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Are Unfavorable Landlord-Tenant Laws Contributing to the Affordable Housing Crisis?

Jul 20, 2020 by Maurie Backman

In the course of the COVID-19 outbreak, many Americans have struggled to pay their rent. While that relates largely to rampant unemployment, the reality is that far too many people are stuck in a housing situation that's beyond their financial means.

It's estimated that 40% of U.S. renters spend at least 30% of their income on housing, while nearly 20% spend more than half of their income on rent. The reason? There's not enough affordable housing.

The U.S. needs a minimum of 7.2 million additional affordable housing units at present, and potentially as many as 12 million more, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. This lack of inventory explains why only 35 out of every 100 extremely low-income families are able to live in affordable housing. It also explains why more than 550,000 people living in America experience homelessness.

But in order for there to be more affordable housing available, we need landlords who are willing to own and maintain these properties. And unfortunately, unfavorable landlord-tenant laws could drive property owners to avoid renting out their homes altogether.

When landlords no longer want to be landlords

It's not a secret that being a landlord can be difficult, and this especially holds true for landlords who accept housing subsidies. There are certain hoops Section 8 landlords must jump through in order to accept tenants who qualify for housing vouchers, and while there are benefits to going this route (consistent subsidies paid by the government, lower vacancy rates), there are risks involved, too. Low-income tenants often don't have the means to pay a security deposit, so if any property is damaged, landlords in these situations are often left in the lurch. It's also more difficult to evict tenants who qualify for affordable housing than it is to evict tenants under normal circumstances.

But let's be clear: Eviction is hardly a picnic for landlords, no matter the situation at hand. If a tenant stops paying, a landlord could get stuck going months without collecting rent, only to then have to spend money to have a non-compliant tenant removed.

And it's not just eviction laws that can leave landlords out in the cold. In Seattle, for example, landlords are required to accept the first qualified tenant who applies for a rental unit. They are also barred from running criminal background checks when reviewing tenant applications. Not only does that put landlords at risk, but it potentially creates a less-than-ideal environment for other tenants. Yet laws like these that overwhelmingly favor tenants could ultimately make the affordable housing crisis even worse.

When landlords get tired of the laws that work against them, they often respond by ceasing to be landlords. The result? Less housing -- including affordable rentals -- is available.

Of course, landlord-tenant laws vary by state, and in some places, the laws may be more friendly to landlords than in others. But as countless mom-and-pop landlords grapple with income insecurity in light of the eviction bans that were put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, it begs the question: To what extent can we really afford to keep making landlords' lives more difficult?

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