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The fight to make it harder for landlords to evict their tenants

Landlords can kick renters out of housing for basically any reason. “Good cause” laws would change that.

A protester holds a sign that reads “No eviction! Good cause!” at a housing justice march in New York City. Pablo Monsalve/VIEWpress via Getty Images
Rachel M. Cohen is a senior reporter for Vox covering social policy. She focuses on housing, schools, labor, criminal justice, and abortion rights, and has been reporting on these issues for more than a decade.

In most US communities, renters have very little assurance of staying in their homes long term if they’d like to. Landlords can hike rents, evict tenants through court with little difficulty, or simply choose to not renew their lease. Nearly 5 million Americans lose their homes through eviction and foreclosure every year, and millions more deal with threats of housing loss.

In July 2021, local lawmakers in Albany approved New York’s first “good cause” eviction law — a city ordinance affirming tenants’ right to renew their leases, defining what could lead to eviction, and protecting them against “unconscionable” rent hikes exceeding 5 percent. Within a few months, four more upstate New York cities — Kingston, Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, and Beacon — followed suit.

But tenant advocates didn’t have long to celebrate. Landlords challenged the measures in court, arguing the local laws violated their state property rights. In three separate rulings over the last six months, the courts agreed, and “good cause” laws in Newburgh, Albany, and Poughkeepsie were struck down. Kingston lawmakers preemptively repealed their own measure two weeks ago.

A statewide “good cause” eviction law is now at the heart of one of the most high-profile battles in New York’s legislature. It mirrors the growing focus of housing advocates across the country, who argue lawmakers need to do more to prevent the harms clearly linked to losing one’s home, including higher job loss, debt, suicide, and reduced credit access.

Similar state-level “good cause” measures have passed recently in California, Oregon, and Washington state, and legislators in Colorado, Connecticut, and Maryland have taken up the idea this year, too.

Landlord groups argue “good cause” eviction rules will upend the housing market during an already volatile period, and slow down much-needed new construction. Supporters of the protections say this is just real estate industry fear-mongering, noting that in states that have already passed “good cause” eviction laws, construction has continued apace.

No state has had a “good cause” ordinance longer than New Jersey, which passed its own version in 1974.

“There’s a thriving rental market in New Jersey, it has not collapsed by any stretch of the imagination,” said Peter Hepburn, a sociologist at Rutgers University-Newark and an analyst at Princeton’s Eviction Lab.

Julia Salazar, the New York senator leading the push in her state legislature for “good cause” eviction, said opposition is led largely by those “who want to exploit the need people have to be housed.” She argued there’s been a lot of misinformation about her bill.

“No one is saying we have enough housing stock or we don’t need to build, and I believe we urgently need to build more housing,” she told Vox. “If ‘good cause’ were in fact any impediment to that then I would certainly be concerned, but the reality that we’ve seen in states like New Jersey and Oregon is it’s just not.”

However, whether these laws will provide the kind of protection advocates yearn to see is not clear, since many common reasons for eviction — like being a nuisance or damaging property — are listed as “good causes” in the statutes. One hope, though, is that they could provide more regulation over the myriad informal evictions that typically take place outside of court. To date, there’s been little research on the effectiveness of the laws in the states that have recently passed them, partly because they’re so new and partly because it’s challenging to disentangle the effect of “good cause” from all the other Covid-19 tenant protections.

In New Jersey, advocates concede, “good cause” has not been a strong deterrent against evictions, partly because its language barring “unconscionable” rent increases lacks a specific threshold (like 5 percent, for example), making enforcement difficult.

“The note of caution I would sound is that every ‘good cause’ statute permits eviction for nonpayment of rent,” said Hepburn. “And nonpayment of rent is far and away the most common cause that evictions are filed.”

How “good cause” eviction laws work

Laws requiring “good cause” for eviction (sometimes called “just cause” or simply eviction “for cause”) are tenant protections meant to give renters a greater sense of housing security and empower them to hold landlords accountable for poor conditions without fear of retaliation.

The laws vary from place to place but they always include specific reasons a landlord could choose to legally evict a tenant or opt not to renew their lease. A tenant can then challenge an eviction in court if they feel it was ordered without legitimate cause.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition lists three core components of “good cause” legislation. Beyond defining the legal grounds for an eviction, advocates say most place limits on rent increases (some of these limits are vaguer than others), and most laws also include enhanced requirements for written eviction notices, so tenants have enough time to gather any documentation they need to challenge it. In Oregon, for example, landlords have to provide a tenant they want to evict with 90 days notice.

