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.

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15 Responses to A Renter’s Bill Of Rights Should Attack Landlord Power

  1. Anon August 29, 2018 at 10:01 am #

    Nearly all of the non-economic problems identified in this article are examples of landlords breaking the law. Bad landlords break the current laws, so they will break the new laws too. Costly regulation incentivizes the marginally good landlord to become a bad landlord. We need enforcement of existing laws, not more laws.

    I think we should try universal representation in housing court as you suggest. Perhaps only ‘near-universal’; because it is in everyone’s interest not to increase the cost of evicting a bad tenant. City enforcement needs to grow a backbone and force the bad landlords out of business. We know who the big offenders are, so why are they still in business? Spend more city money to fund organizations like VLN, Homeline and most importantly Minnesota Legal Aid who can inflict legal pain with surgical precision while setting court precedents that pave the way for future plaintiffs.

    Allowing tenants to repair-and-deduct is in at odds with safe housing stock. Do you want to live in an apartment building full of amateur repairs? We already have a legal mechanism to force landlords to make repairs; tenants can pay their rent into court until the repairs are made. Tenants who deduct-and-repair will end up in court anyway after their crooked landlords question the quality or necessity of the repair.

    The idea of a ‘renter’s council’ that is empowered to seize private property is frightening. If I saw that idea in the legislative pipeline, I’d sell my units and exit the business, and then there would be one less good landlord, and fewer units of affordable housing. But rent-control advocates don’t believe in supply-and-demand, so there is no consequence to chasing good landlords out of business right?

    Rent control advocates are like climate change deniers; fueled by ideology, they quixotically persist in the face of overwhelming evidence and the consensus of experts.

    On another note, the ‘landlord class’ was not unified in the resistance to the new tier structure. I was at the hearing. Many people, (like me) came because they were concerned by the proposal: specifically, the lack of detail and the atypically short notice, and the concern that it will regressively increase rents. Yes, there were a lot of noisy gripers, but many attendees, (including me) left understanding the city’s motivation and found the new paradigm reasonable. Nobody lines up at a microphone to say, “I get it now, thanks for the explanation”.

    I love the idea of landlord report cards. It reduces information asymmetry. It adds a huge economic incentive to be a good landlord. If implemented fairly, this would be fantastic.

    More housing, more enforcement.

  2. Dan Choma August 29, 2018 at 1:35 pm #

    With all due respect, the legal mechanisms we have are vastly in favor of the landlords. I recently sued my former landlord and in order to get our security deposit back which the man kept for no reason. In order to receive it, it took a half a year, about 80-120 hours of my time researching, writing, filing motions in small claims, calling the city (all of whom were unaware of the current zoning laws or small claims court in general). I am not wealthy and the man I sued owns many properties and is quite wealthy.

    He responded with open threats on my partner, he responded by harassing my partner and her family on 10 documented occasions, he responded by sending letters that put him in written contempt of court.

    He brought his brother to court with him and when we read him the law, he openly laughed. He told the judge that he didn’t like how my partner kept house when he came into our apartment.

    Eventually we were able to receive was we were legally due after a half a year of protracted, stressful, damaging attacks to our psyche and sense of safety. After all, this man knew where we lived.

    I understand there are good landlords and I hope you are one of them.

    But to defend the landlord class when what I experienced is extremely commonplace is in poor taste.

    Tenants have experienced abuse at the hand of landlords in Minneapolis. This abuse needs to stop. The problem is not helped by good landlords telling the abused that they aren’t one of the bad ones.

    The best thing a good landlord can do is continue to be a good landlord. Let those who have been and continue to be abused organize and exercise political power against their abusers.

