The City of Ann Arbor recently adopted a “right-to-renew” ordinance, which means that landlords are required to allow tenants to renew a lease– or, alternatively, provide them with relocation assistance. It might seem like a kinda obvious idea, but it’s not terribly common. And, in the age of the Great Housing Shortage, we are seeing some more inventive approaches from housing advocates in the policy realm to try and address what feels like an endlessly hideous housing market, whether for renters or buyers. Detroit, a notoriously landlord-friendly city that, by any estimate, continues to allow lead hazards in rental housing through a weak enforcement mechanism, could do well to consider such a measure, and at least a few advocates are pushing for it.
But first, some storytime!
The Vermont House
In 2016 and 2017, I rented in a house in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. It was a charming and thoughtfully-renovated house– tiny, all of something like 15 feet wide, but sufficient for Three Young Men to happily live and have enough space. There was a front porch and a backyard. I planted a garden and harvested black raspberries from the bushes out back to make jam. We were so very, very happy.
But all good things must come to an end, of course, and, only weeks after our landlord had come by to demonstrate that he, too, was a real, working-class man, and we had shared a couple of beers and talked about construction in the kitchen. You see, Dave worked in commercial construction management, but he also lived in Grosse Pointe, hence why he didn’t drive a Ford F-150 but rather a Lincoln pickup truck. A man of the people, to be sure.
But to their credit, Dave and Kelly bought the house in 2002 for $10,000 and renovated it themselves, with a bunch of nice touches that I’d describe as “universal” design– things that referenced the historical character but gave it new context. It wasn’t some whiteboxed, grey-vinyl-planked flip. There are plenty of tasteful, personal touches. It was for these reasons– plus the fact that I was a quick walk to work in Southwest Detroit- that I wanted to stay. I would have paid more than the $1000 we were paying. I would have paid plenty more.
But Dave was weird, and Kelly was weird, too, and when it came to the end of our lease term, they told me that they weren’t renewing the lease. They had already upped our rent around the time I moved in (about a 10% increase).
Why not, Dave? Like, was there a reason? I thought we were cool! We drank beers in the kitchen! And talked! As men do!
Well, Dave explained, we don’t have to tell you why not, we just want you out of the house.
Well, okay, Dave. I learned fairly quickly that there are zero protections for renters in this position, because landlords have this paramount right of re-possession, or whatever. This is one major issue in the eviction process. Landlords often evict tenants for nonpayment of rent or bad behavior of whatever sort. But when tenants pay rent every month and take care of the place? They can still get evicted without cause.
That’s one of the things that right-to-renew is trying to address.
All Good Things (And All Good Housing Arrangements)
In my case, I was a white guy with a college degree and decent credit. My worst-case scenario has never been much more than sleeping on a friend’s couch for a week or two, and just hoping that it doesn’t turn into the seven weeks that the progeny of a local legislator spent passed out on my couch in the Corktown house, because that’s apparently what a long weekend turns into sometimes. Of course, I also was in a point in my life where I didn’t mind moving into a shoebox of a bedroom, changing it up to live on the far east side for all of $210 a month for rent and utilities.
The average person, and, above all else, the average family, doesn’t have the ability to just schlep across town in their Prius and into their friend’s spare bedroom for $210 a month. Right-to-renew ordinances could help stabilize occupancies in all manner of types of housing, but could also help create a better culture of residential stability. Let people live where they want to live, even if the neighborhood changes. That doesn’t mean the landlord can’t raise the rent– that’s a separate policy mechanism that should also be imposed (caps on annual increases). But right-to-renew could become a popular policy measure very quickly in this particularly brutal housing market.
Ann Arbor has been making moves alongside this policy measure in recent months, notably axing parking minimums last summer, which I covered. It’s not clear how well this small handful of measures will actually address the city’s housing affordability crisis. But it’s certainly a start. As for Dave and Kelly? Well, it seems they proceeded to rent out the house to a couple of younger, better-paid, even whiter tenants. Never registered the property under the city’s rental registration ordinance, of course. But who cares– I’m sure they’ll make a pretty penny when they sell it to Blackrock, or whatever. Those of us still hoping for better will just have to keep following these new policy mechanisms as they emerge– and pushing for them.