U.S. Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Maxine Waters on Tuesday unveiled legislation to empower tenants to protect their housing rights and to hold the federal government and building owners accountable for unsafe and unhealthy living conditions.

The Tenant Empowerment Act of 2021 would protect tenants’ rent money and subsidy payments if they find themselves in substandard housing conditions in properties taking part in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development programs. The bill would strengthen HUD tenants’ rights to organize and give them more power to negotiate or fight with negligent owners and management companies through court.

The proposal comes as progressive Democrats press the Biden administration and congressional colleagues to include greater focus on housing in infrastructure plans, particularly as they look to address longstanding inequities compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A safe and stable home should be a fundamental right for everyone who calls this country home, but too often our neighbors are forced to live in unsafe or substandard conditions,” Pressley said in a Zoom conference along with housing advocates and tenants on Tuesday morning.

Pressley added that the health hazards associated with substandard housing — mold, allergens, lead and poor air quality — disproportionately impact tenants of color. She noted that housing is essential to public health and economic mobility, but argued “decades of precise and intentional policy violence” had led to “historic under-investment, insufficient oversight and enforcement on the part of HUD and negligent property owners getting away with” noncompliance of federal housing requirements.

“It’s no coincidence that the activists joining us today are Black women,” Pressley, whose mother was a housing organizer, added.

The legislation bolsters transparency by enabling tenants to learn more about where they live, forcing HUD to provide access to building information, property management, annual profit and loss statements, inspection reports and management reviews, and assessments of capital needs. It also would ensure that rental assistance for tenants is not interrupted by foreclosure.

If passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden, tenants will gain “a seat at the table” by being allowed to participate in parts of HUD’s physical inspection and management review process, the lawmakers said.

“Who better to ask what’s going on in the properties than the tenants who live there?” Geraldine Collins, president of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants, said during the Zoom call. Collins said aging buildings had long exposed tenants to environmental health and safety hazards and that HUD has given “owners a pass over and over again.”

According to the bill, if HUD determines a property violates required basic housing standards, tenants could withhold their portion of rent in escrow and HUD could withhold its subsidy to owners who fail “time and time again,” Collins said.

“Tenants should live in their property in decent and sanitary conditions, without mold and mildew and rat infestations,” she added. “We’re not trying to fight the landlords. We just want them to do the right thing by tenants.”

Housing, Tlaib argued, is “a human right.”

“It’s more than just a roof over our heads or a place to sleep,” she added. “It has to be a decent, safe, sanitary place to live, with fair and equal treatment. Our nation’s public housing has long been a critical lifeline for our most vulnerable neighbors,” including seniors, children and people with disabilities.

Gerda Paulisant, of Hyde Park’s Georgetowne Tenants United, said her group has fought “the culture of eviction and substandard housing conditions” for years. The Tenant Empowerment Act would give tenants unions like hers “more leverage when it comes to negotiating with corporate landlords” and also help tenants find out “where money is going that should be used instead to improve our homes.”

Pressley said the bill authorizes the HUD secretary to disperse grant funding for tenant participation services, including outreach, technical assistance and training of tenants on housing issues. That funding would follow the annual appropriations process, and Pressley said she’ll fight for tens of billions of dollars as part of infrastructure legislation in the annual budget reconciliation bill.

Biden and Republican lawmakers recently reached a deal on a nearly $1 trillion infrastructure package. Many progressives have argued it still does not adequately address a host of vital issues, particularly climate change.

“Housing justice is infrastructure,” Pressley said. “The care economy is infrastructure. Climate justice is infrastructure. Investments in public transit are infrastructure. It all matters and all the parts really work together. The people urgently need for these investments to happen to ensure a just, equitable economic recover … also to chart a different path forward.”

Records show that buildings housing tenants who receive federal assistance have racked up a backlog of about $70 billion in needed repairs, Pressley added.

“It costs us more when we do nothing,” Tlaib said.

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