    • anon August 29, 2018 at 2:18 pm #

      Dan,

      I’m sorry to hear about all the trouble you had. It sounds like a miserable experience. The court system rarely offers anybody complete satisfaction or compensation, (except for the lawyers of course). Still, it sounds like you were eventually granted the relief you requested. Landlords who evict bad tenants often find themselves in a similar situation: The wheels of justice grind slowly as the landlord sees her unit-damaged by a non-paying tenant, often while enduring verbal abuse and false accusations. If you spend time in housing court, you’ll see no shortage of bad behavior from landlords and tenants. It is unfair to generalize either group. There is no ‘landlord class’, and there is no tenant class. I’ve met many people who are both simultaneously. All costs, including costs due to regulation, are eventually paid for by in the form of increased housing costs and/or decreased supply. The adversarial mindset is counter-productive; what is bad for the landlord is bad for the tenant, and vice versa. Housing is a partnership: renters should receive safe housing and the landlord should receive revenue commensurate with the labor, risk, and capital she commits.

      • Dan Choma August 29, 2018 at 4:29 pm #

        Thank you for your empathy, Anon.

        I don’t have any intention to be adversarial, and I agree with you that renters should have mandatory representation.

        The reason WHY renters should have this is that there is a deep and demonstrable chasm between renters having access to representation and landlords having access to representation.

        https://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/30/opinion/tipping-the-scales-in-housing-court.html

        This NYTimes piece says that 90% of renters rep themselves while 90% of landlords have a lawyer.

        Because of this, I’m going to respectfully push back on your claim that their are bad actors on “both sides.” This statement implies that the sides have equal access to justice, which is demonstrably untrue. Although I know this is likely not your intention, it comes across as Mary Antoinette saying “Let them eat cake” and frankly we ain’t got no cake.

        You yourself even speak to this disparity in your own discourse when you say “renters should receive safe housing and the landlord should receive revenue commensurate with the labor, risk, and capital she commits.”

        All you offer renters is to not be homeless whereas a landlord is given a litany compensation for ownership.

        The truth is it is risky to rent. We didn’t know our landlord would be unethical, but we assumed that risk as we had no choice because we were poor. We put labor into improving the apartment and the landlord received the benefit of that improvement as a benefit to their property. We were not compensated. And our capital disparity was quite frank: any extra money I made went to my landlord because he inherited property that he was able to rent. The landlord kept that capital and used the excess capital as leverage against us by wasting our time and energy in attempting to unlawfully keep more capital.

        The disparity is real, and it does a disservice to the discussion to request that people pretend the disparity does not exist as a precondition to civic discourse. This is unfair.

        As a final note, it’s important to remember that many of these disputes happen in small claims court, where lawyers are optional. It gives capital rich landlords a distinct advantage.

        Classes do exist, and landlords very demonstrably have better allowances in law and capital than renters.

        As a final note, I am not a lawyer and I can only comment on my personal experience and the research I have done in pursuit of protecting my family. Please do not take my statements as an attack or advice as I am not in a position to atack you or give you legal advice.

        But perhaps it is also unfair to describe lawyers as beneficiaries of the court. I know Grisham writes a lot of books about crooked lawyers, but my experience as a poor person seeking legal advice from lawyers was generally that lawyers operate with a brusk demeaneor yet high ethical standards. This makes sense, as it takes a ton of schooling to be a lawyer, certainly more than it takes to be a landlord.

        All that said, I think we both agree that mandatory representation in housing court would be a great step towards equity in housing.

    • Janne August 30, 2018 at 12:35 pm #

      Dan, I’m sorry you had to navigate that horrible situation, and I’m happy to hear it eventually was resolved in your favor. You should never have been asked to go without the return of your deposit for so long, nor been required to jump through such hoops to get it returned. It’s a perfect example of how the system favors the party with greater power, the landlord.

      As someone who aspires to be a “good landlord,” I do my best to maintain that. There’s more I can and should do, and I invite others who self-identify as “a good landlord” to join me.

      I think it’s also my responsibility to:

      -acknowledge that there is a real disparity in power between landlords and tenants,
      -acknowledge that there are bad landlords, and that tenants are not adequately protected by our laws and enforcement of those laws,
      -speak up for policy and ordinance changes that will protect those who have less power than I do. (To my fellow “good landlords,” I ask why you are concerned about these changes. Realistically, they will also have limited impact on how I manage my home because even those changes only require minimum standards I already aim to exceed. Is it different for you?)

