Tenant Rights in the U.S.: A Modern History

Laws vary by state, but federal protections and common law are also relevant

Tenant rights have a long and convoluted history in the United States. There are state laws, common law, and federal rules that offer tenants various freedoms and protections. But those can change with national emergencies and are not consistently enforced properly because of bias and discrimination. When not protected, renters can challenge events, such as evictions, in court.

Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout led to temporary federal protections for renters in the U.S., which may have delayed more than a million evictions in the country. The national stay on evictions grabbed headlines and was described as unprecedented. However, it wasn’t the first time that the U.S. government has offered tenant assistance because of a national crisis. Nor was it the most pro-tenant level of government protection ever offered.

It’s important, especially in light of the possible increase in evictions, for tenants to know their rights.

Key Takeaways

  • Agreements between renters and landlords are subject to state laws, common law, and federal rules concerning national emergencies and discrimination.
  • Under due process, renters have the right to challenge evictions in court.
  • Evictions have become much more common over the history of the United States, according to Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond.
  • Federal eviction protections related to the COVID-19 pandemic have ended, and the extension of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Protections in the 20th Century

Outside of large national crises, the interactions between renters and landlords are typically governed by state and local laws. Because of this, the specific rights of tenants, such as how much notice a landlord must give before filing an eviction, will vary from place to place.

Nevertheless, there have been several federal laws that impact the relationship.

World War II

During World War II, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Office of Price Administration to rein in wartime inflation through price controls and rationing. As part of that, the administration strictly policed rents by implementing rent ceilings and allowed renters a space to file complaints about landlord abuses in the 1940s. By one estimate, 80% of the U.S. rental housing stock came under rent controls from 1941 to 1946.

It was among the first such widespread protections offered in the U.S.

1964 Civil Rights Act

The 1960s saw a trio of civil rights laws, including ones that touched on housing rights.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination—based on race or national origin—for programs connected to federal financial assistance, including mortgage insurance and loan guarantee programs from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

1968 Fair Housing Act

Still, racial discrimination persisted in housing.

In 1968, a week after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the 1968 Civil Rights Act was signed into law. Included in that act was Title VIII, also known as the Fair Housing Act. This expanded the 1964 laws and outlawed discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing based on race, national origin, religion, or sex. In effect, private and public housing discrimination became illegal.

Later, a 1988 amendment added enforcement provisions and two new protected classes: families with children and people with disabilities.

1972 Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act

Despite patchwork laws, the country lacked a uniform set of tenant protections.

In 1972, the Uniform Law Commission, a nonprofit association of legal professionals that exists to determine when laws in the country should be uniform, proposed one.

Widely viewed as a set of rules that would have rebalanced power between renters and landlords in the county, the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act never passed federally. However, a number of states have accepted the rules.

Decades later, the commission produced a revised version of the act. But the update has been characterized as less expansive and radical than the original.

Renting in the 21st Century

A roller coaster of highs and lows has affected renting in the United States so far in the 21st century.

The Great Recession

In the lead-up to the Great Recession, the rates of renting were relatively low. But the 2008 financial crisis caused home prices to rise and the number of people renting to increase. Incomes fell more than housing costs during the recession, and the supply of available housing declined at the same time, according to the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

The share of renters whose rental payments made up more than 30% of their income rose from 41.2% in 2001 to 48.7% in 2009, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies reported. By 2009, more than a quarter—26.1%—of renters were paying more than half of their income for rent. From 2007 to 2009, during the Great Recession, the number of renters paying more than half their income grew by two percentage points.

Renting continued to grow, displacing homeownership until the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Pandemic

During the early parts of the pandemic, rental housing demand slowed. However, by 2022, the second year of the pandemic, rental housing demand bounced back. Later, as the war in Ukraine, continuing pandemic-driven supply chain issues, and pent-up consumer demand resulted in growing inflation, the Federal Reserve started raising interest rates, resulting in higher prices for mortgages. People priced out of the housing market continued to rent.

Renting and the 2022 Mortgage Interest Rate Surge

In June 2022, the average monthly mortgage payment—excluding property taxes and insurance—was 36.5% more than just one year before. Thirty-year mortgage interest rates soared from 3.05% on Dec. 23, 2021, to a high of 7.08% on Nov. 10, 2022, dropping to 6.27% on Dec. 22, 2022. This meant that many who might have tried to buy a home could no longer afford one.

