A Renter’s Bill Of Rights Should Attack Landlord Power

Dont Move Fight Back Rally

Renters’ rally in July in the Corcoran neighborhood. Image via IX FB page.

On a hot Monday evening in a bustling North Minneapolis park, Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia [Renters United for Justice] convened a community discussion around a ‘Renter’s Bill Of Rights’ for the city. “We have a rental supply problem in our city, we have a 2% rental vacancy rate, and most housing experts say 5 to 6 percent is a healthy market. We’ve heard and we know that when housing becomes scarcer, tenants are more vulnerable,” said Minneapolis City Council president Lisa Bender to open the meeting. Bender and fellow council member Jeremiah Ellison introduced a slate of ideas for what a possible Renter’s Bill of Rights might look like: a limit to how far landlords can ‘look back’ for an eviction filing, allowing tenants to pay for their own repairs and charge their landlord, making a landlord pay moving expenses if a tenant is displaced, legal services for low-income renters, and upping the ante on housing inspections in Minneapolis.

Bender asked if there were any questions before the group entered breakout discussions, and immediately a renter began asking about recourse against her landlord, who had intimidated, threatened, and defaced her property in an effort to get her to leave. She outlined how her home was falling apart and how unsafe she and her partner felt. Bender explained that problems like this were what the breakout discussions were for, quickly moving the agenda along.

From the breakouts, the policies discussed by tenants went far beyond the initial slate that CMs Ellison and Bender had proposed; rent control, strict regulation around how and when property owners can evict residents, public control and oversight of how background checks work, and municipal tracking of how and if landlords have repaired their property. That several of the councilmembers’ proposals, such as the ability for tenants to pay for their own repairs, were met with skepticism or disinterest was no surprise coming from organized renters who had gone on rent strikes against slumlords and organized a citywide coalition calling for radical change beyond the council consensus.

We’ve got to do something about these landlords if we’re going to build a city where everyone can live comfortably and without fear of destitution and squalor. The landlord-tenant relationship is ripe for long-overdue policy interventions that wrest power away from a group that extracts profit simply by ownership of a scarce good. Rent control, just-cause eviction requirements, universal legal representation in eviction court, a public registry of landlords with ‘report cards’ from past tenants, a renter’s council to perform audits & seizures of properties- all of these are steps towards what should ultimately be a collective exit from an exploitative status quo of how most people get a place to sleep.

As individuals, low-income, exploited renters have very little political capital. But the power of deep organizing- the kind Inquilinxs Unidxs is expert at- is the fact that getting enough people together and making concrete, material demands is a threat to politicians. My sense is that a slate of Minneapolis’ elected officials are eager to make a deal and start negotiating. Renters across the city would do well to take the council’s proposals with a sense of perspective- even the half-measures that CMs Ellison and Bender proposed would provoke a backlash and threats from the landlord class, as we’ve seen with rental licensing fees in Minneapolis. The prerogative of progressive elected officials is to thread the needle between not upsetting moneyed interests too much while also carving out something for the working class. Why should we renegotiate our own demands before we’re even at the table? The organizer’s goal is not to simply change the minds of officeholders- it’s to make the choice for them, whether they like it or not.

About Nic Raymond

Organizer living in Minneapolis.