Saint Paul Skyline

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

Saint Paul Skyline

Photo by John Prassas 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.