Strengthening renters’ rights
Housing and Homelessness
1 March 2023
Credit: Right to Counsel
“We are proud of our grantee partners’ efforts and of the successes they achieved throughout the year, and we are committed to supporting our partners as they continue to work to protect communities who are facing a widening gap between income and access to affordable, decent homes,” says Raji Hunjan, director of the Housing and Homelessness Programme.
This year, many emergency Covid-19 pandemic measures that protected people from homelessness came to an end, while the cost-of-living crisis grew. In response, our partners have used advocacy and legal casework to support people facing housing injustice. Our partners also focused on longer-term system change, which will create more opportunities for safe, stable, and affordable homes for everyone, including households on the lowest income. They have been helping to create housing opportunities by: working with people experiencing the problem; encouraging collective action; and building coalitions.
The Right to Counsel New York City Coalition is a coalition of tenants, organisers, advocates, and lawyers from several organisations. In 2017, the coalition won a campaign for tenants facing eviction in court to have the right to a lawyer. As a result, New York City was the first US city to establish this right, known as the Right to Counsel.
Now that the Right to Counsel is written into law, the coalition is working hard to make sure that tenants know about and can make use of their right. In the past few years, an increasing number of New York City tenants have had a lawyer represent them in court. In 2021, 72 per cent of tenants who faced eviction had representation, largely because of the Right to Counsel.
“Now we know we can go into court confident because we have somebody to represent us,” said one New York resident. However, in 2022, after the Covid-19 protections against eviction ended in New York City, the number of evictions rose and the demand for lawyers increased. The coalition is now working to find ways to recruit and train more lawyers to represent tenants facing eviction. “The Right to Counsel New York Coalition has helped me learn about our rights, what to expect, what justice looks like, how unfair landlords can be… and how much my rights are worth,” says a tenant.
The success has had implications far beyond New York City. It has inspired a movement for Right to Counsel legislation across the US. In 2022, both New Orleans and Detroit passed Right to Counsel laws. This means that, so far, tenants in 15 cities and 3 states in the US have the right to a free lawyer when they face eviction in court.
Often, the reason tenants face eviction in court is unfair rent hikes that they can’t afford to pay. The housing watchdog Housing Rights Initiative in New York City challenges these rent hikes by looking at real estate data to check if landlords have illegally increased rents for tenants. If the Housing Rights Initiative team discovers that a landlord has increased rents illegally, they inform all the tenants. These tenants can then use this data to bring a collective lawsuit, known as a class action, against their landlord. When a landlord owns several buildings, this can amount to hundreds of tenants. And, if a lawsuit succeeds, it can mean that the tenants see their rents return to an affordable level.
In November 2022, a court granted one of Housing Rights Initiative’s largest lawsuits to proceed as a class action. This lawsuit may involve more than two thousand current and former tenants of several buildings in Harlem. These buildings are all owned by the same landlord, who is accused of illegally hiking rents. It took a long time, almost six years, for the court to certify this class action and allow the lawsuit to proceed. If this works out in the favour of the tenants, the impact could be far-reaching. “Not only are we one significant step closer to getting back these tenants tens of millions of dollars,” says Aaron Carr, founder and executive director of Housing Rights Initiative, “but, this is the first class certification of its kind, and it will make it infinitely easier to do large scale class actions going forward.”
In the UK, our partners have also worked to protect tenants from evictions and rent hikes. They have had significant success in encouraging successive governments to commit to introducing these protections. The
Renters Reform Coalition in England is made up of organisations that represent and support tenants.
The coalition campaigns for changes that will increase tenant protections. In June 2022, the government published its long-awaited Renters Reform Bill White Paper. This bill, which only affects tenants living in England, includes many of the coalition’s campaign requests. The most significant change is the plan to abolish no-fault evictions in England. This means that currently, a private landlord can evict their tenant without any reason, which is known as no-fault eviction. Tenants are disempowered and less likely to ask their landlord to do repairs or challenge rent increases, because it is so easy for a landlord to evict them. So, if this Bill passes, it will strengthen tenants and their rights across the country.
ACORN Tenants Union is an organisation in The Renters Reform Coalition. Nick Ballard, head organiser at ACORN, says this is “a victory for organised tenants who have been fighting in their communities and in the corridors of power for decent, dignified and affordable housing for all.” The Renters Reform Coalition is now working hard to make sure the whole bill will pass through parliament by July 2023.
In many countries around the world, the cost of living is increasing. People who are already struggling to get by are impacted the most. Scotland’s tenant union, Living Rent, has been campaigning for rent controls for years. In addition, in the last year, it worked hard to get emergency legislation to protect tenants from the cost of living crisis.
As a result of sustained campaigning, in October 2022, Scottish ministers approved emergency cost of living legislation. This legislation temporarily freezes rents for private and social tenants and for student accommodation. It also introduces a freeze on evictions. The legislation should last until at least March
2023, although landlords are already challenging the decision and seeking to have it revoked.
“The rent freeze is a huge relief for tenants and is badly needed… we believe that [it] will need to stay in place until the Scottish Government brings in proper rent controls to push rents down,” says Megan Bishop, Living Rent national secretary. “Nevertheless, the passage of the Bill shows the incredible power that people have when they get organised, and fight for their essential needs.”
The current housing system is challenging for renters. However, we are heartened by the changes that our partners are achieving alongside their communities. “We will continue to support organisations to develop ambitious approaches for longer-term housing opportunities,” says Raji.
This grant falls under the Housing and Homelessness Programme, which believes in a society where more people live in decent homes and fewer people experience homelessness and housing insecurity. Find out more about our programme here. You can learn more about Right to Counsel NYC Coalition here, Housing Rights Initiative here, Renters’ Reform Coalition here, ACORN here, and Living Rent here.