Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tenants Unite!

Everyone needs safe, healthy, affordable housing. Utah law lags behind other states in adequately protecting and expanding tenants rights. Laws that have been written primarily with the convenience of landlords in mind are unbalanced and contribute to greater homelessness and social instability.

For example, it is very easy for a landlord to evict a tenant and while we usually think of eviction coming about as a result of rent delinquency or irresponsible treatment of a property, did you know that according to Utah law, a landlord can evict you for any reason or no reason and you would have just 15 days to vacate?

Did you know that if the reason is that you have not paid your rent or if there is some other dispute about the property that you could appeal eviction and you might have up to 90 days extension?

Did you know that you may also be protected for up to 90 days if the landlord has lost ownership of the property due to foreclosure?

But, did you know that the tenant who has been paying rent on time and who has abided by all agreements, if not in a lease, can be evicted with just 15 days notice unless otherwise noted in a written agreement?

That is what my family learned the hard way when served with an eviction notice of 30 days. The reason given was to remodel and re-offer the apartment at a higher rent.

This was highly disruptive to our nine-year old who had just one more month of school. Since there were no affordable rent options within our school boundary, we will have to move to a new school boundary. We wrote this in a reply to the owner with a request for an extension which was turned down. Our best option for staying close to the neighborhood is a much smaller apartment in a basement with less light and less storage space. We will have to sell off half of our furniture to fit the new accommodations.

But this story isn't just about me or my family. The raising of rent on this one apartment represents the death of the last affordable apartment in the neighborhood. This is the gated community effect. Though no physical walls or gates are present, economic discrimination is setting in. A "rich" neighborhood has been created where people with lower income are shut out no matter how decent, hard-working, and community spirited they are. Since they can't live in the neighborhood, they can't join community councils to voice their issues. Political disadvantage is automatic.

Further, whenever a property owner raises rents, it puts tenants in a squeeze. Rents rise as wages stagnate. Business and property owners prosper as workers are thrown into crisis. Children's educations are jeopardized particularly when they are made homeless or must bounce around from temporary place to place. It perpetuates an underclass that may never regain footing. It's hard to organize for your rights when you are struggling to survive.

High rent relative to wages is only 0ne of many abuses by landlords. Another common problem is the refusal by the owner to make necessary repairs. If you think you have leverage by withholding rent for lack of responsiveness, you better think again. The landlord can start eviction proceedings if you refuse to pay rent or pay only a portion.

Tenant organizations and unions can have an impact. In 1964, slumlords refused to maintain buildings in a Harlem neighborhood. Tenants organized a renters strike in which 3000 tenants refused to pay rent until repairs were made. The strike was picked up and spread to Brooklyn and the Bronx as well until over 5000 tenants were striking. At last, the mayor stepped in and created a fund for tenants to pay rent into that could only be withdrawn from by landlords to make repairs.

Tenants are usually workers too which means that demanding a living wage and forming effective workplace unions can help build leverage for tenants and workers as a group. With public pressure, some cities have passed wage/rent indexes that keep rents within reason. Others pass rent control that prevents rents from rising under original tenants and don't allow evictions for economic gain.

When you go to the law link for Utah, look also at the heartless sentence that being pregnant or having a baby is no reason to prevent your eviction. Utah housing law is frankly in violation of article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 25.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
  • (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
In addition to making the terms of the inherently unequal system of renting more fair, some have worked to make cooperative ownership by tenants possible. Many forms like this have been created from co-housing and cooperative housing to collective housing.

It is time to join together to exercise our rights and our power to create a society that works for workers. We can change the law to reflect our needs, our rights, and to serve our families.

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