The blog of the Urban Institute
May 28, 2019

Five Strategies to Help America’s Renters

America’s affordable housing crisis has fueled national concern about rental housing and affordability. A renter working 40 hours a week and earning minimum wage cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment in any US county, according to the the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Against this backdrop, Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris, have all introduced legislation to tackle the affordable housing crisis.

As part of the Urban Institute’s 50th anniversary, we are exploring evidence-based solutions to pressing public policy problems, including what can be done to ensure quality, affordable housing for all.

Here are five strategies that can help renters burdened by high costs and few choices.

1. Build more housing

  • Reduce construction costs: Unconventional housing designs and innovative construction techniques can make development cheaper. Accessory dwelling units and modular, small-unit housing can also increase choices for renters living in tight housing markets.

  • Revise regulations: More flexible state and local zoning and building codes can support new housing construction. Minneapolis recently eliminated all single-family zoning, and Seattle passed an upzoning bill requiring new affordable housing. But the impacts of these new zoning reforms remain unclear. Meanwhile, older reforms such as inclusionary zoning continue to face challenges from state governments.

  • Counter NIMBY: Exclusionary zoning practices often supported by “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) neighborhood organizations can prohibit multifamily housing development. Reducing the number of housing developments that get put up for community “vote” through zoning approval processes is one way to counter this obstacle. Legislation that ensures housing keeps up with home-building targets is a bolder step to accelerate housing development.

2. Preserve what we have

  • Preserve unsubsidized housing: Renovations and upkeep can help keep rents affordable for private market housing that is already affordable. Some cities are setting aside funds for the acquisition and rehabilitation of unsubsidized affordable housing. Other cities use proactive rental inspections to prevent neglect.

  • Save public housing: Recapitalizing the public housing stock can chip away at substantial unmet capital needs and prevent further loss of units. The Rental Assistance Demonstration has been one approach to preserving subsidized housing while also protecting tenants, although not much is known about the program’s impact.

  • Include rural communities: Investing in rural communities can help address these areas’ small and diminishing rental housing supply, which is older and more likely to have housing issue than rental housing in urban areas. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program has helped preserve or construct units in rural areas, but more investment is needed.

3. Help renters afford rent

  • Expand housing assistance: Low-income renters, a group that struggles to pay for rent and basic needs, need more support. Renter tax credits that account for variation in housing costs throughout the US would go a long way, as would additional rental assistance funding, such as Housing Choice Vouchers.

  • Create permanent affordability: Affordable housing must remain affordable. Investments in programs that incentivize developers to construct and operate affordable housing for low-income households, like the LIHTC program, increase the supply of units, but the time frame for affordability varies. Solutions that include community ownership, such as community land trusts, can provide long-term sustainability.

4. Help renters avoid eviction and displacement

  • Protect renters from evictions: Some cities are instituting landlord-tenant laws and similar programs that expand legal protections for tenants facing eviction. Georgia just passed a law that protects renters who complain about housing conditions from eviction. Oakland passed a “just cause eviction” ordinance protecting tenants from arbitrary or discriminatory evictions.

  • Protect renters from displacement: Data tools, like the gentrification tool just released by Enterprise Community Partners, can identify communities vulnerable to gentrification and displacement of existing tenants. We can build on this information and develop new systems to monitor neighborhood change and empower existing residents to make decisions about their communities.

5. End discrimination

  • Prevent housing discrimination: Antidiscrimination protections must be enforced to be effective. The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors recently voted to dedicate $5 million to the prevention of housing discrimination and to protections against source of income discrimination. Solutions that discourage tenant harassment, such as through additional enforcement resources for addressing tenant complaints, can also help ensure a fair housing market.

  • Empower tenants: Publicly available resources can educate renters about their rights and how they can respond to unfair treatment from landlords.

There are many ways to help renters and much that the government can do, from providing funding to reexamining regulations to increasing enforcement. Hopefully, listening to renters’ needs will result in new models that enter the mainstream as evidence proves that they work.

Photo by Artem Avetisyan via Shutterstock.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.