BUFFALO, N.Y. — For years, Charlene Redrick worked double shifts to make sure she made rent each month. The 64-year-old nursing home aide always paid on time — even at the height of the pandemic.
But in 2022, Redrick’s landlord moved to evict her from the three-bedroom apartment she shared with her granddaughter and infant great-grandson. The landlord wanted to sell the building, Redrick said, and thought it would show better if it were vacant.
Redrick initially planned to fight the eviction, knowing she wouldn’t find another three-bedroom apartment she could afford.
“But I just gave up,” she said. “I didn’t want to fight anymore.”
Redrick has since moved to a smaller apartment — and begun fighting for something else. This year, housing advocates in New York state mounted a fierce campaign in support of a once-obscure policy called “just cause eviction,” which requires that landlords provide a valid reason — a just cause — such as unpaid rent or property damage, for removing tenants. Such policies aim to increase housing stability and prevent arbitrary, retaliatory or discriminatory evictions.
Since 2019, California, Oregon and Washington have all adopted “just” or “good” cause policies, while Maryland, Colorado, Connecticut and New York considered them. More than 20 cities — including Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. — also have adopted some form of just cause protections, often over the objections of landlords.
Landlord and real estate groups argue that the policies would make it more difficult to remove problem tenants and adapt to changing business conditions, and could make the housing shortage worse by pushing some to stop offering rentals altogether.
Just cause protections likely will be tested as tenants lose pandemic-era welfare benefits and housing costs continue to increase. While evictions fell sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have since returned to or exceeded normal levels in many places, according to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which tracks filings in 10 states and more than 30 cities.
Researchers at the lab estimate that landlords filed an average of 3.6 million eviction cases each year between 2000 and 2018.
“That’s a huge number of households facing the possibility of losing their homes and all the disadvantages and risks that go along with that,” said Peter Hepburn, the assistant director of the Eviction Lab and an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University-Newark. “The fact that … we’ve returned to the status quo on evictions is deeply disappointing and cause for serious concern.”
A long-standing protection
Just cause policies have existed since at least 1974, when New Jersey introduced new rules around evictions as part of its response to a statewide housing shortage. Several states also observe long-standing just cause eviction laws that apply only to tenants of mobile home parks.
But just cause policies became more widespread after 2007 and the onset of the Great Recession, as new construction crashed across the country and rents skyrocketed in many urban centers. The tenants’ rights movement also grew rapidly during the 2010s, fueled in part by concerns about gentrification and displacement.
Against that backdrop, New Hampshire adopted a just cause policy in 2015, followed by Alameda and San Jose, Calif., Boston and Washington, D.C. The COVID-19 pandemic sparked another flurry of legislation: At least 19 cities or states have proposed just cause legislation since 2020, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition and local media reports.
“During the pandemic, we saw how critical consistent housing is to the health and safety of our residents,” said Maryland state Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins, a Montgomery County Democrat, who has repeatedly sponsored just cause legislation that becomes bottled up in committee.
While those statewide bills stalled, Baltimore passed a just cause policy in 2021. Washington state and a string of cities in New York and California also adopted similar measures during the pandemic.
Just cause policies vary widely by jurisdiction, but commonly allow landlords to evict tenants or decline to renew leases for a list of predetermined reasons. Those include circumstances such as failure to pay rent, property damage, disorderly conduct, criminal activity and lease violations, as well as the landlord’s desire to live in the unit or take it off the market.
Some just cause laws also include rent-stabilization measures that regulate how much landlords can raise rents each year. Advocates argue such policies, which have been adopted in California and Oregon and proposed in New York, prevent tenants from experiencing de facto evictions if their rents are abruptly raised to unaffordable levels.
Evaluating the success of these policies is difficult, in part because they vary so considerably by jurisdiction. Different places also experience different trends and types of evictions according to their local policy landscape and housing markets, said Tim Thomas, the research director at the University of California, Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project. That can make it challenging to isolate the effects of specific factors that contribute to eviction.
Importantly, because nonpayment of rent is always considered a “just cause,” the just cause policies, by design, only protect a minority of tenants.
