Landlord-tenant relationships, particularly in the context of low-income tenants, often represent an unequal balance of power. Landlords, when left to their own devices without much law or regulation governing their operations, can exploit their position of authority and financial leverage to the detriment of vulnerable tenants. This exploitation can manifest in various ways, including exorbitant rent increases, inadequate maintenance and repairs, discriminatory practices, and unjust evictions. “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond shines a necessary spotlight on the harrowing realities of being a renter in America, revealing the profound challenges and injustices that many vulnerable individuals and families face in their struggle for stable housing. Low-income tenants often lack the financial resources and legal knowledge to challenge potential abuses from landlords effectively.
The absence or laxity of regulations or tenant protections can lead to an environment were landlords prioritize profit over well-being. Marginalized communities are especially susceptible to these exploitative practices, making it essential for the government to establish and enforce laws that safeguard tenant rights.
Several legislators across the South brought forth legislative measures seeking to shift the balance in the landlord-tenant relationship, as detailed below.
- Florida House Bill 1407 (failed) – This bill sought to create a Department of Housing & Tenant Rights in Florida with a purpose of formulating and implementing policies and strategies designed to combat affordable housing and homelessness issues in the state, assist with housing and urban development, and perpetuate amicable landlord-tenant relationships.
- Why it’s important: Having a governmental body focus on affordable housing and landlord-tenant laws is essential to address the complex challenges in housing markets and ultimately promotes housing stability and community well-being.
- Texas SB 202 (failed) – This bill would have prohibited an increase in rent before the end of a lease term of a tenant residing in a development supported with low income housing tax credits.
- Why it’s important: Though there are restrictions on the maximum amount of rent that an owner can charge a tenant under the federal low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) laws, those rules do not limit the amount or frequency of rent increases, as long as the total rent charged does not exceed the LIHTC maximum rent allowed. Prohibiting rent increases before the end of a lease term for residents in LIHTC development would provide a measure of financial stability and security for vulnerable households.
- South Carolina House Bill 3844 (failed) – This bill would have created “The Eviction Right to Counsel Program” under the South Carolina Housing Authority, establishing a statewide uniform eviction process and providing effective assistance of counsel to tenants in eviction court proceedings
- Why it’s important: Despite a wealth of data demonstrating the effectiveness of providing a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction, there are only 4 states that currently have such programs in place – none of which are in the South. These programs, however, level the playing field and provide vulnerable tenants with a fighting chance in eviction proceedings. Studies have shown that when tenants have legal representation, they are more likely to avoid eviction, negotiate better settlements, and remain in their homes.
Many have a negative connotation that comes to mind when they hear the term “affordable housing”. With the affordability crisis that this nation continues to experience, though, it is critical not only to change this perception so that affordable housing is considered instead as “workforce housing,” but to also invest in the development of additional workforce housing in the Southern region in order to support those essential to our ability to thrive as a community.
There are significant benefits in the ability of a region’s workforce to live near their jobs. When workers can afford housing near their workplaces, they experience reduced commuter costs and shorter commutes, saving time, money, and the environment, in many instances. This not only contributes to a better quality of life but also translates to improved employee retention and recruitment. Additionally, employers often find it easier to recruit skilled workers when there is affordable housing nearby, ensuring those businesses have access to a qualified and stable workforce.
Several legislators across the South brought forth legislative measures seeking to address workforce housing and spur additional development in this much-needed resource, as detailed below.
- Florida Senate Bill 88 (failed) – This bill sought to create a Task Force on Workforce Housing for Teachers and Expansion of Schools, citing the recent rapid increases in housing prices far outpacing the income of teachers in Florida.
- Why it’s important: Retention of teachers is a nationwide problem. The availability of affordable workforce housing for teachers is essential to the resolution of this retention problem, as it enables teachers to live near their schools, reducing commute times and allowing for more dedicated time to focus on students and their educational needs. Access to affordable housing not only supports teacher well-being but also enhances the quality and consistency of the education being provided to our children.
- Texas Senate Bill 2528 (failed) – This bill would have created a workforce housing capital investment fund program to fund the development of single-family housing developments primarily for households that earn between 30 and 80 percent of the area median income.
- Why it’s important: The creation of an investment fund program such as the one proposed by this bill represents innovation in addressing housing affordability challenges. By pooling resources from various public and private stakeholders, funding can be leveraged more efficiently, spurring development and providing critical support for low- and moderate-income individuals and families.
The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing and housing-related transactions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, family status, and/or national origin. While these protected classes are covered under the federal Fair Housing Act, states and municipalities can expand their definitions of protected classes by including additional characteristics such as source of income, gender identity, and immigration status, ensuring that housing rights are extended to a broader and more diverse range of individuals and families.
Below are examples of efforts in the 2023 legislative sessions to broaden those protections and provide an additional measure of housing security for those who would be covered under these additional protected classes.
- Texas House Bill 1193 (enacted) – Prohibits housing discrimination by a property owners’ association against a residential tenant based on the tenant’s method of payment, including Housing Choice Vouchers (formerly known as Section 8) or any other federal or state housing assistance, including rental vouchers, rental assistance, or rental subsidies from nongovernmental organizations.
- Why it’s important: This law will not allow a property owner’s association to include provisions in their covenants that prohibit an owner from renting a dwelling to anyone based on the person’s method of payment. Such a prohibition is known as source of income discrimination. In this type of discrimination, a landlord or housing provider refuses to rent to potential tenants because they receive income from these governmental sources. Source of income discrimination disproportionately affects low-income individuals and families who rely on these sources of income to secure their housing.
- Georgia House Bill 432 (failed) – This bill sought to expand provisions of the C.R.O.W.N. Act to the housing realm by prohibiting discrimination in housing based on race, color, or national origin.
- Why it’s important: Discrimination based on hair type targets individuals based upon their inherent characteristics or cultural expressions, penalizing them for their natural hair texture or protective styles commonly associated with a specific racial or ethnic group. By prohibiting such discrimination, we uphold the principles of fairness, equal opportunity, and human dignity, ensuring that everyone has a chance to secure housing regardless of their hair type or texture.
Housing varies by county, state, and municipality, and the needs for housing can change very rapidly or with time. In many places, there is a growing recognition of the importance of addressing housing inequities, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which highlighted the vulnerabilities faced by many renters and homeowners. Legislative efforts often focus on a range of issues, including affordable housing development, eviction protections, tenant rights, and anti-discrimination measures. The outlook for 2024 will depend on the political climate in these Southern legislatures, priorities of lawmakers, and the degree of public awareness and advocacy for housing equity. EPU will remain committed to informing our partners and stakeholders about the local and regional legislative efforts that we’re engaged with related to housing equity in the 2024 legislative sessions.