Tenants’ Rights and Environmental Justice: In Pursuit of the Same Goal

Saint Paul Skyline

Photo by John Prassas https://www.flickr.com/photos/25845474@N08 CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication

My longtime home and beloved Silver City is beginning to change. Though St. Paul has often been maligned as “old-timey” by some of the more unsavory residents across the river in Minneapolis, I am proud to have seen St. Paul take tangible steps into the future by passage of the massively important Climate Action & Resilience Plan. I’m particularly proud of the equity measures put into the plan to ensure that folks who have little money aren’t left behind as the city prepares for a future in which we experience radical changes to our climate.

And now, St. Paul is beginning to address the issue of tenants rights. At the end of May, the City Council is set to vote on a set of principles designed to protect those who rent. Included in this proposed ordinance are the following:

  • Requirements that landlords give notice of just cause when starting evictions,
  • Reform of screening criteria so that an old misdemeanor like driving without a license as a juvenile can’t make a person homeless,
  • Security deposit caps,
  • Advance notice of sale, and
  • A requirement that the city distribute copies of tenants’ rights and responsibilities.

Similar ordinances have passed in Seattle and elsewhere, and California is one state that has implemented these principles into its state laws. Ordinances at the municipal level — like the S.A.F.E. Housing Tenant Protections Ordinance that the City of St. Paul is considering — represent a moral statement that residents are to be treated humanely, regardless of economic class.

That being said, to describe a tenants’ bill of rights as merely an ordinance scripted for moral reasons would miss some of the long-term global benefits that make this ordinance a necessary element of our city’s future. Although it is not immediately apparent, protecting renters creates a city that can be more environmentally sustainable. Regardless of whether you rent or own, making policy that protects our environment ensures that all of us can live in a future where our current actions will not guarantee our future extinction.

Making a just and fair world where renters are treated humanely is essential to building a green society that helps mitigate climate change.

Here are three reasons why:

  1. A lot of academics much smarter than me have addressed the concept of “climate refugees.” Simply put, as the globe heats up, it makes the areas around the equator too hot for human habitation. This forces those who formerly lived around the equator to move, causing political conflict as folks migrate to places farther from the equator. Our American crisis at the southern border is caused in part by our changing climate, as former farmers are forced from Central America to the United States when their land becomes untenable (and untillable).
  2. But when we talk about tenants’ rights, we are not talking about federal borders in Texas. We are talking about a different scale when we discuss renters’ rights within a city. This invariably begs the question: Is there a connection between treating tenants humanely and municipal green policy? The short answer is, “Yes.” Preventing displacement helps prevent low-income families from burning additional carbon in their day-to-day lives.
  3. Ensuring that low-income families are not displaced without a just reason is a fundamental element of a tenants’ ordinance. Curbing displacement also has the benefit of assuring that low-income families are not forced to burn more carbon.

It’s simple. When a family who has lived in St. Paul is displaced, they are usually forced to move out of St. Paul and into cheaper suburbs farther from job centers. This concept is called spacial mismatch, and paired with the reality that low-income folks often drive cars like my old Dodge Shadow (MPG 18), my old Buick LeSabre (MPG 14) or my old Oldsmobile 88 (MPG 16), it forces poor people to drive long distances in cars that create high emissions.

Dan Rinzler of the California Housing Partnership says it more succinctly than I can:

The important point is that the greatest greenhouse gas reductions come from housing that is affordable to low-income families and individuals.”

It is, therefore, in our best interest as both renters and landlords to facilitate a world in which people are not displaced without good and transparent reason. Forcing those most likely to rent into a situation where they are forced into burning high levels of carbon is not only an injustice, but it systematically increases our carbon footprint and leads to further climate change.

As an artist, I think this idea intrinsically makes sense: Fair access to clean air, uncontaminated water and healthful food just seems to jibe with fair access to a housing unit in which one would breathe air, drink water and cook food. It is really only in governmental policy that we allow ourselves to silo these ideas into “renters’ rights” and “environmental issues.”

Let’s rectify that. A place to live named an “apartment” is philosophically the same as a place to live called “our environment.” I would encourage those who consider themselves “environmentalists” to support tenants’ rights and those who consider themselves “housing advocates” to support the environment. We are, as humans, closer than the trappings that our legal and political systems use to describe our inherent humanity. Remember that and support tenant justice with the same passion and intensity that you support issues of the environment.

Daniel Choma

About Daniel Choma

Daniel Choma is a community advocate, a jazz musician, and a former bible salesman. He rides bikes, plays drums, and tells jokes. He can consume a bag of jelly beans faster than almost anyone.

5 thoughts on “Tenants’ Rights and Environmental Justice: In Pursuit of the Same Goal

  1. Monte Castleman

    Having never really been a tenant or landlord I don’t really have an opinion on the main point of the article, except to note I wasn’t away juvenile offenses could appear on a public background check. But I appreciate you helping to dispel the notion that “poor people don’t drive cars. There’s a lot of cheaper ways to drive besides having an adequately insured late model BMW.

