At 90 years old, Hilda Chavera has found a new purpose in life: tenant organizing.
A Minneapolis resident for 50 years, Chavera said she has seen her city change, with many of her neighbors struggling to stay in their homes.
“People can’t afford their rent. They are getting kicked out of their homes. They feel like they aren’t being heard,” Chavera told Stateline. She began organizing during the pandemic in 2020 with advocacy organizing group United Renters for Justice. “I may not live much longer to see anything change, but I want the younger generation to not feel like they need to choose between a place to live and what to eat.”
In the decade preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, Minnesota-based tenant advocates lobbied state lawmakers for a slew of rental protections, but those efforts were unsuccessful.
This spring, however, the newly Democratic-controlled legislature passed roughly 15 laws in a session advocates described as the most substantial change to the state’s tenant-landlord laws in a century. The measures include the right to legal counsel for tenants in public housing who face eviction, limits on the scope of landlords’ eviction powers and more transparency on required tenant fees.
“Prior to this session, several [Minnesota cities] all enacted their own local pre-eviction notice protections because the state was taking so long,” said Eric Hauge, executive director of HOME Line, a Minnesota-based tenant advocacy group.
“With these bills, the state legislature finally caught up to the tenant organizing that was happening in our cities.”
Tenant advocates told Stateline that the tenor of tenants’ rights movements has shifted over the past three years. Prior to the pandemic, battles at the statehouse often revolved around repairs and substandard housing. Now, those debates are more likely to center on affordability and keeping people in their homes.
Rents are rising — the average U.S. rent rose 18% between 2017 and 2022.
The end result for many cash-strapped renters is evictions.
Talking to peers
As the number of renters rises in the U.S. — 46 million, or more than a third of U.S. households, are renters — organizers pushing for renters’ rights are finding more of their own among the ranks of state legislatures across the country.
Hauge said he’s seen more lawmakers talking about or even campaigning on their experiences as renters. An analysis by the news organization New York Focus found that in New York’s legislative body, Democratic lawmakers who rent are far more likely to back tenant protections than those who own their homes.
“An influencing factor in all this — as compared to five, 10 years ago — is that there are definitely an increased number of state legislators who are currently renters or who have significantly more lived experience renting their homes,” Hauge told Stateline.
Historically, renters have been underrepresented in all levels of government; research suggests that imbalance has resulted in policies that overwhelmingly favor homeowners.
Alexandra Alvarado, director of education and marketing for the American Apartment Owners Association, an industry group, agreed that the advancement in renters’ protections in some states has altered the landlord-tenant dynamic.
“As we become more of a renter nation … what comes with that is renters are asking for more rights, and that’s not a bad thing,” Alvarado said in an interview. “And landlords may have to concede that they no longer have the upper hand.”
In September, roughly 200 Michigan renters flocked to the Michigan capitol in Lansing. William Lawrence, a lead organizer for the Rent Is Too Damn High coalition, said organizers see a “perfect storm” for passage of pro-tenant legislation and repeal the state’s ban on rent control.
For the first time since 1984, Democrats have held the governor’s office and both houses of the Michigan legislature. According to the Michigan Association of United Ways, 26% of households in the state make too much to qualify for federal benefits but struggle to afford basic needs. A large portion of their income is going to rent, as wages have stagnated.
“We know as renters this is our chance to demand change and meaningful rental housing reform,” Lawrence told Stateline. “When you see 200 people chanting the same thing and experiencing the same thing, what better time than now to pass renter protections in our state.”
But these movements have seen setbacks and met resistance.
A proposed bill to repeal the state’s ban on rent control, which has been in place since 1988, would alleviate rent burden for Michigan renters in cities such as Detroit and Ann Arbor, advocates say.
If that measure doesn’t pass, Lawrence said it would be a “wasted opportunity” given the makeup of the government.
“I think there are politicos [in the legislature] that think that this doesn’t have a snowball’s chance of repealing this preemption. But rent control is on everybody’s lips,” he said. “People are talking about rent control, and it’s very clear that renters really want rent control. It’s up to our lawmakers to represent those demands.”
The bill is currently in committee in the House.
Rent control has faced resistance in many legislatures this year. And measures to require that landlords have legitimate reasons to evict someone, often called “just cause” eviction protections, were floated in a few states this legislative cycle, with no success.
Those included Connecticut, Maryland and New York, all states with Democrats controlling both legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion.
“People may think that just because we have Democratic majority in the statehouse and the governorship, then the state is tenant- and renter-friendly. That’s not the case,” said Luke Melonakos-Harrison, an organizer with the Connecticut Tenants Union. “There’s no guarantee we’ll get the protections we need to keep renters in their home passed.”
In other states, New Mexico’s Democratic-controlled government did not pass a repeal of the state’s rent control ban.
And in deep-blue California, a bill to prohibit landlords from using criminal background checks as part of the tenant screening process never made it out of a Senate committee.
The California Apartment Association classified that bill and other “crime-free housing” bills floated in the legislative session as harmful. Alvarado, of the American Apartment Owners Association, said landlords “want data and information to make decisions that could prevent evictions in the future.”
“If landlords can’t use eviction records or criminal history, then what else are landlords supposed to base the risky decision on who to rent to?” she said.
California already has rent control and just cause eviction laws on the books, but lawmakers closed loopholes in those laws.
In September, they passed a bill that seeks to close a loophole in existing law that has allowed landlords to circumvent the state’s rent cap by forcing out current tenants and brining in newer tenants at higher rents. The bill is awaiting Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.
Red states take action
Meanwhile, several GOP-dominated states went in the opposite direction, enacting laws scaling back tenant protections.
Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill preventing local rent control and superseding tenants’ rights measures that were passed in counties such as Miami-Dade and Pinellas.
Texas, meanwhile, passed a sweeping law prohibiting cities from enacting eviction protections along with any other local ordinances not expressly permitted by the state.
However, a state judge ruled the bill unconstitutional before it was set to take effect this month. The Texas attorney general’s office filed a notice to appeal the decision, arguing that the law should still take effect.
Austin landlord Victoria Wilson told Stateline that eviction powers are a “necessary” measure to counteract non-payment of rent. Still, she said, they shouldn’t be abused by landlords — nor strictly regulated by government or the courts.
Republicans in Oklahoma aimed to pass an anti-retaliation bill protecting tenants from vindictive landlords — one of the few states where such practice is legal — but it was unsuccessful.
And a Georgia bill with bipartisan support that would have required landlords to ensure rental properties are “fit for human habitation” upon signing a lease failed to pass.
Moving forward in Minnesota
When asked by Stateline what housing policies he wished Minnesota’s Democratic trifecta would consider, Republican state Sen. Eric Lucero, who sits on the Senate housing committee, touted “free market” housing policies that exist in Republican-controlled Montana and Democratic-controlled Vermont and Washington state.
He told Stateline that the new Democratic-backed laws in his state tilt the tenant-landlord dynamic out of balance.
“An equilibrium exists in state law balancing and protecting rights and responsibilities of both tenants and housing providers, yet the Democrat majority continues to actively ignore testimony and experiences shared by those on the housing providers’ and builders’ side of the equilibrium,” Lucero said.
To ensure enforcement of its new protections in 2024, Hauge, of HOME Line, said the group is hosting workshops over the next few months with both tenants and landlords to help them learn about the laws.
“A law isn’t effective without compliance. We know there are landlords that do follow the law and want to continue to follow the law,” he said. “We want to make sure we answer their questions, as well as empower renters on these changes, before they take shape.”
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