While there has not been much research to date on the impact of “good cause” eviction laws, some evidence suggests they make a difference. One study found local “good cause” ordinances in four California cities lowered eviction rates between 2000 and 2016. The researcher concluded the measures “have a significant and noticeable effect on eviction and eviction filing rates” and provide a low-cost policy solution for other states and cities. Other advocates note that traditional eviction data — which relies on court filings — generally fails to capture the 72 percent of forced displacement that occur outside the court system.

Ned Resnikoff, the policy director for California YIMBY, said he doesn’t believe there’s any reliable data yet on California’s statewide “good cause” measure that took effect in 2020, partly because some eviction moratoriums remain in effect. “But the Terner Center has found that the rent stabilization piece of [the law] isn’t being adequately enforced, so I think it’s reasonable to surmise that we might face a similar issue with just cause protections,” he told Vox.

Progressives are throwing their weight behind the fight in New York

Progressive activists have named “good cause” eviction a top priority for this year, and powerful congressional Democrats including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jerry Nadler, and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries have also come out in support.

The bill would bar rent increases that exceed 3 percent of the previous rental amount, or 1.5 percent of the Consumer Price Index, whichever is higher. This could provide significant protection: Even among New York City’s 1 million rent-stabilized apartments, tenants are looking at rent increases for next year that could range between 5 and 16 percent.

New York’s bill would go further in protecting tenants than the “good cause” laws that passed on the West Coast, as New York’s proposed limits on rent increases would apply not only to old units, but also to new and future housing.

The Community Service Society of New York, a progressive advocacy group, estimates that 1.6 million New York households would be protected from eviction based on unreasonable rent increases under Salazar’s bill.

Landlords are fighting back, arguing the eviction moratorium from the pandemic already put them under severe financial strain, will lead to more backlogged court cases, and will leave them financially vulnerable in an inflationary period. The right-leaning New York Post blasted the proposed law for potentially discouraging new housing and driving existing landlords out of business.

Tim Foley, the CEO of the Building and Realty Institute, which represents Westchester and mid-Hudson region real estate professionals, told Vox his members worry it will hurt their ability to get financing to complete their projects. He pointed out that banks, including the recently collapsed Signature Bank, paused or stopped lending following the passage of New York’s 2019 state tenant protections. His organization also found repairs and maintenance in rent-stabilized units decreased after the 2019 law, suggesting there could be “unintended consequences” to the tenant rights law.

Foley said his members instead back bills to expand legal representation for low-income New Yorkers during eviction proceedings (known as “right to counsel”) and to expand access to housing vouchers.

Ann Korchak, the board president of Small Property Owners of New York, a landlord advocacy group with roughly 600 members, told Vox she believes her state “already has incredibly strong tenant protections” and disagrees with advocates who say otherwise.

Salazar told Vox she sees Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul as their biggest political obstacle, and previously indicated she’s open to making modifications to her bill. Lawmakers tried and failed to pass a similar bill in 2019, but Salazar thinks there are more elected officials now who embrace a “housing justice” platform.

Hochul, who introduced her own housing agenda earlier this year, has thus far signaled disinterest in the proposed “good cause” eviction bill, though her proposals have failed to gain traction and pressure remains for lawmakers to do something on the affordability crisis.

Evictions are life-altering and preventable

Despite research showing harms related to eviction, it wasn’t until the pandemic that the government stepped up to help families avoid this traumatic experience. One of the most significant Covid-19 social policy developments was the creation of the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program, which authorized $46.5 billion to help people stay housed. More than half of states passed their own eviction prevention measures as well.

But now emergency rental aid has mostly tapped out, state and local eviction moratoriums have mostly expired, and a federal bill to establish a permanent eviction prevention fund died in Congress.

Advocates say “good cause” measures, especially since they can be passed at little cost to governments, represent a meaningful interim step lawmakers can take now as they continue fighting for more rental assistance, source-of-income discrimination bans, and right to counsel. To make “good cause” ordinances more effective, tenant advocates say local courts and legislators must also develop stronger enforcement mechanisms, including better ways to track and analyze eviction filings and judgments. The National Low Income Housing Coalition also emphasizes the need to pass “equitable marketing strategies” that can help tenants learn how to exercise their rights.

Hepburn, of Rutgers and the Eviction Lab, said “good cause” eviction measures are worthy ideas, especially in a place like New York, which has the highest share of renters among all 50 states. Yet he noted the unfortunate reality that gaps in housing security between blue and red states continue to widen.

“These laws should happen, but it should be noted that where they’re passing are in places that have tenant protections already,” he said. “These bills are not coming up in places like South Carolina, like Virginia, like Georgia. How do we do something like this in Indiana?”

Update, May 1, 9:30 am ET: This story was updated to include data about forced moves that occur outside the court system.

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