Amid rising evictions and rents, states are grappling with protections in tenant-landlord laws

At 90 years old, Hilda Chavira has found a new purpose in life: organizing tenants.

A Minneapolis resident for 50 years, Chavira said she has seen change in her city, with many of her neighbors struggling to stay in their homes.

“People can’t afford the rent. They’re being evicted from their homes. They feel like they’re not being heard,” Chavira told Stateline. She started organizing during the pandemic in 2020 with the organized advocacy group Tenants United for Justice. “I may not live long enough to see anything “It’s changing, but I want the younger generation to not feel like they need to choose between where to live and what to eat.”

In the decade before the COVID-19 pandemic, Minnesota tenant advocates lobbied state lawmakers for a slew of rental protections, but those efforts were unsuccessful.

But this spring, the new Democratic-controlled Legislature passed nearly 15 bills in a session that supporters described as the most fundamental change to the state’s renter-landlord laws in a century. The measures include the right to legal counsel for public housing tenants facing eviction, limits on the scope of eviction powers granted to landlords, and more transparency about required tenant fees.

“Prior to this session, many (Minnesota cities) had enacted their own local protections for pre-eviction notice because the state was taking so long,” said Eric Hogue, executive director of Home Line, a Minnesota-based renters’ advocacy group.

“Thanks to these bills, the state legislature was finally able to get control of the tenant organizing that was happening in our cities.”

Woman on the phone.
Hilda Chavira, 90, has spent the past three years lobbying for renter protections in Minnesota, where she has lived for 50 years. She says organizing renters allows her to fight the housing affordability crisis that affects all generations. Courtesy of Hilda Chavira

Tenant advocates told Stateline that the tenor of tenant rights movements has changed over the past three years. Before the pandemic, statehouse battles were often over repairs and substandard housing. Now, these discussions will likely focus on affordability and keeping people in their homes.

Rents are rising – the average rent in the US rose 18% between 2017 and 2022.

The end result for many cash-strapped renters is evictions.

Talk to their peers

As the number of renters in the United States rises — 46 million, or more than a third of American households, are renters — organizers advocating for renters’ rights are finding more of their rights among the ranks of state legislatures across the country.

Hogue said he’s seen more legislators talking about or even campaigning about their experiences as renters. An analysis by New York Focus News found that in the New York Legislature, Democratic lawmakers who rent their homes are more likely to support renter protections than those who own their homes.

“One factor in all of this — compared to five or 10 years ago — is that there are certainly an increasing number of state legislators who are currently renters or who have a lot more experience renting their homes,” Hogue told Stateline.

Historically, tenants have been underrepresented at all levels of government; Research suggests that this imbalance has led to policies that overwhelmingly favor homeowners.

Alexandra Alvarado, director of education and marketing for the American Apartment Owners Association, an industry group, agreed that advances in renter protections in some states have changed the landlord-tenant dynamic.

“As we become more of a rented nation…what comes with that is renters are demanding more rights, and that’s not a bad thing,” Alvarado said in an interview. “Landlords may have to admit they no longer have the upper hand.”

Mixed success

In September, nearly 200 Michigan tenants flocked to the Michigan Capitol in Lansing. William Lawrence, a lead organizer for the Too High Rent Coalition, said organizers see a “perfect storm” to pass pro-tenant legislation and repeal the state’s ban on rent control.

For the first time since 1984, Democrats held the governor’s office and both chambers of the Michigan Legislature. According to the Michigan United Roads Association, 26% of households in the state earn too much to qualify for federal benefits but struggle to provide basic needs. A large portion of their income goes to rent, with wages stagnating.

“We know as renters that this is our opportunity to demand meaningful change and reform for rental housing,” Lawrence told Stateline. “When you see 200 people saying the same thing and experiencing the same thing, what better time than now to pass renter protections in our state.”

But these movements experienced setbacks and faced resistance.

Some cities are pushing for rent control. They are facing resistance.

A proposed bill to repeal the state’s ban on rent control, which has been in place since 1988, would ease the rent burden on Michigan renters in cities like Detroit and Ann Arbor, advocates say.

