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Dwayne David PaulApril 01, 2024
An eviction notice is taped to an iron gate in front of a white door with a peephole. (iStock/Jeremy Poland)Human well-being and development are uniquely tied to homes, and evictions harm the physical and psychological health of both children and adults. (iStock/Jeremy Poland)

American renters are desperate. The market is at its bleakest in generations. In January, Harvard’s Joint Center on Housing Studies released a report describing in detail the magnitude of the affordability crisis: Half of the country’s renting households are classified as cost-burdened, meaning that they spend at least 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities. This represents an increase across all income brackets, but it is most pronounced among the poorest. Consequently, evictions have surpassed pre-pandemic levels, and homelessness is at an all-time high.

There is no quick fix for America’s housing woes, but there are small legislative steps that will go a long way to protect the one-third of households that rent. One of them is “just cause” eviction laws, which can add a measure of security and predictability to housing markets. These laws are also important in correcting the power imbalance between large landlords and tenants.

In 45 states, rental contracts are one-sided. That is, landlords can evict tenants or refuse to renew leases for any reason—or for no reason at all. Anyone can be a model tenant today and searching for a new place to live tomorrow, with zero legal recourse. A just cause eviction law, also referred to as “for cause” or “good cause,” is meant to act as a lifeline for renters by naming at least some of the rules of the game, thereby reducing a landlord’s ability to upend someone’s life by fiat.

The bills typically articulate the legal grounds on which a landlord can terminate or refuse to renew a rental agreement, as well as requirements for providing written eviction notices to tenants. Versions that apply statewide have been enacted in California, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington; and there are versions in municipalities including Albany, N.Y., Baltimore, Md., and St. Paul, Minn. (The laws in California and Oregon also include some limits, tied to inflation, on rent increases.) The just causes for eviction are fairly intuitive and already standard fare: destruction of property, criminal acts, causing harm to neighbors, failure to pay rent and other substantial violations of a lease—or if a landlord intends to remove a unit from the rental market. Tenants in just cause states can challenge in court eviction notices that do not provide a cause.

This is the basic vocabulary of democracy: grounds, justification, evidence, reason. Citizens and legislatures can debate which causes for legal action are just or what constraints might be reasonable. But the rental system as it is, in most states, can foster a tyrannical relationship between landlord and tenant that forecloses the possibility of debate.

Democratic practices and values are contested in everyday life. Our laws and civic norms can facilitate either their contraction or expansion. Keeping tenants subject to the whims of landlords does not make our democracy more robust; it does just the opposite.

My home state of Connecticut is currently considering its own just cause eviction legislation. I will offer public testimony before the state legislature in favor of the bill, but as things stand now, I could theoretically be evicted if my landlord objects that I had the temerity to promote my interests in the public square. I and every other tenant who offers oral or written testimony to our elected officials (and the public records they generate) have to weigh our housing security against our right to civic engagement. Under the current law, my neighbors and I are less free than our property-owning neighbors. That is fundamentally undemocratic.

We could also risk eviction if we make one too many maintenance requests, or perhaps if we report a health violation to the city. And while there are civil rights laws, such as the Fair Housing Act, that are written to fight discrimination on the basis of race, color, disability, national origin, family status and sex, it can be extremely difficult to prove discriminatory intent when a landlord is not required to give a reason for eviction.

Gentrification is another factor in evictions without just cause. As housing markets heat up, landlords may be tempted to displace those renters with the fewest protections. One witness before the legislative committee considering the just cause law in Connecticut told of a military veteran who had lived in his New Haven apartment without incident for 24 years but was served with an eviction notice because the owners want to “improve” the property. New Haven is gentrifying rapidly and has a housing shortage, so many tenants in the city are now at risk of being displaced for residents willing to pay higher rent. But a 2022 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that just cause protections can help lower-income renters to keep their homes in gentrifying neighborhoods, at least for the short- or medium-term.

New Jersey passed the nation’s first just cause law back in 1974. Were these laws a threat to new units coming into the marketplace for both purchases and rentals, that should be reflected in what is happening in that state during the current housing crisis. But between 2010 and 2018, Hudson County, N.J., permitted twice as many new units as did the entire city of New York City, its neighbor across the river (which does not have a just cause eviction law). The basics of supply and demand—and there is a 3.2 million-unit shortage in the American housing market nationwide—will keep both building and renting as profitable pursuits in states with just cause eviction laws.

And just cause laws can protect small landlords by distinguishing between homes (owner-occupied rental properties) and mere investment vehicles. California’s and Oregon’s laws, for instance, have a number of exemptions, like allowing eviction if a landlord (or a landlord’s relative) wishes to move into a unit.

Evictions are unlike any other kind of denial of service because housing is not like any other commodity. Human well-being and development are uniquely tied to homes, and evictions harm the physical and psychological health of both children and adults. Displaced children may have to switch schools, sabotaging both learning and social development. And an eviction can stay on an adult’s credit report for up to seven years. This shrinks the market of potential rental properties one has access to, placing upward pressure on rents and downward pressure on quality.

Given those high stakes, landlords ought to provide more justification than “Because I said so.”

[Read next: “Why Catholics should resist NIMBYism.”]

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