In response to the pressing need to protect renters and ensure rental affordability, the Biden-Harris Administration unveiled the Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights earlier this year. Although not legally binding, this comprehensive 19-page document outlines five critical principles aimed at safeguarding tenants’ rights and promoting a fair and well-functioning real estate market. It doesn’t “supersede, modify, or direct an interpretation of any existing Federal, state, or local statute, regulation, or policy.”
As landlords, it is crucial to be aware of these principles, especially as new legislation is pitched around the country. However, it’s equally important not to adopt an adversarial mindset toward your tenants, as protecting them from unscrupulous landlords and corporate investors is vital for a healthy rental housing market.
The Current State of Renters’ Protections
Currently, there are no comprehensive federal laws solely dedicated to protecting renters. Instead, renters rely on an assortment of protections offered by various laws, such as the Fair Housing Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, Violence Against Women Act, and Fair Credit Reporting Act. The Blueprint aims to address these gaps and create a more robust framework for renters’ rights.
The Five Critical Principles of the Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights
The Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights includes the following principles:
- Access to Safe, Quality, Accessible, and Affordable Housing
The first principle emphasizes that housing costs should not exceed 30% of a household’s income. With rent prices soaring, affordable housing is becoming increasingly scarce. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, rents have increased nearly 26% nationwide. High out-of-pocket rent costs have been linked to tenants postponing medical services and suffering negative health outcomes, especially in households that shoulder the highest cost burdens.
In addition, this principle states that rental housing owners should:
- Ensure their properties meet habitability standards
- Provide amenities that are promised in the lease
- Keep the premises well-maintained
- Implement minimally burdensome, fair, and transparent tenant screening practices
- Implement reasonable rent increases that are fair and transparent
The goal is to create a rental market where housing costs are affordable and tenants are provided with safe and well-maintained living conditions.
- Clear and Fair Leases
The second principle focuses on transparent and fair leases, ensuring that renters fully understand their rental terms, rights, and responsibilities. The goal is to eliminate:
- Mandatory arbitration clauses
- Unauthorized terms, hidden fees
- False representations
- Other unfair or deceptive practices in lease agreements
Again, transparency is key, as is the importance of writing leases in clear, easy-to-understand language. While most landlords already present fair leases, this principle emphasizes the importance of making the single largest expense in renters’ lives easy to comprehend, along with their corresponding responsibilities.
The white paper highlights a concerning trend of unenforceable lease terms, such as disclaimers of liability of negligence, found in some leases due to landlords sharing forms that may not be valid in their state or city. The goal is to eliminate such practices and create leases that renters can easily understand and adhere to. By promoting transparency, renters can enter into more equitable agreements, which fosters a healthier relationship between landlords and tenants.
- Education, Enforcement, and Enhancement of Rights
The third principle emphasizes the importance of ensuring renters are aware of their legal rights and protecting them from unlawful discrimination and exclusion based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), disability, familial status, and national origin. This includes enforcing the rights and protections provided under the Fair Housing Act and other federal, state, and local fair housing laws.
Discrimination and exclusion have long influenced the housing market, and although the Fair Housing Act is significant, there remains a need to strengthen existing laws and enforcement efforts and introduce new laws to address fair housing needs. Millions of renters face discrimination annually, but many cases go unreported, so it’s crucial to enhance measures to identify and combat discrimination.
With the introduction of algorithms in the screening process, identifying discrimination has become more complex. To address this issue, housing providers should share adverse action notices with applicants who are denied housing due to screening results. This transparency allows tenants to correct errors or address other factors affecting their access to housing in the future.
- The Right to Organize
The fourth principle recognizes tenants’ right to organize as an essential aspect of American democracy. However, retaliation from housing providers and property managers when tenants attempt to organize remains a concern. This retaliation may include prohibiting the use of public spaces, threatening eviction, or even filing eviction notices against tenants involved in organizing activities.
In addition to protecting the right to protest, the principle also emphasizes the importance of tenant-landlord engagement. Tenants should have access to information about their landlords and ways to contact them for essential discussions about the property. This engagement is crucial for fostering a healthy and productive landlord-tenant relationship.
- Eviction Prevention, Diversion, and Relief
The fifth principle recognizes the negative impact of evictions on everyone involved and aims to provide renters with resources to avoid eviction, ensure fair legal processes, and prevent housing instability. The goal is to protect tenants from unjust evictions by implementing just- or good-cause eviction protections, which require a justified reason for eviction, and ensuring tenants receive adequate notice if their lease is not being renewed.
The Blueprint also suggests alternatives to the eviction system, such as eviction diversion and grievance procedures like negotiation, mediation, or arbitration. These processes can lead to acceptable resolutions, including:
- A grace period for late rent
- The opportunity to cure lease violations (such as paying rent or addressing issues)
- Access to standardized dispute resolution before litigation
- Meaningful participation in pre-eviction diversion programs
By providing tenants with avenues to prevent evictions and maintain housing stability, the eviction process will be fair and equitable for all parties involved.
While the Blueprint is not legally binding, several actions have already been set in motion to address these principles. These include housing supply action plans, expanded Housing Choice Voucher programs, and the development of inspection protocols to ensure housing quality. In addition, organizations like HUD, the DOJ, and the CFPB are working to strengthen enforcement and offer assistance to tenants facing discrimination or eviction.
Safeguarding Renters & Ensuring Rental Affordability
The Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights is a significant stride towards safeguarding renters and ensuring rental affordability. By embracing and advocating for these principles, landlords can play a pivotal role in fostering a healthier housing market that benefits both tenants and property owners.
To stay informed about possible changes in their area, landlords are encouraged to participate in local legislative events and engage in the Resident-Centered Housing Challenge. This active involvement will enable them to stay up-to-date and make their voices heard in shaping fair and transparent rental policies.
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