In a new bill unveiled today, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) offers a clear answer to the affordable housing crisis: Protect tenants, not big landlords.
Her legislation—called the “A Place to Prosper Act”, and one of a six-bill package to address economic inequality titled “A Just Society”—aims to keep tenants in place by establishing a national cap on annual rent increases, restricting evictions without just cause, and guaranteeing a right to counsel for tenants facing eviction.
In focusing on tenants’ rights, the legislation diverges from a congressional norm dating back to the Reagan era: prioritizing new construction and homeownership over renters’ rights. Recent congressional efforts to address the housing crisis have sought to build new units by expanding the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, which incentivizes private developers and investors to provide low-income housing, and break barriers to homeownership by lowering mortgage costs. But Ocasio-Cortez’s legislation intends to protect tenants in the homes where they already reside.
The bill aims to rein in predatory landlords by imposing disclosure requirements, which would force the nation’s largest landlords to publicize their eviction rates, median rents, code violations, and more. It would also prohibit mortgage sales to landlords with a history of harassing tenants. The measure—developed in partnership with the progressive advocacy group Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) as part of its “A Home To Thrive” campaign—would additionally make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against people who receive federal housing assistance and dedicate $10 billion to lead abatement.
The prioritization of tenants’ rights, whether in private or public housing, is a response to the urgency of the nationwide housing crisis. As speculators drive up the cost of rent at a rate far outpacing wages, almost half of renters nationwide pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent. A rent cap, and stronger enforcement of labor laws (as one of the other bills in Ocasio-Cortez’s package proposes), would help drive down the share of cost-burdened renters.
According to CPD, building more housing is also essential to achieving this goal, and the organization is working with other members of “the Squad” (the group made up of AOC and her fellow freshman representatives Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib) on legislation to develop new affordable housing. But building on its own, advocates say, is insufficient to address the severity of the crisis.
“What we’ve seen from Democrats for decades is that their solution to the housing crisis is to pour a bunch of money into housing development, while ignoring the plight of renters in existing housing,” said Jonathan Westin, executive director of New York Communities for Change, an NYC-based member organization of CPD that helped design the legislation. “We’re never going to build our way out of this crisis—we have to protect people where they’re at.”
Such protections are also a core element of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders’s housing plan, released September 18, which calls for a national rent cap, stronger Section 8 rental assistance, and an investment of $70 billion to repair and modernize public housing. Sanders’s proposal also includes a massive commitment on the supply side, allocating $1.48 trillion over 10 years in the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund to build and maintain 7.4 million affordable units, as well as repealing the Faircloth Amendment to allow the construction of new public housing units.
Protecting tenants and increasing supply have traditionally been viewed by economists as conflicting approaches. “The critique of any kind of protection has long been about the unintended consequences for low-income communities: If you make it more difficult to maintain and build housing, that is going to hurt the very communities that you’re trying to help,” summarized Nestor Davidson, a professor of real estate and land use at Fordham University’s Urban Law Center. “But I think there’s a growing recognition that it is not a zero-sum game. There are modern versions of tenant protection that strike a balance that will not undermine production—that will actually work hand in glove with ways of thinking about supply-side solutions. You have to have both.”
Both Ocasio-Cortez’s and Sanders’s plans make clear that the either-or logic holds up only when housing is treated as a commodity. According to their proposals, we should treat it instead as a basic human right, which will require both protecting tenants and restricting the profits of developers and real estate groups. Through mechanisms like Sanders’s proposed “House Flipping” tax—which would impose a 25 percent tax rate on speculators who sell non-owner-occupied properties—or Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed disclosure requirements, both seek to disrupt a profit model that relies on instability for tenants.
“Most of the country doesn’t have any regulation around major corporate landlords and private equity practices in the housing market,” said Dianne Enriquez, codirector of Community Dignity Campaigns at CPD, who worked closely with AOC’s team on the bill. “It’s kind of the Wild West. So, we’re not saying ‘don’t do business,’ we’re just capping the amount of egregious greed that drives the market.” Recent reports show a pattern of evictions, rent hikes, and poor maintenance in buildings owned by corporate landlords.
“It’s time that we stop commodifying the housing market, because it is not a speculative investment, it is a basic right for all Americans,” said Ocasio-Cortez at the launch of CPD’s “A Home To Thrive” campaign on September 10. “It’s time—and it’s beyond time—that we stop using our housing market as a place for the rich to launder their money…when people are sleeping on the streets.”
The growing embrace of tenant protections on the federal stage follows similar shifts at the state and local levels. Earlier this month, for example, California legislators voted 25-10 in favor of a statewide rent cap and just-cause eviction. The shift comes after years of pressure from the state’s growing tenant movement, which last year galvanized around its fight to pass Proposition 10, a November ballot initiative that would have expanded rent control statewide. Throughout that campaign, the real estate industry and sympathetic legislators maintained that the answer to the affordability crisis was to build more housing, not protect tenants. The rhetoric worked, and Prop. 10 failed. On the Assembly floor this month, legislators who support the rent cap explicitly decried the narratives that helped defeat it.
“We also heard discussion about how this is an either-or fork in the road, where we either protect tenants or we go with supply-side solutions,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta, a joint author of the bill, on the Assembly floor. “It’s a false choice; we can and we must do both.”
The bill passed by both houses of the state legislature will bar landlords from hiking rents more than 5 percent, plus local inflation, affecting an estimated 8 million renters in California. Statewide rent control measures also passed this year in Oregon and New York. But in two-thirds of states, current laws preempt or limit communities’ abilities to establish rent control.
In their plans, both Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders aim to scale rent control legislation up to the federal level, overriding both state restrictions and common arguments that rent caps are best left in local control. On Saturday at the “People’s Presidential Forum” in Iowa, Sanders’s main competitor, Senator Elizabeth Warren, refused to commit to a national rent control policy, arguing that “writing a rent control plan in Washington may work for Chicago, but it’s not going to work for Iowa City or it may not work for Dallas.” Despite such arguments, the policy is gaining national resonance as the housing crisis deepens in smaller cities and rural areas across the country. As Sanders’s housing plan notes, “there is virtually no city or town where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford a decent, two-bedroom apartment.”
The two plans envision a similar expansion of community land trusts—nonprofit organizations that sell homes to families at affordable prices, as long as the families agree to sell them back to the trust at a reduced price—first implemented in Burlington, Vermont, when Sanders was mayor. And they both propose right to counsel, which guarantees a right to legal representation to all renters under threat of eviction, drawing inspiration from successful efforts at the local level. In New York City, as noted in Sanders’s plan, ZIP Codes that adopted right to counsel in 2017 have seen eviction rates drop five times faster than those where the law has not yet gone into effect. The introduction of New York City’s legislation followed years of tenant organizing.
“We’re seeing a moment where the national conversation is importantly a reflection of a tremendous amount of energy at the local level and at the state level,” said Davidson.
This mounting energy will generate further legislation this session: Complementary housing bills are expected from Representatives Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Chuy Garcia this year.
“We need a complete overhaul of our housing policy and our housing system in the United States of America,” said Ocasio-Cortez at the “A Home To Thrive” launch. “Because housing is a human right.”