Voices for Racial Justice

Protecting the Renters Credit is a Racial Justice Issue: Part Four

This is the final part of a piece written in collaboration with Brett Grant (Voices for Racial Justice), Clark Biegler Goldenrod (Minnesota Budget Project), Roberto de la Riva (Inquilinxs Unidxs), and Eric Hauge (HOME line).   Read part 1 here,  part 2 here, and part 3 here

Policy Proposals to Protect Renters in the Twin Cities

Disparate Cities is a special report by Inquilinxs Unidxs por Justicia that examines how housing policy — incentives, regulation, and deregulation — have created a socioeconomic underclass in the Twin Cities. This class includes people of all demographic makeups, but people of color, women, and renters are disproportionately represented. The report examines three strategies for redressing these wrongs and for creating a more democratic society: a tenants’ bill of rights, tenants’ unions, and housing cooperatives.

Tenants’ Bill of Rights

A tenants’ bill of rights gives tenants additional legal mechanisms to more evenly negotiate with their landlord, over applications, repairs, or displacement. “A tenants’ bill of rights is universal; it doesn’t explicitly outline policies that will support women, people of color, or other specific demographic groups. However, because it will help renters, it will also help lessen racial and gender inequalities.” Policy makers can advocate publically for a tenants’ bill of rights and be ready to explain how they can benefit all Minnesotans. Before writing a bill, they should consult with tenants and other stakeholders, as some Minneapolis City Council members have begun to do. Finally, they should pass the strongest tenant protections they can.

Tenants’ Unions

A tenants’ union is a structured association of tenants that allows for negotiating on a more even playing field with owners. Policy makers can help at a basic level by speaking positively and often of tenants’ unions. Policy should be enacted to fund enforcement when landlords deny their tenant’s their rights. This funding should include funds for tenant organizing of unions, one of the most efficient enforcement measures. Unions are the most effective tool for enforcing housing codes and combating run-away landlord profits, which, in Minneapolis, have been 60 percent or higher in some of the worst buildings.

Housing Co-ops

Housing Co-ops encompass multiple properties and are designed to keep housing permanently affordable and democratically controlled. In a co-op structure, rather than being tenants, residents are associates: they are business partners, neighbors, and creative collaborators. Associates of a co-op may organize a daycare, for example, or any other structure they choose that would allow them to meet their own needs, and are free to make their own decisions rather than being thrown about by an unaffordable market.

Lawmakers should talk publicly about the benefits of housing co-ops. A simple first step is to enact a right of first refusal so that tenants who wish to see their building become part of a co-op have that chance. (For example, Washington, DC, has the “Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act”). Eventually, lawmakers should offer financial support to tenants wishing to buy into a co-op and to co-ops wishing to expand their housing stock.

So, where do we go from here?

If policies are informed by racial equity, the federal government would suppress predatory lending and fortify programs that provide affordable home mortgages and refinancing arrangements. Today, however, the Trump administration and Congress are gearing up to remove federal fair lending protections, and are making it easier to hide emerging patterns of predatory financing. In the long term, city and state government policymakers will have to find solutions to this, root out abuses in real estate lending, and close racial gaps in homeownership. In the short term, they will have to protect renters who cannot afford to own their own homes. Minnesota offers a way to do this.

Eric Hauge, Executive Director of Home Line, a non profit Minnesota tenant advocacy organization, explains that during almost every legislative session, there are bills introduced to cut or “reform” (negatively impact) the Minnesota renters credit. “Usually they target the percent used to calculate the portion of rent that went to property taxes, proposing to decrease it,” he says. Hauge reminds us that in 2019, there will be discussions about the need to conform to federal changes in tax law and that advocates will need to make sure the Renters Credit is transitioned through that process without significant reductions or changes to the populations targeted by the refund, and that provisions of Minnesota’s current Renters Credit program are maintained and perhaps even improved to best serve the needs of low-income communities of color, indigenous communities, and seniors.

As the Disparate Cities report states, “The problems facing renters have been decades in the making, they will not be solved with a one-time hand out to suppliers or consumers.” Non profit organizations, both urban and rural, state lawmakers, advocates, artists, and healers must work in collaboration to ensure that renters’ voices are heard in and throughout public policy.