Congress and local lawmakers rarely discuss or approve legislation that offers protections to tenants, despite more Americans residing in rentals.
As homeownership has been falling nationwide for nearly a decade, according to the latest Census data released last month, the number of renters has increased by 9 million during the same period – the largest 10-year gain on record. Thirty-six percent of Americans, or 1-in-3, now rent in privately-owned, Section 8 or subsidized housing.
A growing number of those renters are struggling to pay the skyrocketing rent prices, as outlined in Harvard’s latest “State of the Nation’s Housing” report. Researchers say the number of renters with severe burdens (paying more than 50 percent of income for housing) jumped by 2.1 million to a record 11.4 million – revealing the growing gap between market-rate costs and rent that millions of households can afford.
Locally, one-third of Nashville residents are renters and 37 percent of all households fall under “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
But as more people choose – or are forced by circumstances – to reside in rentals, there’s been few pieces of legislation on the state or federal level extending protections to tenants.
In the last two years, the 114th Congress passed only two pieces of legislation of its 329 enacted, regarding renters: one measure (The Housing Opportunity Through Modernization Act of 2016) lowered the amount of certain expenses, including medical and childcare, that low-income families can deduct when applying for Section 8 vouchers, thus reducing the number of eligible families. The other measure secured loan opportunities for renters in the disaster area of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
On the state level, Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill in April mandating that if domestic abuse is the underlying offense for which a renter’s tenancy is terminated, only the perpetrator may be evicted. It was the only law from the last legislative session that increased protections for Tennessee’s renters.
Since January, the U.S. Congress has filed 19 bills (at the time of this publication) regarding housing; only four of the measures, introduced by Democrats, would offer protections to or affect renters, with the remaining 15 pertaining to homeowners. The Landlord Accountability of 2017, introduced by Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., in part, offers protections to tenants holding a housing voucher for rental assistance under Section 8 of the United States Housing Act of 1937. The measure also sets guidelines for property owners. The Housing Accountability Act of 2017, introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., would provide standards for physical condition and management of housing receiving assistance payments through Section 8 vouchers. The Equal Opportunity for Residential Representation Act, introduced by Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., would require the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to establish a pilot program to create grants for organizations to provide legal assistance to low-income families regarding housing disputes. The Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act of 2017, introduced by Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., would permanently extend an expired bill that would provide protection to renters whose homes have been foreclosed upon.
No legislation extending protections to renters has been introduced thus far in the Tennessee General Assembly since lawmakers returned in January.
There’s “a lack of contemplation of renters’ rights in many states,” said Tristia Bauman, senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, based in Washington, D.C. On increasing protections for tenants, she said, “With the change in (presidential) administration and composition of Congress, we’re not likely to see expansion. Right now we’re trying to prevent losing some of the ground that has been gained.”
VARYING PROTECTIONS LEAVE RENTERS VULNERABLE
Bauman said renters’ rights, which differ widely in scope from state-to-state, “are varying degrees of protections. Where they do address (renters) can be problematic and leave many renters, particularly low-income renters, vulnerable to homelessness when the minimal rights available to them are violated.”
She added, “This is something often lost in the discourse of renters protection: those laws prevent in a very direct way the overburdening of a shelter system.”
Charity Williams, a tenant-landlord attorney and interim director of the Tennessee Fair Housing Council, explained tenants’ rights in Tennessee are guided two ways: The Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (known by “URLTA”) and common law. “Some (rules) are amazing for tenants, some hurt tenants,” she said.
States adoption of URLTA is optional, and Tennessee adopted the federal set of rules in 1975, three years after the measure was introduced. The state’s version offers a few additional protections beyond the original act.
URLTA only outlines specific rights and responsibilities for tenants and landlords in the state’s counties with populations over 75,000. Counties with populations below 75,000 are governed by common law.
Zach Oswald, an attorney with Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, explained that “protections for rural counties (in Tennessee) are few and far between compared to URLTA counties.” He said, “There’s a little bit of landlord-tenant law for them. Basically, it’s cases that have been up to the court of appeals or higher where law has been created that everybody generally accepts over time.”
THE CASE FOR JUST-CAUSE EVICTION
The Legal Aid Society offers legal representation to low-income residents in a wide scope of housing matters. In 2016, the organization received nearly 1,500 requests for rental housing help, and Oswald said the majority of his cases dealt with evictions.
“We prioritize people with subsidies because they have lower income. These people absolutely don’t have anywhere else to go if they get evicted,” he said.
Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond highlights the rising number of evictions in the U.S. in his 2016 bestseller, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Calling evictions one of the most urgent issues facing America today, Desmond points to the growing number of low-income renters who are vulnerable to falling behind on payments because the rent is such a large percentage of their income. His writing demonstrates that evictions have become devastatingly common, particularly among the poor and single mothers.
“When you ask people why they were evicted the big reason is nonpayment of rent. They can’t afford to keep a roof over their heads,” Desmond said in an interview with Slate.
And even keeping current on rent doesn’t necessarily protect tenants from evictions.
“Most cities don’t have a just-cause eviction law. Most allow no-cause evictions, as well as evictions for nonpayment,” Desmond said.
In Tennessee, where 1-in-3 residents are renters and 25 percent of households are low-income, eviction laws vary by county, depending if the tenant-landlord regulations are set by URLTA or common law. For counties covered by URLTA (including Davidson), a landlord must give a 30-day eviction notice to a tenant who has not paid the rent.
For counties not covered by the URLTA, landlords can give an eviction notice of just 14 days for nonpayment of rent.
“Do low-income or moderate-income families have the means to find something in 14 days? No,” Williams said. “To me that is is a problem.”
Nationally, Bauman and the NLCHP has called for more robust protections for renters unjustly evicted through no fault of their own due to foreclosure. In its 2012 report, “Eviction (Without) Notice: Renters and the Foreclosure Crisis,” the organization said millions of renters “are at risk of homelessness once their rental property is foreclosed upon."
“If you are subject to a sudden eviction and you’re poor, an eviction can be really hard to manage,” Bauman said.
“Imagine a family who is renting. They have no idea their landlord is defaulting on the mortgage. They get evicted. Two problems: the defaulting landlord may be nowhere to be found to return the security deposit.
“Even if they can pull together the cash, and find something in that 3 percent vacancy (rate), an eviction on their record could plague them. They will pay the price of an eviction even though that’s not a reflection of their ability to be a good renter or not.”
Bauman also noted that low-income renters often are unlikely to have legal representation if their eviction cases do end up in court. “Most landlords are represented in housing courts having a legal advocate, someone who knows the law, the judge and clerk. That can make a huge difference in the outcome of a case,” she said. “Even people who have good cases for why they shouldn’t be evicted, without a lawyer, they can’t make use of the laws on the books to protect them.”
FOR RENTERS, EDUCATION IS KEY
Tenant advocates agree that education is key when when it comes to tenants protecting themselves and knowing what they’re guaranteed under law.
“They need to read what’s inside that lease because what’s inside that lease is the law. For the most part, the language of that lease is what stands. Know what you’re signing onto,” Williams said.
Oswald echoed Williams' call for understanding the lease agreement. “In Tennessee, because the landlord-tenant law only covers so much, the lease is going to be the main document that controls the landlord-tenant relationships. Nine times out of 10, when a case comes to us, it’s important what the contract (lease) says, not what the law says.”
‘WE NEED TENANTS TO GET TOGETHER AND HAVE A VOICE’
Homes for All Nashville, a nonprofit, has been working for the past year to support local renters through community organization and education.
Through events like “Tenant Rights 101,” held earlier this year, the organization is helping tenants understand what they’re entitled to in privately-owned, Section 8 and subsidized housing. Oswald spoke at the free informational session, helping tenants understand leases, rights to repairs, evictions and more.
“If we can let people know information ahead of time that’s going to prevent them from being evicted, it makes sure there’s a stable housing environment here in Nashville, he said.
Homes for All is also helping tenants in town organize into what it calls “Tenant Unions” to advocate for protections and hold developers accountable.
Tangela Bratton, who has lived in Nashville her entire life, recently joined the Hillside tenant union after her housing complex was purchased by a developer. After experiencing homelessness, she was worried about having to move and finding a place that would accept her Section 8 voucher. Now, she’s been encouraged by the developer’s willingness to communicate with the union.
“I need to educate myself a little more, and by joining this group, I’ve realized that we do have rights,” she said. “I’m choosing to stand up and try to fight, do whatever I can to keep affordable housing (and) us here. I’m not giving up.
"We do have power. We do have voice and we can be heard."
Williams says that tenants organizing and advocating for themselves is key to eventually bringing a focus on tenants at the state and federal level.
“We have the Homeowners Association who can go and argue and advocate for landlords, but we don’t have it it for tenants, and that’s a problem. We need tenants to get together and have a voice. This is what we need and we’ve never had that.”