There were roughly 44 million renters in the United States in 2022, an increase of 870,000 households over the first quarter of 2020, according to the latest America’s Rental Housing report from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. As a group, renters tend to skew young, belong to racial and ethnic minorities, and earn less income than homeowners, according to Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

Notably, those making income less than 80% of an adjusted area mean—HUD’s definition of low income—and high-income renters, those making more than that, now face different dynamics. High-income renters are being pushed into renting by a lack of available for-sale housing inventory. Low-income renters are still struggling to find the money to pay rent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Pew Research Center report indicates that individual investors owned 71.6% of total U.S. rental properties, which made up 41.2% of units for rent in 2018. Businesses owned 18.8% of the properties, which accounted for 45% of the units. Housing cooperatives and nonprofits owned less.

Current Protections and Developments for Renters

Landlord-tenant law—the legal framework that covers renting—recognizes a few main kinds of relationships between tenants and landlords. These have to do with the nature of the contract between the two, according to the Legal Information Institute. Leases often spell out many of the specific terms of the contract.

While the specifics of the rental agreement will be important, rental contracts have to follow existing laws. The relevant laws will vary by state in the U.S., and common law also plays a part in regulating landlord-tenant relationships. Federal laws also apply, mostly to prevent discrimination and during national emergencies.

Those laws specify a number of things that landlords cannot generally do, such as enter the residency without proper notice, unjustly evict tenants, discriminate, or raise the rent without proper justification.

Civil Rights

Civil rights aren’t voided just because a contract is involved. In the United States, tenants receive federal protection from the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, skin color, national origin, gender, disability, or family status in housing. Since they are federal protections, they apply across states regardless of location.

A number of potentially discriminatory behaviors are banned by the law, including harassment, eviction, and a refusal to make repairs, delay repairs, or refuse to rent if the reason traces back to discrimination based on those protected characteristics. Landlord obligations also include a duty to make provisions to help those with limited capacity for English.

Enforcement is overseen by HUD, which is tasked with promoting economic opportunity through housing and eliminating violations of civil rights. Renters can avail themselves of these protections by filing a complaint with HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity if they think their rights may have been violated. They can also hire a lawyer who specializes in landlord-tenant law.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) exists to fight off housing discrimination. One of its roles is to investigate potential housing discrimination, and anyone who feels that they’ve been discriminated against can file a complaint with HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

Living Conditions

Landlords are obliged to follow safety guidelines and to make accommodations for disabled tenants. Legally speaking, tenants have the right to live in a safe and habitable property. Once again, the specifics will vary by local and state laws. In general, though, landlords have to keep the property from deteriorating and have to fix problems that arise, known as a “duty to maintain and repair.” Local building codes, for example, will apply to rental properties.


The history of evictions, in particular, is fraught. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted, Princeton University sociologist Matthew Desmond reflects that evictions used to be rare enough to draw large crowds and resistance when they occurred. Evictions have become much more common over time, and Desmond notes that the eviction riots of the Depression era occurred when there were far fewer evictions than there are today. In Desmond’s telling, incomes for America’s poor have shriveled while rents have grown astronomically. Evictions, once a rare event, now constitute a core component of the American experience.

Landlord-tenant relationships fall into a few basic categories depending on the type of lease. A common form is the terms-of-years lease, which specifies a fixed amount of time during which the renter has possessory rights, which include the right to sublease and to restrict access to the property, even to the landlord. Other types include tenancy at will, in which there’s no set date for the end of the relationship, and tenancy at sufferance, when a tenant stays on after a lease expires. Without a fixed-term lease, landlords can ask a renter to leave whenever they want so long as they give enough notice, usually a month or two. 

To evict a tenant, the landlord will most often have to sue. Under due process, renters have the right to challenge evictions in court. Evictions must undergo a specific process that involves giving the tenant written notice before eviction paperwork gets filed. The period that a landlord must wait to file a notice for eviction after the rent is late depends on the state. In Maryland, for instance, a landlord can demand rent immediately when it’s due. In other places, such as the District of Columbia, the landlord must wait 30 days after the rent is due. It’s essential to look up the specifics of the area where you live.

