By Lindsay Duvall and David Foster, NLIHC
Eviction can be a traumatic experience. Individuals and families face an uphill battle when recovering from the aftermath of an eviction, either from the physical loss of their home, the financial strain of finding comparably priced housing, or the emotional and psychological harm that comes from being forced out of a home. In many states and jurisdictions, landlords do not have to justify their decision to evict someone. Having comprehensive good or just cause eviction legislation in place can help ensure tenants are not evicted at no fault of their own.
“Just cause” – also known as “good cause” or “for cause” – eviction laws protect tenants from eviction or a landlord’s refusal to renew their lease when the tenant has not violated their lease or the law. While there are no federal just cause eviction laws, some states and localities have passed laws to protect renters at risk of housing instability. The specific protections vary from place to place, but each law defines the legal causes for which a landlord can evict a tenant or refuse to renew their lease. Common just causes for eviction or lease non-renewal include failure to pay rent, property damage, disturbance or disorderly conduct, other lease violations, criminal activity in a unit, and the intent on the part of the landlord to sell, repair, or move into the unit. Just cause eviction laws may also place limits on rent increases and enhance the written notice requirements for an eviction. If a tenant covered by a just cause law receives an eviction notice without just cause, they can challenge the eviction in court.
The end of a lease term is a particularly vulnerable time for low-income tenants. Just cause eviction laws benefit these tenants by:
• Protecting renters from evictions for no fault of their own.
• Delivering a sense of stability to tenants.
• Discouraging renters from self-evicting when they receive eviction notices from landlords.
• Empowering tenants experiencing poor living conditions, discrimination, or other illegal landlord behavior to advocate for improvements with landlords or file complaints without fear of retaliation.
• In some cases, protecting tenants from unreasonable rent increases.
New Jersey, California, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Washington have all passed their own versions of a statewide just cause eviction law, and other laws have been introduced, but not yet passed, in Maryland, New York, and Connecticut. Under California’s law, the landlord in a ‘no-fault’ eviction – such as an eviction that occurs when the landlord decides to renovate or occupy the unit – must assist the evicted tenant in relocating by providing direct payment of one month’s rent or providing a written waiver for the last month’s rent. Oregon’s law limits the amount of annual rent increases for buildings more than 15 years old to 7% plus the rate of inflation. Washington’s law requires landlords to give 60-day written notice for an eviction, granting tenants more time to fight unlawful evictions in court or to find new housing.
In many of these states, just cause laws were passed at a local level first, which helped set the path for statewide reform. Local just cause laws have also passed in other parts of the country, including Albany, Beacon, Kingston, Newburgh, and Poughkeepsie, New York; Baltimore, Maryland; and St. Paul, Minnesota. Local governments have the opportunity to build buy-in from the public and with their state legislatures by passing local laws and then collecting eviction data to demonstrate the impact of the law to other policymakers. For the Many, a tenant organizing group that helped pass four good cause eviction laws in New York State, offers this advice for other tenants seeking to pass local laws:
“First, identify legal experts who can help you craft the best template legislation, and then work with one or two elected leaders in your city to introduce and champion the bill. At the same time, it’s crucial that you begin reaching out to tenants in your community and educating them on how the legislation would impact their lives. You should also build a broad coalition by bringing partner organizations together behind your campaign, promoting your work on social media and the press, and above all, organizing folks to attend community meetings, city council meetings, and to make calls to their elected officials. These victories were hard fought – our opposition has a lot of resources – but we were able to overcome them, which is a testament to tenant power. When we organize together, we win.”
These protections help address the power imbalance between a landlord and tenant by giving low-income tenants the agency to keep their housing and advocate for themselves without fear of retaliation. With the shortage of affordable housing, it is important to ensure that the most vulnerable of renters are supported with legislation that protects them from unjust evictions. Just cause eviction legislation is an important step toward ensuring a more equitable relationship between landlords and tenants.
You can learn more about just cause eviction laws in NLIHC’s May 2022 brief, Promoting Housing Stability through Just Cause Eviction Legislation, which is accessible at: bit.ly/3XPceOi.