A National Tenants Bill of Rights Would Give Power to Renters

Corporate landlords and private equity investors are overtaking the US housing system. As renters face increasingly excessive rent, a new National Tenants Bill of Rights aims to provide them with basic rights and protections.

A new apartment complex being built in Alhamba, California, on September 6, 2023. (Frederic J. Brown / AFP via Getty Images)

I teach a law school clinic where my students and I represent tenants who face eviction and live in horrible housing conditions. Too often, we see tenants getting railroaded by the fast, cheap, and easy eviction process in US courts. In many states, they can be forced out of their homes for no reason and with just a few days’ notice. We see tenants plunged into homelessness after their price-gouging landlords hike rent by 30 percent and more. We see tenants complaining in vain when their heat and water are not working, when mold builds up, and when rodents scuttle through their bedrooms. Then they are evicted as retaliation for making those complaints.

These struggles are common among the nation’s 114 million renters. Meanwhile, seven million households are behind on their rent and the number of homeless people is reaching record highs.

A new effort called the National Tenants Bill of Rights aims to change all of that, articulating seven basic renters’ rights that ought to be enshrined in policy. Created by the Tenant Union Federation, the National Housing Law Project, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Bill of Rights confronts the enormous power imbalance between renters and their landlords. The purpose of the document is to lay out a single comprehensive policy agenda that lawmakers, advocacy groups, and tenants themselves can endorse and use as a movement resource.

The Bill of Rights guarantees stable rents and healthy, safe homes, and requires evictions to be for just cause only. It also prohibits discriminatory, expensive rental applications and protects tenants’ right to organize. Policies like these are necessary as our housing system grows increasingly unequal. “Corporate landlords and private equity investors have the rental market in a chokehold and have turned tenants’ homes into profit-making schemes,” said National Housing Law Project executive director Shamus Roller.

The National Tenants Bill of Rights echoes the demands of successful and ongoing state- and community-level campaigns for rent control, just-cause evictions, and enforceable requirements for decent housing conditions. The document’s authors hope it can be useful in those local campaigns, but they designed it to apply at the national level. It follows tenant unions’ demand that the Biden administration impose rent control and good-conditions requirements on the one-third of US rental units whose owners benefit from federally backed mortgages. “Tenants need federal protections, especially when rents are higher than they have ever been and landlords have more consolidated power than ever before,” said Tara Raghuveer, director of the Tenant Union Federation.

Raghuveer is referring to the increasingly dominant role that private equity and corporate landlords play in the nation’s rental market. These megalandlords own the majority of all US rental units, including 80 percent–plus of the properties with twenty-five or more units, all while gobbling up single-family homes too. That market dominance and the use of rent-setting algorithms that are under federal investigation for price-fixing sets the stage for shameless price-gouging. Bob Nicolls, CEO of one of America’s top corporate landlords, Monarch Investment and Management Group, gleefully told investors in the middle of the COVID pandemic that big rent hikes were coming. “We have an unprecedented opportunity . . . to really press rents,” Nicolls said. “Where are people going to go? They can’t go anywhere.”

Sure enough, rent costs have risen nearly 30 percent since early 2020. The Federal Reserve reports that one in every five renters fell behind on their rent at some point last year. Our clients’ experiences tell us many of those who managed to make their rent payments did so only after skipping prescriptions, utility payments, and meals. As the saying goes, the rent eats first.

It is no wonder that polls show a strong majority of respondents support the demands of the Bill of Rights, including rent limits. The Biden administration reads these polls, too, at least judging by a March 2024 Politico article reporting, “The Rent Is Too Damn High. And Joe Biden Knows It.” But Joe Biden’s response has been limited to tepid proposals like tax credits for first-time homebuyers, boosting housing inventory, and pushing local governments to allow more building density.

Biden did institute a very high rent cap on some tax credit housing and made a vague reference to rent caps in his debate with Donald Trump. But none of that will fix the immediate crisis. And Trump’s record is even worse. During his presidency, Trump tried to slash the already-skimpy subsidized housing budget. This time around, he is campaigning on a race-baiting message of opposing multifamily housing outside inner cities, claiming to “protect the suburban way of life.”

Tenants and their allies are demanding that the Biden administration use the new Bill of Rights as a blueprint for fast, meaningful reform. Doing so should be in the interest of the embattled Biden and his fellow Democrats. Potential voters, particularly in presidential election swing states, rank the high cost of living as their top priority, with housing second. With housing far and away the top cost in most households, those financial worries are usually one and the same.

That is particularly true for young people and people of color, who are disproportionately renters. Not coincidentally, they are also the same demographics that are not as supportive of Biden as they were in 2020. These renters are locked out of the billions in government subsidies lavished on their corporate landlords in the form of tax deductions, write-offs, and exemptions. And unlike homeowners, they don’t enjoy fixed monthly costs without price hikes, security of tenure without no-cause eviction, and tax-free increases in the equity of their homes.

Federal law and practice created those benefits for landlords and protections for homeowners. Renters deserve at least the same. The National Tenants Bill of Rights will not reverse these injustices completely, but it is a much-needed start.