Hear Us: A National Tenants’ Bill of Rights Is Foundational for Race Equity

Op-ed: To overcome a racist housing system, we must guarantee housing rights.

(Illustration by sam scipio)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Hear Us” is a column series that features experts of color and their insights on issues related to the economy and racial justice. Follow us here and at #HearUs4Justice.

Since the House passage of the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act, the Biden administration is seemingly confident about getting the Build Back Better Act signed into law. For anyone who cares about having a roof over their head, it’s notable that President Biden’s $1.75 trillion framework includes significant cuts from an original $3.5 trillion budgetary plan. More cuts can be expected to an already truncated plan as the bill moves through the Senate.

Though many policymakers and pundits tout this legislation as an unprecedented investment in affordable housing, the optimism is unwarranted.

Low-income tenants would likely agree, including people of color such as Michelle Sullivan. For two years, her New Bedford, Massachusetts, apartment has been riddled with unsafe living conditions, and Sullivan told the Telegram and Gazette of Worcester that her landlord has yet to provide the maintenance and attention she deserves as a tenant. Before filing complaints with the New Bedford Board of Health, Sullivan had tried dealing with her landlord directly. Sullivan told the Telegram that instead of addressing the issues, her landlord responded with a bribe, which she rejected.

Now, her landlord has initiated eviction proceedings.

“She wants me out because of my record of all my complaints about the building and her,” Sullivan told the Telegram. “And I can’t find housing anywhere else, so I’m stuck.”

In today’s oppressive housing economy, these stories are all too common. Tenants especially are confronted with unequal power dynamics between them and their landlords, leaving them with little agency or protections to overcome rental challenges. “I am here representing at least 94 households in my community that are also behind on rent, like I am,” said Awa Dolley,a tenants union leader from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who has applied for rental assistance and never received a dime. In September of this year, she joined a delegation of 10 other tenants to pressure government leaders in DC: “I am very proud to be here, and I want answers for my neighbors.”

Now more than ever, people of color need direct government investment and support, especially when it comes to housing. Central to building an inclusive, equitable housing system is establishing a national Tenants’ Bill of Rights.

How Our Housing System — and Government — Fails Renters of Color

As we evaluate the Build Back Better plan, we must consider how these investments directly affect tenants and if they go far enough to address widespread unaffordability and evictions. The current Build Back Better plan would invest $24 billion for housing choice vouchers while allocating only $10 billion for the Public Housing Capital Fund and roughly $14 billion for the National Housing Trust Fund. By no means is this enough to address the many challenges that undergird our current housing market, nor to mitigate the harm perpetrated for generations.

Housing is a basic human right, but an extractive private market has commodified what should be a public good. The subsidized housing market, often deemed a solution to affordable housing challenges, struggles to compete with a private market that is fueled by corporate money and predatory practices.

Housing vouchers, one of the biggest subsidized housing investments included in the Build Back Better plan, don’t provide safe and secure housing for more people. Vouchers were originally conceived as a way to help low-income households — and people of color in particular — access higher-opportunity neighborhoods. But vouchers have not made good on that promise. Families who use vouchers are often concentrated in poor neighborhoods. And many voucher holders struggle to find a landlord that will accept them, because vouchers aren’t granted the same legitimacy in the private housing market.

This exemplifies why tenants call for further protections — protections made especially urgent given the devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and recession, as well as our government’s inept attempt to keep people housed for the long term.

Over the last decade, home sales have inflated exponentially, and yet those costs pale in comparison to the extraction taking place in the rental market. Over 55% of Black and Latinx renters spend 30% or more of their income on rent alone, compared with only 46% of white households. Additionally, Black and Latinx renters are more likely to face eviction, and people of color make up over half of the 580,466 people who are experiencing homelessness right now.

Across the country, tenants such as Sullivan wake up to holes in their walls and ceilings, broken toilets, and mold, even mushrooms, growing in their living spaces.

Establishing a Tenants’ Bill of Rights brings us closer to making affordable housing a permanent institution in the US. These rights should apply to all renters, no matter their income, location, the kind of housing they live in, or land they live on.

The Six Tenets of a National Tenants’ Bill of Rights

In the Oppression Economy, people of color are more likely than white people to be denied housing, to live in intentionally lower-resourced communities, and to be evicted. To build a Liberation Economy, Congress and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) must address these disparities by enacting a national Tenants’ Bill of Rights, which would establish a set of basic entitlements for renters.

  1. Tenants’ rights are best enforced when renters are organized. In 2000, HUD adopted strong regulations affirming tenants’ right to organize free from management harassment or intimidation in privately-owned, HUD-subsidized apartment complexes. Any housing community, small or large, survives and thrives with residents who are engaged with their neighbors and are interested in making sure that tenants’ rights are enforced for the benefit of all.

  2. In light of the affordable housing shortage, universal rent control is necessary to moderate the current power imbalance between landlords and renters. The federal government has set a precedent in the past of establishing, extending and enforcing rent control protections to serve national and economic security purposes.

  3. The right to truly affordable housing could eliminate forced displacement and slow the rise in homelessness. The Brooke Amendment of 1969 was essential in establishing today’s income-based rent standard. This amendment limited the amount a tenant could contribute toward rent in public housing to no more than 25% of family income.

  4. Protections against rapid rent increases are meaningless without the right to stay in your home, particularly when granted through the right to good-cause eviction. As recently as last month, HUD updated its regulations — through an interim final rule — to give itself the authority to require that public housing and project-based rental assistance (PBRA) developments give tenants the opportunity to receive emergency rent relief before eviction.

  5. The right to counsel in court can be used to offset the power imbalance between tenants and landlords within eviction courts. To maximize the effect of a new funding decision from HUD, lawmakers should codify tenants’ right to counsel in court. This right would ensure that federal funds be invested in universal access to free lawyers for low-income renters who face evictions, poor housing conditions, or rights violations.

  6. Lastly, the right to high-quality and accessible housing is necessary to ensure that tenants are protected with access to housing that meets their basic needs. Progressive leaders within the current Congress, including Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), have already called for safe, quality housing especially within public housing facilities.

No one-size-fits-all policy will solve our housing crisis and the systemic racism that hurts people of color. But we can take steps now to move toward a liberated housing system. A national Tenants’ Bill of Rights is part of a broader movement — led by community organizers, tenants, and other leaders of color — to secure guaranteed housing.

Today’s housing crisis is an affordability crisis. But it’s also a dignity crisis, a morality crisis, and a corporate power crisis that values profit over people. A national Tenants’ Bill of Rights alone won’t fully deliver equity and justice, but it’s an essential step in the right direction.

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Nia Johnson is a policy coordinator for the Homes Guarantee Campaign at Liberation in a Generation.

Tags: affordable housingrenters rightshear ushousing for all

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