rhino!UP January 2021

What if you had a tenants organization in your community? January 3, 2020

Advocacy+Activism seem to be the secret sauce when it comes to changing the balance of power between landlords and tenants. Advocate's ideas need activist's energies to propel change. What if your community had an off-the-shelf activist organization that could propel the best ideas of your advocates?

Too many housing advocates think of tenants organizations as being rooted in a particular building or development. That's one model, but a community wide tenants organization that cuts across different rental types, social demographics, and income can be a vehicle for systemic changes.

There's no "one size fits all" but ideally a community based tenants organization follows the four principles for HUD building based groups: Meets regularly, operates democratically, is inclusive of all the tenants in the community, and is completely independent of management.

A community based tenants organization may be a loosely spun network, a formal organization, or a coalition of building-based organizations. How formal depends on the complexity of the issues, the size of the community to be represented, and the life experiences of the members. (Alinsky rule 2)

Leaders, members, and organizers. Every community organization should have a social leader and a task leader. Social leaders focus on relationships among the members, while task leaders focus on the "business" of the organization. Never underestimate the power of relationships within a citizen's organization! Members provide the energy in the form of ideas and action. An outside organizer can provide perspective from a range of groups and issues.

From these basics, the organization becomes the vehicle that mobilizes the needs and interests of the members into collective action. Typically, a community based tenants organization will work on a range of issues that reflects the range of experiences and interests within the membership. Woody Widrow says that every organization needs a set of goals.

Issues that are easy to achieve and have a tangible benefit for the membership.

Two or three issues that will take some work over time, but have real value for the community when they are achieved.

An issue that's "pie in the sky," but keeps members focused on changing the balance of power between landlords and tenants.

Renters live in a world of unmet needs. Many go unexpressed because grassroots people have not been able to imagine beyond the immediate oppression. Take "universal housing vouchers" for example. Tenants have participated year after year in the indignity of signing up for a lottery to get on a waiting list, to win chance of qualifying for a "gold card." For them, housing rights seems like a game show. A community based tenants organization that asks the question: "what if housing vouchers were like food stamps?" can unfreeze the status quo and open the door to change. A community based tenants organization becomes the place where the folks can "own the solution," not just the problem.

There will always be a need for tenant activism at the building level, but a community based tenants organization offers a way for building-based activists to move up the ladder of engagement from lobby rules and leaky faucets to local and national power.

Community based tenants organizations can exercise legal power as legal services clients, or political power as voters, or social power as thought leaders on a range of issues. Next week RHINO will look at system-changing issues that are at your fingertips.

What housing issue will make a difference in 2021? January 10, 2021

Advocates love to claim that, through their efforts, "a thousand more families received help from Program XYZ." It's a standard claim of every year-end fundraising letter in your mailbox. But what about making a big change?

The outcome of the Georgia Senate runoffs signals that there may be movement towards Universal Vouchers this year. On the face of it, providing funding for every eligible household to get a Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) sounds like another one of those incremental changes. Here's why fully funding HCVs will be a transformational change, disguised as a budget modification.

When former President Trump claimed that "Biden will abolish your suburbs" he was talking about a regulation that required cities, counties and states to "affirmatively further fair housing." Full funding for the HCV program is just a budget line item for a program with a proven track record that has been supported by Republicans and Democrats for 45 years. Full funding (universal vouchers) addresses the problem only about 1/3 of eligible households can participate in the program. The households who are left behind are forced to apply for a lottery in order to get a spot on a waiting list to be considered for a voucher. It's a degrading process that can drags on for year, while families are rent burdened in substandard homes. Rent burden is a ticket to eviction court anytime there's a household expense like a broken down automobile, a medical emergency, or a gap in employment.

Here's your pitch to Senator Portman.

  1. Reduced funding for emergency shelters or Rapid Rehousing.

  2. No more eviction prevention studies.

  3. Benefits are scaled to need. Incomes go up, family size goes down, the level of subsidy can be changed.

  4. No more eviction moratoriums and emergency rental assistance.

  5. No new Federal bureaucracy--HCV is managed by your local Housing Authority--y'know: the guys you golf with?

The path to Universal Vouchers is clear. Because full funded HCV is a budget line item (incremental change) means that it can fit neatly into the Budget Reconciliation process with simple majorities in the House and the Senate. Complex rules for reconciliation will mean that increased spending for HCV will need to be offset by spending cuts or tax increases. Since Congress already spent goo-gobs on Rental Assistance this past year, much of the offset is "baked in" to the mix already.