    My stepfather with a car dealership tries to avoid selling clunkers because he doesn’t make any money on them, and there’s the risk that the water pump will conk out in a few hundred miles and then the customer will be back complaining, but periodically he’ll get one in a trade-in. Every time he has a sub $1000 car listed he phone rings off the hook with people from all over the metro wanting to buy it.

    To reference the other article this week about being careful with our engagement processes responding to the current pandemic, I don’t pretend to really understand the dynamics surrounding the north side greenway, but I wonder if part of it was it came across as patronizing “We all know you’re too poor to drive cars, so here’s what you’re going to do, we’ll build a bike lane for you” while the people that actually drove cars to get to their jobs or the grocery store or whatever lost the access to the street that they had previously relied on.

    1. Dan Choma

      Admittedly, it would take some doing for a juvenile offense to be on a housing report as most juvenile offenses (usually with the exception of felonies) are confidential. That being said, 72% of landlords using a tenant screening agency. Even with a juvenile offense, if someone has several violations, they can have their driver’s license taken away. (https://www.housinglink.org/Files/Tenant_Screening.pdf pg 6)

      I could very easily see one’s driver’s license being taken away by DPS on the public record as being one of the mitigating factors that a private agency uses to rate a potential tenant as risky. And considering black folks are 8x more likely to be pulled over than white folks, the HUD guidance that informs tenant protections as an issue of equal protection seems pretty apt. (https://www.hud.gov/sites/documents/HUD_OGCGUIDAPPFHASTANDCR.PDF ) Ultimately, I think having an ordinance that offers guidance for best practices in background checks keeps folks out of a potential nightmare situation like the mess described above.

      That notion that “poor people don’t drive cars” drives me absolutely coo coo bananas. It’s this fancy white people myth and I stay away from comments sections with urbanists because of it. Over the past decade my patience for it has lessened from “very little patience with this nonesense” to “sees red almost immediately and writes a straight up essay about why you’re a jerk on your facebook post.” It’s one of the reasons I try to stay out of comments sections days (breaking my own rule here) but dear god does that myth that poor people don’t drive cars drive me nuts. The whole #bancars nonesense does too. Poor people get punished enough by society. The last thing they need is bike advocates riding 3000 bikes telling them they need to wear spandex in order to perform their poverty in an acceptable way to bike advocates.

      My last car before this one was a Dodge Shadow I bought off of a cop lot. It had a big red stain on the ceiling, probably from blood. It cost me $400 and I took off work to go get it because I knew it wouldn’t last more than 2 hours on the lot because a 400 dollar car is one hot commodity for poor folks. Sucks to be poor, man.

      Finally, man Oh my God Oh my God Oh my God is that Tom Holub interview with Bill Lindeke great. As a white dude who has been dirt poor living on the “wrong side of the tracks” I have often seen the vastly unfair practices that go into community input. It’s a really tough issue to fix (because it is so unfair and there is such income discrepancy and access discrepancy) but issues of justice are usually a much bigger deal to my neighborhood than issues of “can we get some bike advocacy up in here?!?”

      You drive your bike south one mile and everyone is driving Prius’s. Round here, you live like a king with an old Buick 3800 engine because those things last forever.

      Suffice to say, with that last paragraph of your comment: there is a lot. there. Injustice effects many things and it behooves us to not live in intellectual silos.

      Anyway, that was way to long of a comment. Breaking all my internet rules. Hope you are well, Monte!

  2. Abbey SeitzAbbey Seitz

    Thanks for this article. You raised great points that I wish more urban planners would discuss. I’m currently studying international human rights law, and focusing on how the rights of climate refugees are being addressed. I’m particularly interested in exploring if/how States and cities are providing affordable housing opportunities to migrants, as well as indigenous populations who have historically not been giving rights to their land. If you know of any case studies or reference materials regarding these topics, I would be much appreciated if you could share. Thanks!

  3. Daniel ChomaDan Choma

    Cool research, Abbey! I don’t know if I’ve come across some stuff specifically related to affordable housing opportunities for migrants specific to climate refugees, though I do know St Paul (where I live) recently sold a parking garage in pursuit of establishing an affordable housing trust. That’s not explicitly related to migrants or migrants that are migrating due to climate change in particular.

    Saint Paul / Ramsey County also just established an Immigration Self Defense fund, (also not really on the nail of what you’re researching, but still cool).

    I got curious and looked up a few articles (which you are probably already familiar with in your travels, honestly) but it does look like the Federal House of Representatives is attempting to establish a legal definition of a climate refugee in order to start addressing these issues:


    Some other stuff I stumbled upon that might be a cool read: (I haven’t done more of a precursory read on these, but if they are helpful huzza! if they aren’t , apologies for the word vomit)

    13 DePaul J. for Soc. Just. 1

    6 Ariz. J. Envtl. L. & Pol’y 457

    15 Vt. J. Envtl L. 752

    Good luck on the research, you’re honestly probably much further along the research boat than I am, as I am just a dude on the internet, but I will certainly reach out if I come across anything local that is happening in MN.

  4. Abbey SeitzAbbey Seitz

    Thanks Dan! I really appreciate the suggestions. The journal article from DePaul was quite interesting. It’s been quite awhile since I lived in the Cities, and most of my research so far had focused on international cases, so it’s good to hear what is happening locally on this topic.

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