Renters in gentrifying neighborhoods face recurring rent increases and other displacement pressures as existing rental housing is torn down to make way for higher-end development. The most vulnerable groups of renters (e.g., low-income renters, persons of color, and families with children in poverty) are at the highest risk of displacement. The following is a summary of strategies and policy tools that can be used by Texas cities in gentrifying neighborhoods to help low-income renters stay in their current homes and neighborhoods, with a focus on direct financial legal assistance, legal protections, and other types of support. Additional strategies related to renters are discussed under Goal #3, related to preserving Texas cities’ existing affordable housing stock for low-income residents.
Strategy 1a: Provide direct financial relief to vulnerable renters who are at risk of being displaced from their homes in gentrifying neighborhoods.
• Local funding for emergency rental assistance
Emergency rental assistance programs provide short-term direct relief to residents facing an immediate threat of eviction from their rental homes in gentrifying neighborhoods. These programs could be structured to target renters in gentrifying neighborhoods.
Considerations: Helps vulnerable families weather a financial crisis and reduces homelessness. Short-term solution not directed towards helping families who need longer-term assistance to remain in their homes.
• Neighborhood stabilization voucher program
A neighborhood stabilization voucher program can provide longer-term relief to renters facing displacement in targeted gentrifying neighborhoods by funding the gap between market rate rents and what a low-income renter can afford. By using local dollars, a voucher program acts as a supplement to federal Housing Choice Vouchers (commonly referred to as “Section 8”), which are in short supply relative to need and not targeted to particular neighborhoods. Programs can target residents whose properties are exiting affordable housing programs, who are unable to pay their current rent, or who are living in unsafe conditions and need to move to another property. The program can be tenant-based as well as property-based.
Considerations: Major outlays of city funding needed to provide the on-going rent subsidies in areas with rapidly appreciating property values. Requires cooperation from landlords.
Strategy 1b: Increase city legal protections for renters to reduce evictions and other forms of displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods.
Tenants in Texas have very limited rights, but there are a number of measures that cities can adopt to enhance their rights, which would help reduce the displacement of renters living in complexes with substandard conditions, rising rents, or undergoing redevelopment. Tenant protections, such as a right to organize and stronger retaliation protections, are critical for tenants who want to advocate against rent increases and zoning changes that would facilitate redevelopment of their property, who are seeking to purchase their property through a right-to- purchase program, and who want to ensure a right to return to any new development.
• Mandatory tenant protections in rental properties receiving city support
Texas cities can require properties receiving city support–such as city subsidies and property tax abatements, new zoning entitlements, and approval of federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit and tax-exempt bond projects–to provide a designated set of robust protections for tenants. Tenant protections could include: (1) organizing protections, (2) opportunities to cure alleged lease violations, (3) rights of first refusal to purchase, (4) longer advanced notice of rent increases, (5) lease renewal protections (i.e., barring lease non-renewals without just cause), and (6) caps on rent increases.
Examples: The City of Austin requires rental housing developers seeking city funding to provide, via a deed restriction, additional protections for tenants, such as good cause protections for lease non-renewal and right to cure.
Considerations: Tenant protections are most effective when backed with funding for monitoring and enforcing violations.
• Anti-retaliation ordinance and anti-harassment protections for tenants
Tenants who speak out against rent increases and living conditions in their housing units risk retaliation from their landlords, including non-renewals of leases. Anti-retaliation and anti-harassment protections are critical for tenant advocacy groups as they work to help tenants address substandard housing conditions and receive fair treatment from their landlords. Dallas has its own anti-retaliation ordinance, but tenant advocates report that the ordinance is weak, hard to enforce, and needs to be strengthened.
Considerations: Tenant protections are most effective when backed with funding for monitoring and enforcing violations. In Texas, enforcement remedies are very limited.
• Expansion of legal and mediation support for tenants facing eviction
Research shows that providing legal support to tenants in eviction proceedings dramatically reduces the number of evictions and thus also reduces the negative impacts to both families and communities that result from evictions. These impacts include shelter costs associated with homelessness and the harm to students and school districts of moving students to new campuses. Using D.C.’s Office of Tenant Advocate (OTA) and New York City’s eviction defense programs as a guide, Texas cities could fund similar programs locally to provide legal support for vulnerable tenants in gentrifying neighborhoods as well as other areas of the city. D.C.’s OTA receives more than $4 million in annual city funding. OTA’s four staff attorneys provide legal assistance to tenants and tenants associations and intervene in judicial cases impacting tenants’ rights.
Examples: Washington, D.C. (Office of Tenant Advocate), New York City (Universal Access to Legal Counsel Program), Boston (Office of Housing Stability), San Francisco (Proposition F–right to counsel in evictions referendum), Newark (Right to Counsel in Evictions). See the National Coalition for a Right to Civil Counsel for a list of cities and states supporting a legal right to counsel in evictions.