“It’s kind of a complicated mess — I liken it to the gun debate,” Thomas said. “You have people on both sides who feel very strongly, and there’s not a lot of research to back up some of that intensity.”
Preliminary research does suggest that forms of just cause legislation decrease evictions, Thomas said — albeit by small numbers. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Public & International Affairs, a peer-reviewed graduate student journal, found that four California cities with just cause protections experienced slightly fewer evictions than similar cities without them.
More recently, a 2022 research brief published by the Urban Displacement Project found that just cause protections appeared to help one of every 100 extremely low-income households remain in gentrifying neighborhoods when they otherwise would have been pushed out.
Housing advocates argue that those impacts, while small, are powerful in combination with other tenant protections, such as right-to-counsel laws, legal defense funds and bans on source-of-income discrimination.
They also add up across a population of thousands or millions of tenants. Violet Lavatai, the executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State, said she believes just cause has kept “hundreds” of Washington tenants in their homes since it passed two years ago.
The law is not perfect, Lavatai acknowledged. Some landlords, she said, have devised “new, creative ways” to get rid of people they don’t want — such as moving tenants to month-to-month leases, which are not as tightly regulated.
But through the union’s tenant rights hotline, which renters can call with housing and eviction questions, Lavatai has coached “countless” renters on the law’s protections, she said.
“We’ve heard it all: ‘I don’t like the way your voice sounds, you annoyed me, you didn’t water the plants correctly — now you have to go,’” she said. “We have a lot of landlords out there who don’t operate like that. But there are also bad characters who don’t really care about their tenants.”
Landlords ‘strongly’ oppose regulations
As just cause eviction policies have spread, however, they’ve also faced what Maryland’s Wilkins calls a “strong, well-financed opposition.” Major landlord and real estate industry groups allege that eviction protections make it more expensive and time-consuming to remove problem tenants.
Critics also argue that rent stabilization measures, like those in effect in California and Oregon, make it more difficult for landlords to respond to changing business conditions and could prompt some to pull out of the market altogether.
In 2022, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, vetoed a Burlington just cause provision over concerns it would exacerbate the state’s housing shortage. Later that year, council members in St. Paul, Minnesota, also weakened a 5-month-old rent stabilization measure after the city saw a steep drop in new construction.
For Chris Athineos, the owner of six small apartment buildings in Brooklyn, New York, and an outspoken critic of rent regulations, such harms are a growing cause of concern.
New York City has long required a “just cause” for evictions in rent-controlled apartments, but statewide legislation first proposed in 2019 would extend those protections to all tenants and impose a cap on annual rent increases.
Athineos and his parents, who bought their first building in the 1960s, enjoy an unusually close relationship with their renters, he said: They’ve attended tenants’ weddings and funerals and celebrated holidays together.
But as just cause legislation gained momentum in New York, Athineos sold two of his properties and made plans to raise rents across his remaining portfolio. His business already has been squeezed, he said, by an increase in insurance prices and a slate of recent, costly city housing regulations.
“It’s like a ‘use it or lose it’ situation — if I don’t take that rent increase now, I can’t make up for it down the road if I need to,” he said. “They want to cap rents, but no one is capping our expenses.”
New York did not pass its just cause eviction bill this session — much to Athineos’ relief and Charlene Redrick’s disappointment.
While legislative leaders fought to include the measure in state budget negotiations, and later to pass it as part of a last-minute package of housing reforms, they ultimately failed to reach an agreement with Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat who favors other ways to address the housing crisis.
Similar just cause bills also died in Colorado and Connecticut last session.
State lawmakers and housing advocates have vowed to redouble their efforts next year. But in Buffalo, Redrick said she worries about the tenants who face eviction in the interim: She sees a lot of homeless people sleeping in the laundromat or hanging out in the street near her new apartment.
“Seeing people be evicted and homeless, I’m still hoping there’s something we can do to affect what is happening,” Redrick said. “I’m afraid for other people to go through what I went through. That’s my main focus.”
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