Wait, there's more. Matthew Yglesis points out that Universal Vouchers has some "multiplier" impacts. "According to original modeling by Columbia University scholars, it could cut child poverty by a third, narrow racial opportunity gaps, and potentially drive progress on the broader middle-class affordability crisis in the largest coastal cities as well." And that's just the beginning.

If every eligible family can get a voucher, owners of substandard housing will have the cash flow and the incentive to bring their existing units into compliance with Housing Quality Standards or be forced out of the landlording business. Universal Vouchers will jump start geographic mobility of low/moderate income families to communities of choice. And, finally, a newly empowered renter household will spur new construction of affordable housing in communities where there is a housing shortage. How's that for transformational impacts from an incremental change?

Ohioans have a special role in winning Universal Vouchers. Senator Sherrod Brown will be the chair of the Senate Banking Committee which has jurisdiction over housing. Marcia Fudge will be the Secretary of HUD. Senator Rob Portman is on the Senate Finance Committee, has already addresses some housing issues, and is up for reelection in 2022). The time to act is now.

Landlord's right to enter January 17, 2021.

When tenants at a HUD subsidized highrise received a new set of "house rules" from their management company, they weren't surprised to see that their landlord claimed he had a right to enter without notice in order to perform a "health check." Popping in unannounced was a standard practice at the building, but seeing it in writing was irritating. The notice said that tenants were required to sign the rules. Tenants asked RHINO: "What if we don't agree?"

RHINO wrote a letter to HUD asking the Feds to advise the management to rescind the "health check" language because it violated the Ohio Landlord Tenant Law. At first, the management claimed that they had already revised the rule to eliminate the health check. So, RHINO asked for a copy. The landlord said they sent the revised rule out to the tenants, but none of RHINO's contacts had seen it. So the management sent RHINO a copy of the new rule. RHINO suggested that tenants were willing to leaflet the 250+ units, observing social distancing, with the revised rules at RHINO's expense...except for one thing. There was another rule prohibiting "solicitation" (in violation of HUD regulations at 24 CFR 245.115). Shortly thereafter, tenants reported that the corrected version of the House Rules had been delivered to each tenant.

Enforcing the landlord tenant law's protections against illegal entry can be tough. Owner's read Ohio Revised Code 5321.05 (B) which says: "The tenant shall not unreasonably withhold consent for the landlord to enter into the dwelling unit in order to inspect the premises, make ordinary, necessary, or agreed repairs, decorations, alterations, or improvements, deliver parcels that are too large for the tenant's mail facilities, supply necessary or agreed services, or exhibit the dwelling unit to prospective or actual purchasers, mortgagees, tenants, workmen, or contractors."

But they often fail to notice ORC 5321.04 (B) which says: "If the landlord makes an entry in violation of division (A)(8) of this section, makes a lawful entry in an unreasonable manner, or makes repeated demands for entry otherwise lawful that have the effect of harassing the tenant, the tenant may recover actual damages resulting from the entry or demands, obtain injunctive relief to prevent the recurrence of the conduct, and obtain a judgment for reasonable attorney's fees, or may terminate the rental agreement."

When thinking about the balance between a tenant's right to privacy in their rental home and landlord's right to access in their property during a lease, there's a lot of room for conflict. Some common flash points are:

Landlord claims that asking for a repair is a waiver of the right to 24 hour notice. Often landlords will believe that when a tenant asks for a repair, the tenant has waived the 24 hour notice to enter. Courts have ruled that's not true.

Landlord notice of entry is vague. Courts have ruled that a notice that maintenance will enter sometime in the next week doesn't constitute 24 hour notice.

Entry at an unreasonable time. If a landlord proposed to enter at a time which is inconvenient for the tenant, the tenant should propose an alternative time which would be reasonable.

Entry by 3rd parties. A landlord is responsible for anyone who enters on behalf of a landlord. Employees and contractors must be able to identify themselves to tenants before being granted entrance. Real estate agents must give notice before entering.

Intrusive entry. Landlords may not inspect tenants' personal property when entering. Searching in drawers and cupboards are off bounds. Courts have found that photographing tenants' furnishings is intrusive.

Two weeks ago, WTRF-TV in Wheeling reported Belmont County Landlord facing charges for breaking into his own house. This would be a comedy of errors if it weren't so serious. It could have been a tragedy if this landlord was shot during a "break in" when the he thought the unit was empty. Remember:

  • Always give a written notice, except in case of an emergency.

  • Always knock and wait before entering.

  • Don't argue with the sheriff when he tells you to use the eviction court instead of a "self help" approach.