More Tenants? More Rights!

2739044670_102bbef9d9-1Toronto Given the housing and foreclosure crisis in the United States, it was not surprising to see that homeownership rates have fallen rapidly in recent years.  The Wall Street Journal published an estimate saying:

The nation’s home-ownership rate is also falling, to 67% of U.S. households in 2010, after topping 69% in 2004, according to the Census Bureau, with further declines expected. Each 1% decline represents one million households moving to rentals, housing experts say.

Conservatively that means 2 million fewer homeowners in the USA.  Where are they going?  Into rentals.  The same WSJ article estimates the following:

Renter households now top a record 37 million after increasing more than 3.5 million in the past five years, partly due to the foreclosure crisis. Green Street Advisors expects an additional 4.4 million rental households to be added by 2015.

Part of this increase is fueled by the transfer of owners to renters and part of it is undoubtedly fueled by the tightening credit markets that will produce longer term rents, particularly among the young in expanding markets.

It is hard not to think about tenants in Toronto.  At best only 50% of the city is composed of homeowners and estimates are only a little better than 60% in the greater Toronto area.  In the neighborhoods where ACORN Canada organizers virtually everyone is a tenant in one high rise complex after another.  The longest running organizing campaign not surprisingly has been the effort to win what we call, “landlord licensing,” which would be a process of licensing (and de-licensing) based on inspections (which would lead to repairs and improvements) and finally assure our tenants safe, decent, and even affordable housing.  In this long running battle the real estate interests cry like stuck pigs at our every proposal, but there has been sure and steady progress.  Last year winning a better auditing and inspections process, even though far short of licensing, according to the City of Toronto housing department led to $100 million in landlord upgrades and improvements.  Now ACORN Canada is trying to secure another small, but significant victory in this guerrilla campaign where a box would be required in the lobby of all major apartment complexes where the audit reports and improvements would be available to any tenant seeking to rent creating a transparency that would hopefully steer tenants towards better properties and shame landlords into making needed repairs.

There’s no way to imagine cities with burgeoning numbers of tenants who will no longer be seeing apartments as way stations to homeownership but increasingly as permanent addresses and not realize that the long imbalance where landlords have held the upper hand and tenants in most cities and states have been virtually stripped of any rights, as a time bomb ticking.  New construction of apartment blocks is being accompanied by rental inflation, so there are bound to once again be calls for controls if (when?) greed laps past demand, but perhaps even more urgently there will need to be tenant rights campaigns, like the ones in Toronto, to secure basic housing decency for the millions and millions who now understand that apartments are central to the urban future.

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