Amid a housing industry boom, renters are paying more for substandard homes

Collaborator: Brittany Harlow
Published: 01/30/2022, 3:46 PM

Written By: Mollie Bryant

(NATIONAL) A limited supply of rental units and a high demand for all types of housing forced rents up 11% nationally last year, largely benefiting housing providers and hurting renters.

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Those in the professionally managed apartment sector and multi-family housing developers have seen a boom, while renters are on the downside of the market, said Chris Herbert, managing director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, during a webcast last week.

“We’re seeing rent increases that are really just striking, not just at the professionally managed level, but at the moderate-priced level and continually at the low end, as well,” he said. “Obviously that pain, that difficulty, is most challenging for those at the lowest incomes, who even in the good times, are struggling to make rent, and particularly for people of color.”

Rents rose highest for high-end buildings, but they also rose more than 4% for lower-quality rentals last year, according to a recent report from the center.

Despite shelling out more for housing, some renters have little choice but to live in homes that have serious health or safety issues, from a lack of running water to fire hazards.

Low-income households and renters of color most vulnerable to substandard housing

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines inadequate or substandard housing as having moderate or severe structural problems, including issues with plumbing, electricity and heat. In 2019, 3.3 million occupied rental units were considered at least moderately inadequate, according to American Housing Survey data. Of those units, 820,000 were severely inadequate.

A study from HUD examined the number of households with “worst case” housing needs, or those living in severely inadequate conditions and very low-income renters who don’t receive housing assistance and pay more than half of their incomes on rent. The 2020 study said worst case housing needs had risen 54% in 20 years.

Those figures don’t take into account properties with other issues that can affect the health and safety of renters, like lead, air quality, mold or smoke detectors that are missing or don’t work.

Because substandard housing usually costs less to rent, tenants who live in it often have low incomes. Out of renter households that earned less than $15,000 in 2019, 10% lived in inadequate housing, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies. Black and Hispanic renters were slightly more likely than white tenants to live in inadequate housing.

Age, design, location and the history of redlining and other racist housing policies can all impact housing quality, said Amanda L. Reddy, executive director of the National Center for Healthy Housing.

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What housing codes leave out

Cities and counties enforce local building and health codes that deal with housing. But housing codes traditionally haven’t covered some potential risks to health and well-being, like mold, Reddy said.

“They’ll address water intrusion, … but they don’t address mold directly, and that can lead to a lot of frustration and challenges for residents who are seeking help,” she said.

Most communities have complaint-driven code enforcement programs, where complaints from a renter or neighbor trigger an investigation. Some cities, like Cleveland, Ohio, require rental properties to be inspected on an ongoing basis.

Reddy said inspection programs work best with additional supports to help property owners make needed repairs, such as low and no-interest loans, grants and tax incentives.

“This really is about changing a culture, transforming that traditional ‘us vs. them’ dynamic in code enforcement to one that is really about cooperation and mutually beneficial goals,” she said. “You can really transform a system that can be seen as punitive and ineffective into a powerful tool for equity and improving housing quality.”

In Oklahoma, two new bills would change the game for renters seeking repairs

The Tulsa Landlord-Tenant Resource Center often receives questions from renters about their rights regarding needed repairs and substandard housing, said Becky Gligo, executive director of Housing Solutions, which started the center during the pandemic. Some of renters’ most common concerns are mold and lack of running heat or air conditioning.

[ Read more: How code enforcement works in three cities ]

When renters are seeking repairs for serious issues without help from their landlords, Gligo said the center may refer them to early settlement mediation or legal aid.

Landlords frequently ask about the resources out there to help them make repairs. Gligo said local utility companies have programs for energy-efficient windows and appliances, and the city’s Working in Neighborhoods program offers grants that provide property owners with up to $5,000 to make emergency repairs.

Local governments in Oklahoma are legally barred from creating programs to register and regularly inspect rental properties, and state law poses perhaps a bigger barrier to enforcing housing codes. Renters can be evicted for reporting health or safety violations to local code enforcement agencies, a form of landlord retaliation that is illegal in all but seven states.

“I think the biggest thing we want is to empower tenants to speak up when they’re living in substandard conditions, and so that’s why increasing our anti-retaliation protections is going to be a key part of improving what’s going on right now,” Gligo said.

A bill in the Oklahoma Legislature would make landlord retaliation illegal, and another would improve the outlook for renters forced to make urgent repairs themselves.

If Oklahoma landlords fail to respond to repair requests for serious issues, renters can pay to have the repairs made themselves and withhold up to $100 of those costs from their next rent payment. Housing advocates like Gligo have argued that amount hasn’t changed in 40 years and doesn’t go very far.

A bill in the state Senate would allow renters to be reimbursed up to $2,000 in repair costs over time. Under the measure, a renter could withhold as much as half of their rent each month until they’ve regained the full cost of the repairs.

Contact editor Mollie Bryant at 405-990-0988 or Follow her on Twitter.

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