      I’m taking it one step further, aiming to undermine the power our non-functioning housing “market” has bestowed upon me. Our city’s and region’s widespread apartment ban (baked into our zoning code) favors me. It makes it nearly impossible to compete with me. Even though the number of people who want to rent is growing dramatically, it’s impossible to build enough of the kinds of places they want live. The result is an incredibly tight rental market which hands landlords even more power.

      Turnover is a BIG cost for landlords, and we generally want to deal with that less than more. We also want to be sure we can find new tenants with someone does choose to leave. Most of the time, landlords know that if they don’t act responsibly towards their tenants, they’ll struggle to find new tenants. That’s a big motivation to be responsive to maintenance requests, to return deposits in a fair and timely way, and to treat tenants with dignity.

      I want to be clear that moving is never easy and it shouldn’t be a necessary threat to have a landlord perform basic maintenance. That said, it is an important last-ditch option. Today, that last-ditch threat is nearly non-existent because there are next to no other apartments available, and the shortage is especially acute for affordable apartments. Building a reputation as a reliable landlord is unnecessary because there simply aren’t enough homes to go around.

      I think it’s bad for my neighbors, for my community’s kids, and my community when the landlord/tenant power is so out of balance. That’s why I’m actively advocating to build more public housing, more subsidized homes, more missing middle homes in fourplexes and 12-unit buildings, and generally enough homes for everyone in our community. Until we have enough homes to go around, we’ll struggle to build enough tenant power to counterbalance landlords’ power.

  3. Cobo R August 29, 2018 at 1:44 pm #

    Current laws and regulations seem strong enough to me, maybe they should just be enforced better so we punish those who break the law instead of those who follow it.

    We already have some of the most stringent codes and laws in the country and some of the strongest renter protection laws. Making more isn’t going to create more housing, it will just slow down construction and make housing even more expensive.

    I was toying around with the idea of pooling some money from friends and family buying a distressed house or two or small apartment building in minneapolis. I wanted to fix them up, and rent them out for a fair price.. But honestly It just doesn’t seem worth the effort, the headaches, the legal hassle,or the risk of getting a bad renter (which seems almost 50/50) just to eek out a meager profit that can quickly turn into a loss at the drop of a hat.

    There needs to be incentives for people to create / build rental housing.. otherwise no one will do it.

    • Andrew Evans September 4, 2018 at 11:18 am #

      Now and then I float the idea by my partner about getting a rental property in North Mpls, for around the $100k to $150k range. It’s shot down each time, and I should really know better anyway. To us, it really doesn’t make sense to pull a loan, and make maybe $5-8k a year profit, if everything goes well. Granted this changes if we could outright afford a property, but we can’t at this point. If a person can buy it outright the return isn’t too bad.

      Which brings up the other problem. What’s the end game with the investment? It may not be worth it if we’re constantly hampered with rent control limits, and if we weren’t able to reasonably sell the property after a rental contract ends. Plus, if rent was controlled then there wouldn’t be much of a incentive to improve the property past what is needed to meet minimums for a rental permit/license. Going on the above post, there seem to be way more hoops to jump through than worth it for the yearly return

      So what it does is it leaves out people like ourselves, who would be the neighbor next door landlord type, and leaves the market up to those with money or corporations, who can afford to buy properties outright.

      Plus I should know better anyway after seeing a friend post about being in housing court a handful of times a month. They help run, own, or manage a decent sized rental company.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller September 4, 2018 at 11:47 am #

        Just to be a tad finance pedantic here, with financing, $5K return on $20K invested = 25% annual return.

        $8K (assuming avoided interest expense) return on $100K invested = 8% annual return.

        Leverage is a powerful thing.

        • Andrew Evans September 4, 2018 at 12:20 pm #

          Yes, if we could buy a property straight out then it would be great, and the income could cover any risk we would assume.

          Right now, the around $5k a year just isn’t enough for us to take the risk, even if we only have $20k up front. Not sure where the tipping point is, but I’d think it would be around the $10k mark. Enough to be serious, and enough to start to cover any unexpected expenses that could come up.