Considerations: Systematizes and strengthens what is at present an incomplete and underfunded network of advocates for renters. Would help redress the under-representation of renter populations in city policies. The long-term viability of an eviction support program would require an on-going commitment of general funds
• Eviction notification ordinance
Under an eviction notification ordinance, landlords would be required to notify the city when they intend to evict a large number of tenants or not renew their leases. A notification requirement would improve the ability of cities, tenant associations, tenant advocacy groups, and social service providers to assist the tenants and intervene in mass-displacement actions as well as reduce impacts on schools.
Strategy #1c: Assist renters who have been displaced with relocating in their neighborhoods.
• Tenant relocation ordinance
Tenant relocation ordinances provide support for renters, such as financial assistance and counseling, when they are displaced from apartments undergoing redevelopment or demolition. Programs range in scope and structure. Many cities require developers to pay financial assistance to renters who are displaced, with some cities paying for the assistance. Cities may provide special relocation protections for residents of mobile home parks, given the cost and time it takes to move a mobile home. Austin’s tenant relocation ordinance requires that developers provide 180-day notice to residents of apartments before filing a demolition permit or commercial building application. The notice requirement for residents of mobile homes parks is 270 days and is also triggered by rezoning applications. Austin also has–on paper at least–a tenant relocation assistance program that provides housing location counseling services to tenants and requires developers to pay assistance to tenants when seeking a rezoning or other discretionary land use approval. The City is in the process of adopting a fee and directing city funding for this program.
Examples: Austin (Tenant Relocation Program); Boston (Condominium Cooperative Ordinance); Chicago (Protecting Tenants
in Foreclosed Rental Property Ordinance, Condominium Conversion Ordinance); Seattle (Tenant Relocation Assistance Ordinance); Portland (Mandatory Renter Relocation Assistance Ordinance), Palo Alto (Rental Housing Stabilization Ordinance); San Antonio (Risk Mitigation Policy).
Considerations: Assessing a fee on developers to fund relocation assistance requires a nexus study. The provision of intensive relocation counseling, which helps tenants navigate the rental market, negotiate with new landlords, and access housing in their neighborhood and school attendance zone, can be just as important as financial assistance in helping tenants relocate.
Strategy #1d: Support tenant acquisitions of their apartment units.
• Tenant right-to-purchase program
When structured appropriately, tenant right-to-purchase programs can be a powerful tool for minimizing resident displacement while helping create rare low- and moderate-income homeownership opportunities in gentrifying neighborhoods. Washington, D.C.’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act is a key element in the most successful tenant purchase program in the country. The Act provides tenant associations in multifamily properties or a tenant-designated nonprofit with a right of first refusal to purchase their apartment complex if it is ever sold. As the D.C. model has shown, to be effective, a right to purchase needs to be paired with significant financial support for the acquisitions, technical assistance, and capacity building support for preservation nonprofits. Many subsidized housing programs already come with a right of first refusal for tenants but are rarely used because of the lack of funding and technical assistance for the purchases.
Examples: Washington, D.C. (Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Program) and other supporting programs.
Considerations: A right-to-purchase program could be applied citywide or only to subsidized properties. If extended to private properties, a tenant right-to-purchase ordinance would likely attract hostile action from the Texas Legislature. In Washington, D.C., scattered cases of tenants gaming the system to their advantage (e.g., by selling their right to purchase) have been widely publicized and undermined support for an otherwise very helpful ordinance.
Strategy #1e: Support tenants to be active participants in advocating for and implementing displacement mitigation strategies.
• Financial support for tenant organizing and tenant engagement
Before a displacement event occurs, renters need to know their rights and options and need organizing support so they can effectively advocate for their interests. Tenant organizing is also critical to the effectiveness of a tenant right-to-purchase program. Cities can invest in tenant organizing and support tenants in acquiring their units and in other advocacy actions to mitigate displacement. The City of Austin provides annual funding out of its code enforcement budget for Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA), a local nonprofit initiative that educates tenants about their rights, helps tenants form tenant associations and engage in a variety of advocacy actions to address unsafe living conditions, and represents tenants in landlord retaliation actions.
Examples: Austin (Building and Strengthening Tenant Action (BASTA); Washington, D.C.
Considerations: Requires on-going funding for long-term effectiveness.
• Tenant right-to-organize ordinance
A right-to-organize ordinance provides tenants with critical protections needed to organize as a tenant association and work together to advocate for improved living conditions, exercise a right to purchase, and otherwise mitigate displacement. While some federal housing programs provide tenants with a right to organize, such as Project-Based Section 8 and Public Housing, these protections do not extend to non-subsidized housing developments or the largest subsidized housing program: the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program.