Because Americans continue to migrate to cities—especially on the coasts—housing costs are skyrocketing like never before. Those rising costs affect renters, landlords, and the city councils that must act to find a way to balance a renter’s right to affordable housing and a landlord’s right to earn what the market dictates.
East of the Mississippi River, city councils have enacted measures that would set aside funds to pay for lawyers facing no-cause evictions from landlords.
According to an August 2017 story in The Nation, councils in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City passed legal assistance-funds laws to protect renters who could have beat their evictions in court if they’d been able to pay for an attorney.
Meanwhile, 3,000 miles away in California, politicians are tackling California’s housing crisis on a state level. Vox reports that the state passed 15 housing bills that collectively could raise around $1 billion annually to subsidize affordable housing. (Seven of the 10 cities where housing demands are growing fastest are in The Golden state.)
And by the fall, the California Assembly could pass a law that takes direct aim at the heart of NIMBYism: SB 827 would allow developers to construct four- to eight-story buildings in all areas within a quarter-mile radius of a transit corridor. Many of those areas are in those seven cities plagued by the state’s housing shortage.
That approach has proved effective for the city of Portland. Forty years ago, city planners there prepared for the influx of growth that would, indeed, become zoning for residential lots for mixed-use residential as long as those developments were to be built along transit corridors. And just like California is trying to enact now, it passed ordinances that eased the pain of developers by limiting or eliminating altogether the number of on-site parking spots they were once required to build—the idea being, when you encourage developers to grow literally up, you’re likewise encouraging residents to take easily accessible public transit, which ultimately eases congestion on the streets of a rapidly growing town.
But even with that kind of foresight, municipal leaders in the City of Roses are waking up to a new slew of housing headaches, the remedies of which vary based on the symptoms.
A few years back, the city council became the first of its kind when it passed a law requiring Airbnb members to live at the homes they rent out for at least nine months out of the year. Not long after that, it passed a law requiring landlords provide at least 90 days before raising monthly rents by 10 percent or more.
In October of 2017, the Portland City Council passed a law requiring landlords to shell out between $2,900 and $4,500 for tenants they present with no-cause evictions, while carving out a loophole for landlords who own only one rental property. But now even that loophole is in jeopardy following some heated council meetings earlier this year where landlords and renters passionately made their cases.
After hearing that some landlords were skirting the “10 percent” law by raising rents on tenants they wanted to evict by 9.9 percent, the mayor of Portland is now considering rescinding his vote on the relocation payment loophole for landlords owning even just one property. And it’s even taking up the case to see if there’s a way to bring back low-income people, mainly people of color, to the neighborhoods that gentrification displaced them from.
The city of San Francisco also has renter relocation laws just like its smaller, but growing, neighbor to the north. Right now, landlords there have to shell out $5,300 to relocate a renter, even if it’s for cause and that number goes up with inflation every year. And the city’s rent ordinance states that if a renter was promised a great historic view and then some new development comes along and blocks it, you can file for a rent decrease. And you’re also entitled to any interest that accrues on your security deposit.
Lastly, Seattle City Council just passed a law that prohibits rental discrimination based on a renter’s criminal history. Because people of color are over incarcerated in America, those renters are disproportionately discriminated against during the background check process. The city did carve out a few exemptions—if the crimes occurred in the last two years and the landlord lives on the property and that property has just four or five units, then the law doesn’t apply—but if a landlord is caught violating the law, the penalties are steep.
If a potential renter with a criminal history feels they’ve been denied housing because of their criminal history, they can report it to the city’s civil rights office, which can in turn levy a whopping $11,000 fine for first-time offenders. A second violation in five years would cost a landlord in violation as much as $17,500, while a third violation in just seven years would cost them $55,000.
So what’s the takeaway? Housing laws in big cities will continue to be passed. If renters and landlords want to shape those laws, the best route is to keep up with pending legislation and show up to have their voices heard before votes are cast. Democracy’s often messy, but when it works best, all sides walk away feeling like they got at least some of what they wanted because they were there, when it counted most.