Toward Permanent Renter Protections
On March 22, 2023, the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) held its first in-person Housing Policy Forum since 2019, entitled “Onward to Housing Justice.” Forum presenters focused on lessons learned from expanding renter protections and eviction prevention measures during the pandemic. One session, “Achieving Permanent Renter Protections,” featured speakers Rasheedah Phillips, director of housing at PolicyLink; Erika Poethig, special assistant to the president for housing and urban policy for the White House Domestic Policy Council; Zella Knight, a board member and activist with the Residents United Network and member of the NLIHC board of directors; and Foluke Akanni, housing policy organizer at Housing Action Illinois. Geraldine Collins, president of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants and member of the NLIHC board of directors, moderated the discussion.
Panelists agreed that the pandemic emergency generated a broad consensus among officials that keeping people stably housed and preventing homelessness was a critically important public health objective in controlling the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. To this end, governments instituted renter protections against evictions and funded emergency rental assistance programs to ensure that people remained housed amid economic uncertainty and a severe spike in unemployment. Those emergency policies, however, did not appear out of thin air. Phillips explained how decades of work by tenants, tenant organizers, and tenant advocates had laid the groundwork for these measures. In Phillips’ home city of Philadelphia, those efforts had already borne fruit with the passage of a right-to-counsel law and just cause eviction protections in the months just before the pandemic began. In Illinois, Akanni discussed how the state’s existing renter protections served during the pandemic as a starting point for furthering efforts to expand source of income protections and to seal tenant eviction records.
These efforts were fundamentally local in nature. Phillips emphasized the importance of practical expertise and innovations in crafting appropriate local solutions that can be shared and spread as best practices emerge. Knight described how the pandemic encouraged local practitioners to reach out to their counterparts in other jurisdictions, describing one experience in which her organization’s pandemic efforts in Los Angeles benefited from the earlier experience gained by resident coalitions in Seattle.
Moving Past the Pandemic
The end of several emergency programs has meant an increase in evictions from pandemic-era lows, said Knight, although, as Poethig pointed out, the remaining changes have helped keep the number of evictions below prepandemic levels. Enhancing renter protections and rental assistance remain vitally important, said Phillips, who cited research from 2021 that found that 36 percent of renters would have nowhere to go if they had to move because of an inability to pay rent. PolicyLink research further shows that more than 5 million U.S. households are behind on their rent; of those, 65 percent are households of color. Current funding levels are also inadequate relative to need; 30 percent of reviewed applications for housing assistance are denied, and groups marginalized by race, gender, and language access are disproportionately likely to be denied.
At the federal level, Poethig outlined a blueprint for a tenants’ bill of rights and described actions already taken in pursuit of an all-of-government approach to enhancing renter protections. For example, a combined effort by the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to gather data on unfair practices facing applicants and tenants of rental housing is serving as a starting point for developing more permanent policy solutions. The White House Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights, as described by Poethig, is meant to ensure safe, quality, accessible, and affordable housing for all and includes foundational principles, including the right to clear and fair leases and the right of tenants to organize.
The next challenge, Akanni articulated, will be to sustain policymakers’ focus on renter protection, eviction prevention, and housing issues in general. Although legislative attention may falter as the pandemic emergency recedes, Phillips credited the pandemic emergency with creating a lasting shift in public awareness and support for housing issues. In the longer term, renter protection efforts may require big-picture thinking that embraces socially owned and developed housing, which will help ensure lasting affordability.
The implications of broad tenant protections resonate throughout the housing landscape. Phillips argued that tenant protections not only benefit tenants but also the community at large; protected tenants, she said, help increase community stability and reduce the need for costly public support. Tenant protections can be thought of as analogous to protections already afforded to homeowners, who are granted powerful housing stability benefits by the federal government in the form of fixed interest rate mortgages that provide cost stability through the life of the loan. Knight echoed this sentiment, arguing for increasing public awareness that housing insecurity affects everyone, including people who are housing secure. Allowing those most directly affected by a lack of renter protections to lead the movement also supports the needed change.
As the pandemic recedes, panelists urged policymakers to sustain their commitment to robust efforts that reduce evictions, keep people housed, and support community vitality.