Renters Bill of Rights: Education, Enforcement, and Enhancement of Rights
August 22, 2023
The Biden Administration’s Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights (Blueprint) was introduced on January 25, 2023 to drive action at the federal, state, and local levels to strengthen tenant protections and housing affordability. One of the principles outlined in the Blueprint is that governmental bodies should do all they can to enforce fair housing laws, protect renters from unlawful discrimination, and ensure renters know their legal rights.
This is the third article in a series of Law and Policy Insights discussing each of the principles introduced in the Biden Administration’s Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights (Blueprint), which was introduced on January 25, 2023. The first article focused on access to safe, quality, accessible, and affordable housing and the right to organize. The second article focused on clear and fair leases. This article discusses the third principle: education, enforcement, and enhancement of rights.
Housing discrimination contributes to racial residential segregation and causes health disparities by limiting the ability of people of color to live in areas that are free of environmental harms and that provide access to important determinants of health like nutritious food, outdoor spaces, quality schools, and job opportunities.
Despite federal, state, and local antidiscrimination laws, discrimination continues to be prevalent in the rental housing market. Often the discrimination is indirect and difficult to prove, for example, through using biased background checks or refusing tenants who use public assistance vouchers. These forms of discrimination can act as proxies for discrimination based on race, sex, familial status, disability, and other classes protected under housing discrimination laws like the federal Fair Housing Act.
The third principle of the Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights is that governmental bodies should do all they can to enforce fair housing laws, protect renters from unlawful discrimination, and ensure renters know their legal rights. The Blueprint advocates for expanding discrimination laws at all levels, including the Fair Housing Act, to protect against discrimination based on source of income. Several states and local governments have already passed laws protecting tenants from source of income discrimination. However, some laws specifically exclude protection for those who hold housing choice vouchers, which then excludes the largest federal housing assistance program.
Significantly, a 2018 study found that 76 to 78 percent of landlords did not accept vouchers in two jurisdictions that did not have protections for voucher holders, while two jurisdictions that had voucher antidiscrimination laws had substantially lower rates of voucher denial at 15 to 31 percent. However, the study could not conclude that the lower rates were caused by the antidiscrimination laws, as there were other contributing factors. Still, it is clear that landlords are reluctant to accept housing vouchers, and source of income discrimination laws should include all forms of housing assistance to ensure that renters can take advantage of available programs. States and local jurisdictions may also consider options like financial assistance to landlords to encourage taking on the bureaucratic burdens, like additional inspection requirements, that come along with accepting housing vouchers. In addition, executive agencies can incorporate discrimination protections as a condition of receiving funds to develop low-income housing. For example, the federal government prohibits those who receive the Low Income Housing Tax Credit from discriminating against housing choice voucher holders.
The Blueprint also advocates for fair, legal, and non-discriminatory background checks. Housing providers are required by law to inform applicants of the reasons why they were denied or charged more for rental housing to allow tenants to correct errors in background checks or address other concerns affecting their housing access. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) will identify guidance or rules and coordinate with the Federal Trade Commission and local governments to ensure that background check companies follow the law, background checks are accurate, and that tenants can challenge false information. In addition, federal agencies that have housing programs will work with CFPB to release best practices on the use of background checks.
Lastly, housing law should not penalize survivors of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assaults for the acts of their abusers. Local nuisance ordinances often penalize survivors because they allow acts of domestic violence to be characterized as a nuisance when they amount to a disruption of the peace or other activity considered a nuisance. Some ordinances use the number of calls for emergency services to determine that a property is considered a nuisance. Property owners are then required to “abate the nuisance,” which usually means the tenant is evicted. This means that, instead of protecting survivors, housing laws exacerbate harms by discouraging the use of law enforcement or emergency medical services and putting survivors at risk of eviction and homelessness. Survivors already face physical and mental health consequences as a result of domestic violence; homelessness exacerbates those conditions and introduces additional health risks.
States and local governments can protect survivors by ensuring that nuisance laws do not penalize survivors of domestic violence, including survivors as a protected class under housing discrimination laws, and prohibiting landlords from using lease provisions to limit a tenant’s ability to call emergency services.
Although the Blueprint focuses on protecting tenants from discrimination and protecting survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking from losing housing due to the acts of their abusers, this principle applies in equal force to all tenant’s rights. As explained in the previous article in this series, laws protecting tenants are only successful insofar as the law is enforced and tenants know and understand their rights. The next article in this series will focus on how eviction prevention, diversion, and relief can be used to enhance tenant rights and reduce homelessness, thereby protecting the health of renters.
This post was written by Allyson Wade, student attorney (Class of 2023, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law), and reviewed by Kathleen Hoke, Director, Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region and Professor, 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.