If the measure doesn’t pass, it would be a “missed opportunity” given the makeup of the government, Lawrence said.

“I think there are politicians (in the Legislature) who think this doesn’t have much of a chance of overturning this preemption. But rent control is on everyone’s lips.” “People are talking about rent control, and it’s very clear that tenants really want rent control.” . It is up to our legislators to represent those demands.

The bill is currently in committee in the House of Representatives.

Rent control has faced resistance in several legislatures this year. Measures that require landlords to have legitimate reasons to evict someone, often called “just cause” eviction protections, have been introduced in a few states this legislative session, without success.

These included Connecticut, Maryland and New York, all states where Democrats control both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s mansion.

“People might think that just because we have a Democratic majority in the state Assembly and the governorship, that the state is friendly to renters and renters. That’s not the case,” said Luke Mylonakos Harrison, an organizer with the Connecticut Tenants Union. “There’s no guarantee that we will “We need the protection we need to keep renters in their homes.”

In other states, New Mexico’s Democratic-controlled government has not agreed to repeal the state’s rent control ban.

As we become more of a tenant nation…what comes with that is that tenants are demanding more rights, and that’s not a bad thing. Property owners may have to admit that they no longer have the upper hand.

– Alexandra Alvarado, Director of Education and Marketing for the American Apartment Owners Association

In California, a bill that would prevent landlords from using criminal background checks as part of the tenant screening process has not made it out of Senate committee.

The California Apartment Association has rated this bill and other “crime-free housing” bills introduced in the legislative session as harmful. Landlords “want data and information to make decisions that can prevent future evictions,” said Alvarado, of the American Apartment Owners Association.

“If landlords can’t use eviction records or criminal histories, what are landlords supposed to base the risky decision of who to rent to?” She said.

California already has rent control and only eviction laws on the books, but lawmakers have closed loopholes in those laws.

In September, they passed a bill that seeks to close a loophole in current law that allowed landlords to circumvent the state’s rent caps by forcing existing tenants out and bringing in new tenants at higher rents. The bill awaits the signature of Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom.

Red countries are taking necessary measures

Meanwhile, several GOP-dominated states have gone in the opposite direction, enacting laws that reduce protections for renters.

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that would ban local rent control and replace tenant rights measures passed in counties like Miami-Dade and Pinellas.

Rent control is making a comeback. But is it a good idea?

Meanwhile, Texas passed a sweeping law prohibiting cities from enacting eviction protections along with any other local laws not expressly permitted by the state.

However, a state judge ruled the bill unconstitutional before it took effect this month. The Texas Attorney General’s Office filed a notice to appeal the decision, arguing that the law remains valid.

Austin landlord Victoria Wilson told Stateline that eviction powers are a “necessary” measure to address non-payment of rent. However, she said, they should not be abused by landlords — nor should they be strictly regulated by the government or courts.

Republicans in Oklahoma had aimed to pass an anti-retaliation bill that would protect renters from vindictive landlords — one of the few states where such a practice is legal — but it was unsuccessful.

A bipartisan Georgia bill that would have required landlords to ensure rental properties are “fit for human habitation” when signing a lease failed to fail.

Moving forward in Minnesota

When asked by Stateline what housing policies he wished Democrats would see in Minnesota trifecta In light of the above, Republican State Senator Eric Lucero, a member of the Senate Housing Committee, promoted the “free market” housing policies that exist in Republican-controlled Montana and Democratic-controlled Vermont and Washington.

He told Stateline that new Democratic-backed laws in his state throw the tenant-landlord dynamic out of balance.

“There is a balance in balancing state law and protecting the rights and responsibilities of both renters and housing providers, yet the Democratic majority continues to ignore the testimonies and experiences shared by those on the housing providers and builders side of the balance,” Lucero said. .

To ensure the new protections are implemented in 2024, HOME Line’s Hogg said the group will host workshops over the next few months with both tenants and landlords to help them familiarize themselves with the laws.

“The law is not effective without compliance with it. We know that there are landlords who follow the law and want to continue to follow it.” “We want to make sure we answer their questions, as well as empower tenants with these changes, before they take shape.”

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