Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit

 

Community Protections and Agreements

Low-income populations, people of color, and the elderly are more likely than other groups to be affected by climate gentrification, which refers to the displacement of existing urban populations as a result of climate change impacts, attributed to both the geographic exposure of one’s home (e.g., whether an apartment building is located in the floodplain) or its degree of resilience to those impacts (e.g., whether the building is elevated).See footnote 1 For example, low-income residents living at higher elevations may be displaced by wealthier residents leaving flood-prone areas, which could also lead to land speculation in previously affordable neighborhoods.See footnote 2 In addition to the increased pressure on the housing market at higher elevations, investments in climate resilient infrastructure can also raise the cost of housing and lead to the physical or economic displacement of residents who have historically resided or lived in those neighborhoods. Frequently, displaced residents are forced into areas with greater flood risk.See footnote 3 Flood-related costs, combined with relocation costs and increased commuting costs, could place additional burdens on low-income households. A household in Little Haiti, Miami that moves to a new neighborhood could see its cost of living increase by 10% (relative to the household’s average income).See footnote 4 As homeowners and developers increasingly turn to weather-proofing measures and other resilience upgrades, the use of community benefit agreements (CBAs) and certain tenant and renter protections can help reduce the rate of displacement, even if not reversing the process of gentrification.

Community Benefits Agreements

Community benefits agreements (CBAs) are legally binding contracts between developers and community groups that set forth benefits the developer is committed to bringing to the community. In exchange for the community’s commitment to supporting a proposed development project, developers agree to provide a range of community benefits, commonly in areas of affordable housing, environmental improvements, and workforce development.See footnote 5 For example, CBAs could require that a certain number of new housing units be made affordable for low- or moderate-income households, or specify community engagement requirements for new housing projects.See footnote 6 Developers may also stipulate to hire residents or local businesses for labor and materials, or offer to adopt certain design practices to improve the project’s environmental impact and climate resilience.

Tenant and Renter Protections

Tenant and renter protections can prevent displacement by protecting residents from the factors that contribute to housing insecurity such as rent increases or evictions. Legal protections for low-income and housing-insecure individuals can help address rent increases that may occur after resilience enhancements (community-wide or building-specific) or evictions that may follow a natural disaster.  Strategies could include:See footnote 7

  • Just cause eviction controls – Cities could consider passing just cause eviction controls (JCEC) to prevent the eviction of tenants for events outside their control, for example if a natural disaster makes the property uninhabitable.See footnote 8 JCECs help make clear the types of actions that lead to a just cause eviction (e.g., failing to pay rent or creating a nuisance), and can prevent landlords from evicting residents without cause (e.g., to obtain higher rent). Most ordinances contain provisions that protect low-income residents, people of color, and the elderly. JCECs can be passed by city councils or initiated through ballot measures.
  • Rent control – State and municipal rent control laws limit the maximum rent can be charged to tenants. Rent control laws and policies vary widely by state. New York and California, which have some of the highest housing costs in the country, have the most robust rent control laws. Other states like Georgia and Illinois do not currently have rent control policies. Rent control laws can be passed by city councils or initiated through ballot measures.
  • Access to legal services – Some cities provide free or reduced legal access to low-income residents to ensure that they have access to legal representation in the event of a tenant-landlord dispute. Tenant legal service programs help even the balance of power between low-income tenants who are otherwise unable to afford counsel and landlords, who, in cities like New York, have representation in 90% of eviction cases.See footnote 9

Considerations of Community Protections and Agreements

Economic

  • CBAs can be used to address issues that local governments may not otherwise address through local land use functions, for example, requiring a certain percentage of construction jobs for local workers, setting wage rates, and supporting small businesses.
  • Investing in legal services for tenants who face eviction may be less expensive than finding alternative housing for evicted residents.See footnote 10

Environmental

  • CBAs provide an opportunity for communities to negotiate environmental priorities and projects, for example creating public green spaces, adopting sound design standards, or installing green infrastructure and rooftop solar.

Social/Equity

  • The negotiation and implementation of CBAs provide public engagement opportunities for community members to take an active role in asserting their own interests.
  • JCECs can help maintain social and economic diversity in cities.See footnote 11

Administrative

  • CBAs require consistent and sustained engagement by community organizations in order to give voice to community members and hold developers accountable.
  • The cost of monitoring and tracking community benefits may be both time and resource-intensive.
  • Tenant protection policies can be contentious and difficult to pass.

Legal

  • CBAs could allow cities to operate outside local land use regulations, for example impose conditions on proposed projects even if the conditions do not have a substantial nexus to the impacts of the development project (which could trigger legal limits on exactions).See footnote 12
  • CBAs can be difficult to enforce if they are vague, do not include time commitments, or are phrased in aspirational language (e.g., “will intend to” or “seek to”).
  • JCECs may only be effective in states with rent control laws, without which landlords could force out renters through rent increases, if not evictions.
  • JCECs help protect tenants who are more likely to have month-to-month leases (e.g., low-income families), who cannot be evicted for the sole purpose of raising rents.

Lessons Learned

  • CBAs should be negotiated by community groups that truly represent the community and understand their interests.
  • For accountability, CBA negotiations should be developed through a transparent, open process.
  • CBAs should include monitoring and enforcement provisions in order to ensure accountability.
  • Tenant protection laws should include penalties for landlords and other enforcement mechanisms. Examples include payment of fines and reinstatement of the evicted tenant.
  • Residents should be educated about tenant protection policies to help ensure the success of the policies.

 

Related Resources

 
Union Square Neighborhood Council, Somerville, Massachusetts

In 2019, the Union Square Neighborhood Council (USNC) negotiated and ratified a Community Benefits Agreement with the developer Union Square Station Associates LLC (US2), following approximately a year of weekly meetings with the negotiating committee. The CBA set forth terms on a number of issues, including housing, workforce development, and environmental sustainability. Specifically, under the CBA, US2 committed to developing 90 permanently affordable units in the Union Square neighborhood (out of a total of 1,000 new affordable and market housing units). Additionally, US2 agreed to incorporate stormwater management and other sustainable building practices into the design of individual project sites, designing all project roof areas to be “solar ready,” and provide over 3.5 acres of green and open space in the surrounding area, among other commitments.

Right to Counsel, New York City, New York

New York City’s Universal Access to Legal Representation law (or Right to Counsel (RTC)) is the first in the country to provide right-to-counsel in housing cases. The 2017 law allocates $155 million over five years to a program that provides free legal representation to tenants for eviction or other housing-related matters. Since its inception, the program has raised the number of represented tenants from 10 to over 27%, decreased evictions by 23%, and has saved the city an estimated $320 million per year.See footnote 13 Initially implemented in the Bronx, the program is set to expand to other boroughs by 2020.

  Funding Tools for Housing Community Land Ownership: Community Land Trusts