Renters Bill of Rights – Access to Safe, Quality, Accessible, and Affordable Housing and the Right to Organize
February 21, 2023
This January, the Biden Administration released a Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights, outlining five principles intended to strengthen renter protections and housing affordability. These principles are examined in a series of Law and Policy Insights articles, with the first focusing on the first and fourth principles: access to safe, quality, accessible, and affordable housing; and the right to organize.
Housing is a social determinant of health—one of the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age that influences health outcomes. Where we live impacts access to important components to health like nutritious food, spaces to exercise, quality of schools, and job opportunities. It also determines which harmful conditions we are exposed to, like lead hazards, pests, or environmental pollutants. How much we spend on housing impacts our ability to afford other essential needs for our health and wellbeing, including medical care and food. Housing instability can lead to homelessness, which exacerbates existing medical conditions, makes it difficult to access health services and healthy food, and increases exposure to poor weather conditions and communicable diseases. Transience can make it difficult to maintain a job and interrupts children’s education. Thus, housing is an essential component to health and has a drastic impact on quality of life.
In the United States, more than a third of the population lives in rental housing. The rental market is governed by a patchwork of state and local laws that renters and landlords must navigate. While this patchwork offers some protection for renters, there are many gaps that leave renters vulnerable, and some landlords fail to follow the law with little retribution. On January 25, 2023, the Biden Administration released a Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights (Blueprint), intended to drive action at the federal, state, and local levels to strengthen renter protections and housing affordability. The Blueprint outlines five principles that promote fairness in rental housing: (1) access to safe, quality, accessible, and affordable housing; (2) clear and fair leases; (3) education, enforcement, and enhancement of rights; (4) the right to organize; and (5) eviction prevention, diversion, and relief.
In a series of Law and Policy Insights articles on the Blueprint, we will highlight each principle and how it will promote public health. This article focuses on the first and fourth principles.
Access to Safe, Quality, Accessible, and Affordable Housing
The first principle of the Blueprint is that renters should have access to housing that is safe, quality, accessible and affordable. Poor housing quality exposes families to unsanitary conditions, like water leaks and pests, and environmental hazards, like poor air quality, mold, asbestos, and lead, all of which can negatively impact mental and physical health. The Blueprint advocates for safe and quality housing by outlining that residential units should meet habitability standards, be well maintained, be free from health and safety hazards, and include amenities advertised or included in the lease.
To improve housing safety and quality, the Biden Administration announced that the Department of Agriculture will implement a pilot uniform inspection protocol for rural multi-family housing rentals. While the federal government’s authority over rental properties may be limited, implementing an effective inspection program can serve as a model for state and local governments, the jurisdictions with broad authority over rental housing. States and local jurisdictions can improve housing quality and safety by adopting proactive rental inspections. In most jurisdictions, rental properties are inspected only if a tenant complains, but tenants may not complain for fear of retaliation or because they are unaware of their rights. Thus, proactive rental inspection can mitigate the power imbalance between landlords and tenants and ensure that poor housing conditions are identified and remedied.
Rent is affordable when tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs and increases in rent are reasonable, transparent, and fair. In addition, the Blueprint states that renters should face minimal barriers when applying for and receiving housing assistance; burdensome applications and documentation requirements should be removed. Rent affordability is a particularly pressing issue given that rent has risen 26.9 percent across the country since October of 2019. In 2020, 30 percent of households spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing, while 14 percent spent more than half. Lower-income households and households of color are disproportionately impacted by the housing affordability crisis.
The Biden Administration plans to implement this principle in a number of ways. The Federal Trade Commission and Consumer Federal Protection Bureau will issue a Request for Information to assist in identifying and taking enforcement action against unfair rental practices. Several agencies, including the Department of Justice, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Agriculture, are establishing workgroups and opening public comment periods to develop new tenant protection measures. States and local jurisdictions can implement the principle in a number of ways, including by increasing access to and funding for public housing, implementing rent control and stabilization, and using rent escrow to compel landlords to make needed repairs.
The Right to Organize
The fourth principle is that renters should have the right to organize without risk of retaliation or eviction. Tenant associations should be recognized by housing providers, and a renter should be able to identify and contact building owners to discuss concerns. The ability to organize is essential for renters to be able to advocate for improved housing quality, accessibility, and affordability. Yet, housing providers often retaliate against tenants for organizing by prohibiting the use of public spaces or threatening or filing an eviction action.
To implement this principle at the federal level, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is providing training and technical assistance to promote engagement with residents, implementing rental assistance demonstration protections, and developing funding to support tenant education and outreach. States and local jurisdictions can adopt affirmative laws to ensure tenants have the right to organize without facing retaliation. For example, Washington, D.C., prohibits landlords from interfering with the right to organize, including the right to distribute literature; assist tenants in organizing; convene at a reasonable time and place, including in community areas of the building, without the owner present; and respond to the owner’s actions or make proposals to modify housing conditions.
The right to organize can help tenants to understand their rights and advocate on their own behalf to promote fairness in housing in each of the five principles outlined in the Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights. Subsequent Law and Policy Insights articles will discuss how clear and fair leases; education, enforcement, and enhancement of rights; and eviction prevention, diversion, and relief will improve the health of renters.
This post written by Allyson Wade, student attorney (Class of 2023, Francis King Carey School of Law), and reviewed by Kathleen Hoke, director, Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region and professor and director, Legal Resource Center for Public Health Policy, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document do not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.
Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not represent the views of (and should not be attributed to) RWJF.