlords; and Santa Ana residents got their city to invest in community land trusts.


As we continue these fights for real protection, here are some key points:


    1. Rent control does not raise rents for everyone else. Eric Fischer’s recent analysis of rents in San Francisco since 1950 found that rent control does not increase rent overall, and does not distort the rental market. There is evidence that rent control keeps housing costs lower overall, not the other way around. In Boston, a study by professor Chris Palmer of Cambridge showed that when rent control was eliminated, costs of all housing—formerly rent controlled and uncontrolled units—rose dramatically. It’s also important to know that data on current rents only pulls information from units listed for rent, and does not average data that includes currently occupied rent control units. Rents rise for many reasons—rent control is not one of them. 
    2. Modern rent control does not affect new housing. In 2011, a study of Winnipeg rent controls found that more housing was built after rent control was enacted. Winnipeg has a rolling goalpost that exempts new construction for 20 years before being covered by rent control. In California, all new construction is categorically exempt from rent control. Good policy allows developers a reasonable return on new construction before regulating rents, so as not to deter the building of new housing. The boom and bust cycles of local housing construction are driven by the overall health of the economy, not rent control.
    3. Rent control does not affect quality or quantity of housing. Urban planner John Gilderbloom’s research in 2007 shows that, counter to what many economists believe in theory, evidence shows that modern rent control laws in 100 U.S. cities has had no negative impact on the quality and quantity of rental units. Rent control actually motivated landlords to increase maintenance of rental housing because they cannot increase rents if their rental units are in bad condition. Additionally, rent control protection helps tenants feel secure in asking for repairs without fear of retaliatory rent increases. Many rent control programs allow landlords to pass along a fair portion of the cost of major renovations or utilities to tenants.
    4. Rent control is good for local economies. Many studies show that the income of low-to-middle-income people is mainly spent in local economies. When renters have more cash in their pockets, they will spend it on local business. Healthy economies are supposed to be balanced. Rent increases have vastly outpaced wages, and by matching rent increases with the pace of inflation, rent control helps align rents with the rest of the economy. Rent control is about fairness, allowing landlords a reasonable return while giving tenants the peace of mind that they can budget for reasonable yearly rent increases.
    5. Just cause for eviction keeps tenants in their homes, not “criminals.” Landlords raise the specter of “crime and prostitution” when they have to cite a reason for eviction. This line of argument should be called out for what it is: using coded language to stoke racist and classist fears. It is also blatantly false. Just cause protections simply request that landlords provide a good reason for eviction, not that they are no longer allowed to evict. These reasons usually include breaking a lease, nonpayment of rent, or causing a nuisance. It’s not a lot to ask that landlords go through due process in order to “punish” a tenant with eviction—we have this value in most other aspects of our legal system.


Along with rent control and eviction protections, cities can and must support a code enforcement department that does no harm and works in the best interest of residents. Landlord divestment creates slum housing and displacement unless landlords are held accountable to minimum standards. There are programs in cities where tenants can pay a reduced rent to the city if a landlord does not correct a violation, which provides incentive to make repairs. There are code enforcement departments that hire local community members and tenant advocates, helping to provide better community oversight and protections against retaliation. If a building must be red-tagged, cities can provide or incentivize temporary housing and ensure a right-to-return for tenants temporarily displaced. Code enforcement departments must use red-tagging as a last resort, doing everything they can first to legalize units if they are habitable or could easily be made habitable.


Real tenant protections are even possible in the Central Valley. After decades of demanding that the City of Fresno take action against slumlords, tenants won big recently with the passage of a routine inspection ordinance, which represents a sea change in a region that has rarely addressed tenants’ rights. Tenant protections aren’t just for “big cities,” they are a basic right.


Real solutions are needed now. We live in overcrowded, uninhabitable conditions and are paying more than half our income in rent. Meanwhile, we primarily produce luxury market-rate rental housing (if we produce any rental housing at all), lack strong anti-displacement policies, and our code enforcement departments don’t prioritize the needs of tenants. Inclusionary zoning is one way for developers and communities to meet some needs, but this is not a complete way to catch up to the deep lack of affordable housing supply. The crisis has deepened as the federal government has deregulated housing, and it will get worse. There is no new public housing being built.


As more people call for investment in public infrastructure, housing should not be forgotten. We can learn from the mistakes of the past—rent control is a big part of the solution to the housing crisis, but this crisis demands systemic change. We need to change our priorities to protect people first AND advance long-term solutions. We must not shy away from policies that challenge landlords, the real estate industry, and the political establishment.


We have begun joining the broader resistance because we see the connections between deportations and evictions, between Muslim bans and housing discrimination, and between Black Lives Matter and the divestment and gentrification in communities of color. We must join this moment of resistance to challenge ourselves to be part of the long-term fight for transformative housing solutions.

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