          My partner and I aren’t married, and the house only in one of our names. So the real discussion wasn’t really about rentals, but for them to buy a house as a homestead, and flip it. However, we weren’t in a position to do that a handful of years back when it would have been cheaper, and I found a car hobby, and they found yoga, so we aren’t in a great place to carry another mortgage without giving something up.

          I guess it comes down to we’re just not landlord people, although it’s worth the discussion now and then.

          The way to do it would be to snag a duplex, they pop up from time to time around $250k here in North. Let’s just say ballpark $1000 a month and $24000 a year, that wouldn’t be too bad. However we don’t have the cash on hand for that down payment, and again, we’re not housing people.

  4. Melody Leiber August 29, 2018 at 2:26 pm #

    I live in st. petersburg florida…I am going through the same thing with landlords and section 8 housing.It sucks!!!!Tenants have no rights!!!! I should of never came to florida.They took away my daughters disability,noe,we risk becoming homeless because of the greedy money hungery landlords and housing doesnt do anything to help. I agreed to pay thr rental increase but housing wont let me. Its all their fault!!!!

  5. Linzell Smith August 29, 2018 at 2:26 pm #

    Hi im going through this my old landlord had me move for no reason it has been nothing but Hard ache and pain now me and my daughter is homeless for no reason and she took all my deposit and its not fair please can someone help me

    • anon August 29, 2018 at 2:29 pm #

      If you are in the twin cities then contact homeline https://homelinemn.org/
      866-866-3546

      From their website:
      HOME Line provides free and low-cost legal, organizing, education, and advocacy services so that tenants throughout Minnesota can solve their own rental housing problems.

  6. Dan Choma August 30, 2018 at 9:20 am #

    http://mylegalaid.org/

    This org is a great resource for low income folks that need representation.

  7. Bruce Brunner
    Bruce Brunner August 31, 2018 at 9:34 pm #

    This sounds like more of an ideological argument about housing ownership and diminished opportunities for people have less than a discussion of what is fair for renters. How about putting pressure on the city to just enforce the current regulations. Why does it take years to take on slumlords who are know offenders?

  8. Andy E September 8, 2018 at 5:46 pm #

    Before pushing for new laws and regulations, it may prove more effective in the long run to instead pressure the city to increase the budget and number of employees enforcing existing Landlord/Tenant laws. The really bad landlords are more likely than not already in violation of multiple statutes, and just enforcing what is already on the book may go a long way. This has an additional benefit of creating a new culture in the city that landlord/tenant laws will be enforced, meaning any future proposals will be seen as potential laws that landlords will not be able to get around (causing most intelligent ones to act in a manner which would preempt the proposals in the first place).

    The one change that would be nice to see would be providing counsel to a tenant facing eviction. This would be best if done at the State level, with a special process created (similar to what is in place for CHIPs cases – children in need of protection due to the actions of the parents). There could be mandatory timelines a d procedures that must be met. Some things that could be required would be:
    (1) Requiring the landlord to file an eviction petition (detailing why an eviction is warranted) and a court finding probable cause before an eviction can begin;
    (2) If probable cause is found (and the judge would have a deadline to render a decision), the tenant can request an attorney be appointed to represent them (under the same income guidelines as public defenders and CHIPs appointed attorneys);
    (3) The tenant has the right to challenge any allegation made by the landlord, as well as to present evidence that the landlord is acting in an illegal manner/forcing them out and cross-examine the landlord or the building manager; and
    (4) The court has 15 days (like in CHIPs cases) to render a decision as to whether eviction is warranted. If warranted, the tenant has “x” days (whatever political compromise is worked out) to vacate before the sheriff will forcibly make the eviction.

    From the date the petition for eviction is filed, then, a final ruling could be made within 30-45 days with the tenant provided legal counsel. Short, quick process that protects the tenant from being railroaded or denied their rights while still allowing a landlord a somewhat quick way to evict a tenant who deserves it. Such a process, if correctly made, would be something that both good landlords and good tenants would support as it would give each side legal protections.

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