Some places, but not all, also have grace periods for renters before late fees can be charged. In New Jersey, for example, older people receiving government pensions, such as Social Security, are entitled to a five-day grace period.

Most states do not allow so-called “self-help” evictions where the landlord can forcefully remove a tenant. Retaliatory evictions, which occur when a tenant is evicted because of a legal complaint from a tenant, are also primarily illegal.

COVID-19 and the Eviction Crisis

Housing insecurity shot up during COVID-19. With it, the risk of eviction swelled. For example, a review of U.S. Census Bureau data by housing experts in August 2020 found that COVID-19 had placed 30 million to 40 million people at risk of eviction.

Coronavirus had led to temporary federal protections for renters in the U.S., which may have delayed more than a million evictions across the country.

Starting with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed by then-President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020, there were several stages of eviction moratoriums that shielded renters. The last order, by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which targeted areas of high COVID-19 transmission, was supposed to extend through Oct. 3, 2021. But that order was vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 3, 2021, essentially ending these protections nationally.

Without a federal safeguard, it fell to states and localities to offer protections for renters. Several of them extended eviction moratoriums, though even these eventually phased out. Experts reviewing the situation warned that the lack of protections could “decimate entire neighborhoods” as their absence left inner-city, low-income, and minority communities vulnerable to higher rates of coronavirus infection and uncertainty because of existing problems with the labor market and social safety nets. For instance, the Urban Institute estimated that as many as 2.1 million adult renters believed they could lose their housing after the Supreme Court vacated the last extension to the CDC moratorium.

Housing advocates and some members of the press have suggested that the crisis is leading to greater protections for renters across the country, pointing toward legislation in states such as Colorado. However, many organizations remain concerned about renters who may face eviction for unpaid rent. They point toward surveys that show a majority of landlords are considering initiating eviction proceedings and are using more stringent forms of tenant screening.

To counteract this, some scholars argue that a permanent, fully funded housing safety net is urgently needed. Adding to the pressure: The effects of climate change are expected to harm those same people the most and to further tighten housing. Researchers at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, are also pushing for faster distribution of emergency funds from states to help low-income renters. They also propose source-of-income antidiscrimination laws to prevent landlords from refusing certain sources of income.

These resources can help tenants facing eviction and those trying to help them:

  • Legal Services Corp., a nonprofit created by Congress that connects low-income Americans to civil legal aid
  • State bar associations, which are professional associations for lawyers in any given state
  • Eviction Lab, a Princeton University research outfit that analyzes and publishes eviction data

Renters’ Bill of Rights

In early 2023, the Biden administration issued the “Blueprint for a Renters Bill of Rights” and a set of actions meant to “increase fairness in the rental market and further principles of fair housing.”

The principles of fairness, outlined in the Biden administration’s blueprint, include: 

  • Access to safe, quality, accessible housing that costs no more than 30% of a renter’s household income
  • Ensuring that leases are both understandable and fair
  • Promoting education, enforcement, and enhancement of renter rights under the law
  • Enshrining the right for renters to organize
  • Protections and relief around evictions

A number of federal agencies also pledged to promote fairness in the market, including a proposal for a rule to require 30 days’ notice before ending a rental contract for failure to pay and an inquiry into “egregious” rent increases.

How do I know what the landlord-tenant laws are in my state?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has a web page where you can look up the rules for tenant rights by state.

What can’t landlords do?

Landlords cannot do a number of things, including enter the residency without proper notice, unjustly evict tenants, discriminate, or raise the rent without proper justification.

Can a landlord force a tenant to leave?

To force a tenant to leave, a landlord will often have to engage the courts and sue for eviction. The tenant has the right to fight that eviction in court. In some states, though not many, landlords can also physically remove a tenant from the property using “reasonable force” (which is known as a “self-help” eviction).

Where can I find resources for tenants?

Online legal resources have collected information about the legal resources that exist for tenants, ranging from relatively inexpensive lawyers to charts of existing state laws concerning landlords and tenants. Free legal aid resources, known as pro bono legal aid, may also be available.

The Bottom Line

Rising mortgage rates have only increased the number of renters and the push for higher rents. Whether a recession, should it happen, could ameliorate this trend remains to be seen. The best defense is knowledge of the law in your state and locality, as well as applicable federal law.

Article Sources
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