Volume 28

Tenants Without Rights: Situating the Experiences of New Immigrants in the U.S. Low-Income Housing Market

by Mekonnen Firew Ayano

Immigrants who recently arrived in the United States generally are not able to exclusively possess rental properties in the formal market because they lack a steady source of income and credit history. Instead, they rent shared bedrooms, basements, attics, garages, and illegally converted units that violate housing codes and regulations. Their situations highlight the disconnect between tenant rights law and the deleterious conditions of informal residential tenancies. Tenant rights law confers a variety of rights and remedies to a residential tenant if the renter has exclusive possession of the premises. If the renter lacks exclusive possession, courts typically characterize the occupancy as a license, treating the renter as a transient occupant with contractual rights and remedies. Situating the experiences of new immigrants within the low-income housing affordability crisis, this Article proposes that courts should steer away from considering tenant status and its associated rights and remedies as a function of exclusive control of the premises. Instead, they should enforce informal tenants’ legitimate interests, impose duties on those who rent out substandard units, and award damages when the rent paid is disproportionately high relative to the condition of the premises.

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