The White House Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights,1 issued in January of 2023, outlines a general plan for the enforcement and implementation of tenants’ rights. This article provides readers with key takeaways from the Blueprint and identifies opportunities to incorporate environmental justice and climate action elements within housing and tenant rights efforts.
The White House Blueprint outlines five primary areas for tenants’ rights; a.) safe, quality, accessible, affordable housing, b.) clear and fair leases, c.) education, enforcement, and enhancement of renter rights, d.) the right to organize, and e.) eviction prevention, diversion, and relief.
There are a variety of action items across the five areas including:
- Preserve and increase affordable rental housing supply through The Housing Supply Action Plan2
- Create a clear and fair lease standard as well as resources for tenant grievances, rights, and responsibilities (The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)).
- Continue to and expand prohibition of the practice of refusing leases to prospective tenants due to their status as holders of Housing Choice Vouchers.
- Issue information about important fair housing obligations, including support for tenants or persons seeking housing who believe they have been discriminated against (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO)).
- Provide guidance for organizing, tenant education, and outreach (HUD).
- Continue investment in eviction protection grants (HUD).
- Propose a rule for no less than 30 days of notice of eviction (HUD).
Although the Blueprint does not necessarily provide direct rules for how these rights should be protected, it provides recommendations for tenant protection and what tenant rights should include.3 The Blueprint offers helpful context as to why each tenant is important and some specific actions that can be taken or have been taken to enforce these rights.
Summaries of the Blueprint from mainstream news sites remark that its impact will boil down to whether it is followed. The Blueprint is, essentially, an outline. Therefore the vague language of the Blueprint sparks some concern as to how local and state governments might choose to interpret and enforce goals such as maintaining ‘reasonable’ increases in rent.4 However, by providing a blueprint for tenants rights, the federal government can influence state and local governments to better orient themselves in support of this guidance. So far the White House has not issued a follow-up on progress from the Blueprint’s action items.
Implications to low-income and BIPOC Tenants
Tenant rights, specifically for people with lower incomes and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) tenants, have historically been under-enforced by private (lawyers, landlords) and public (state and federal government) actors.5 No different from the systemically inequitable environmental impacts on frontline communities6 within sacrifice zones.7
Essentially, tenants living in substandard housing8 or those living in environmental justice communities often lack the resources and power to protect their own rights. Affordable housing market should not be substandard, which some have argued is economically difficult in the current housing market.9 However, safe and affordable housing is a human right, and there are solutions with the potential to address the needs of tenants with lower incomes.
Just Solutions believes that these solutions must take into consideration the environmental injustice that historically disadvantaged groups often face alongside housing challenges. In fact, substandard housing and environmental inequalities go hand in hand; unhoused people and those in substandard housing are also most vulnerable to climate disasters.
Why is this topic being highlighted by Just Solutions?
Housing is innately connected to the environment and environmental justice. Unhoused people and those in substandard housing are uniquely vulnerable to the issues of a ‘broken affordable housing system’10 and of climate change. Renters with lower incomes often have few options but to settle for substandard housing. As a result of historic redlining, generational wealth gaps, predatory lending practices, and refusal of federal housing loans, these renters are disproportionately ‘Black, Brown, and immigrant households’.11
A lack of affordable housing can heighten the impacts of climate disasters and climate change for low-income households and communities. Substandard housing (in terms of location and/or structural integrity) increases risks for tenants; poor drinking water, bad air quality, extreme weather12, pests and disease13, toxic materials, or long-overdue repairs.14 Minimal affordable housing also removes people from their communities and workplaces, often reducing access to public transportation, increasing reliance on carbon-intensive modes. A lack of community resources and connections also leads to significantly less resilience in the face of climate crises for low-income households.15 Other organizations focused on environmental justice make the connections between climate and housing inequalities very clear.
The International Institute for Environment and Development, states, “current dominant housing policy and practices reproduce social and environmental injustices and lock governments into high-carbon urban development pathways.” Furthermore the organization Right to the City points out, – “Disinvested communities are especially vulnerable to environmental hazards, as in the case of Flint, Michigan, where an entire city was poisoned by its drinking water amid a municipal fiscal crisis.”
Building off Existing Efforts
Before the Blueprint was published, the White House also began funding and legislating the expansion of affordable housing through The Housing Supply Action Plan.16 Most recently, the White House unveiled ALL INside, an initiative based on the 2022 Federal Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.
The FHEO offers in-depth resources for tenants regarding housing discrimination, rights, and responsibilities.17 Additionally, HUD provides a toolkit for fair housing planning18 and continues to further the Fair Housing Act19 by requiring grantees of HUD (relating to any administration of housing or development) to follow recently updated proposed rules2021 for fair housing, including: a.) address inequity among protected class groups, b.) promote integration and reduce segregation, and c.) transform racially or ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity.
The Biden Administration has done a lot to communicate what an ideal housing situation should be. And while this is a first step, it requires much more effort to regulate and legislate the guidance in the Blueprint. Quite a few action items from the Blueprint have been enacted, such as HUD’s requirement for 30 days eviction notice22, or better regulated, such as the HUD AFFH (Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing) updated rules (outlined above). The Blueprint acknowledges that ‘housing affordability, quality, safety, stability, and location affect people’s health’.23 However, it fails to mention how climate change plays a part in tenants’ housing situations and the need for secure affordable housing. HUD, on the other hand, does have a Climate Action Plan which focuses on climate resilience and adaptation, emission reduction, and ‘environmental justice’.24 The Climate Action Plan most aligns with the values of the environmental justice movement; targeting investments and ‘reversing disparities’ in ‘low-income communities, communities of color, and other disadvantaged and historically underserved communities’.25 This Climate Action Plan is not mentioned in the White House Blueprint for Tenants Bill of Rights. If the White House were to include HUD’s Climate Action Plan, or connect tenant’s rights to environmental justice, the Blueprint could provide a more inclusive and well-rounded approach to federal housing policy. As well as provide a better assessment of the issues faced by tenants with lower incomes to not only in terms of housing shortages and inadequate enforcement of rights but also a disproportionate vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.