Protecting Tenants Beyond Pandemics
Cities and states are blocking evictions during the coronavirus. And Senators Elizabeth Warren and Jeff Merkley have called for a national moratorium on evictions during the pandemic.
Such concern is heartening.
But it shouldn’t take a pandemic to protect tenants from losing their homes for no cause.
The premise of these eviction moratoriums is that tenants should not lose their homes because of circumstances beyond their control. Yet when the pandemic ends most tenants in the United States can still be forced out of their homes for no reason.
No reason at all.
Just as the pandemic exposes the folly of American workers lacking paid sick leave, it also shows that tenants should not lose their homes solely due to their landlord’s whim. Evictions without cause are the product of a very different time, one when available housing was plentiful. Today, such evictions undermine family and neighborhood stability, children’s health, and tenants’ willingness to assert their legal rights to habitable housing. The chief problem is state laws passed decades ago that ban high rent cities from enacting just cause protections.
State Preemption of Just Cause
In Generation Priced Out I urged cities to enact just cause eviction laws as a moral imperative. It’s also in the best interest of cities. My experience in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood showed me how tenants are far more willing to lead neighborhood improvement efforts if they do not have to fear that progress will cause their displacement.
Many California cities, along with both California and Oregon, subsequently have passed just cause laws. Yet the majority of states still ban such protections. This prevents high housing cost cities like Boston, Cambridge, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis and Seattle from preventing no-fault evictions.
Landlord groups typically claim just cause eviction laws are unnecessary. They say landlords have no reason to displace good tenants. Yet landlords have spent tens of millions of dollars opposing just cause laws in legislatures and at the ballot.
Some landlords argue that just cause eviction laws primarily extend the legal process for “bad” tenants. But many landlords have a false sense of how long the eviction process takes without just cause. For example, in Massachusetts, which bars local just cause eviction and rent control laws, a standard nonpayment of rent eviction takes 84 days. An eviction for no cause could take longer. California requires 60 day eviction notices for longterm tenants; evicting for no cause could then take four to five months.
So evictions without cause do not occur overnight. Claims that it takes years to evict a drug dealer for nuisance are either false or reflect failures by the landlord or their attorney.
Extreme Social/Health Impact
All evictions cause social dislocation and threaten the health and education of children. But until the United States adopts a massive affordable housing program, nonpayment of rent evictions in normal times will continue.
The “logic” of a property owner being able to force someone to move who has regularly paid rent and complied with all terms of tenancy is quite different. It is a throwback to the days when tenants were serfs. The days when class divisions were expressed in extremely one-sided landlord-tenant laws.
Tenants are a majority or substantial minority in the most desirable neighborhoods in today’s high-cost cities. They do the tree plantings, neighborhood clean-ups and staff local street fairs. They also support local businesses. The idea that a longterm resident and community leader can lose all this because the landlord decided they want someone new—or, as often the case, because the tenant asked for repairs to be made once too often–should not be acceptable in today’s United States.
I know how emergencies raise broader social concerns that never get implemented once the crisis abates. But the crisis does open the doors to broader policy options. The pandemic should at least get state legislatures to at least allow cities to enact just cause eviction laws. It would be great if states followed Oregon and California and passed statewide just cause, but that requires changing the composition of the legislatures in Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Washington in particular. Winning back city power over rent control and just cause eviction laws is a good start.
To be most effective, just cause laws need to be coupled with rent control protections, as Oregon, California and many cities currently do. Otherwise, tenants can be evicted via a large rent hike. But getting just cause implemented is a good start; evictions via excessive rent hikes can then build political momentum for rent control laws.
Progress in expanding just cause has been growing. Let’s hope response to the pandemic creates new victories this year.Filed under: National Politics