Community organizers force veto of attack on renters’ rights

Renters and tenant rights groups in Baltimore successfully forced the mayor to veto a bill that they would introduce rental security-deposit insurance — so-called surety bonds, a predatory practice by landlords that essentially makes the tenant pay the rental deposit twice.

The veto is a major victory against the landlords, especially taking into account the bill had the backing of the city council president and that all except two of the 14 council members voted for the bill. 

Over 40 community organizations joined efforts to counter the passage of Council Bill 21-0022, the Security Deposit Alternatives Bill. During press conferences and rallies around the city, housing activists explained that landlord interests had hijacked what was at first an attempt to put a policy in place that would make it easier for city renters to shoulder the burden of paying security deposits.

Fair housing advocates sought to get an alternative bill that would allow renters to pay the security deposits in installments, if desired, thereby making it easier to manage. The final bill passed was anything but a choice. It was instead a trap that was misnamed “renters’ choice.” 

Predatory lenders

In reality, renters would be signing up for a surety bond with predatory lenders who would then have the ability to keep the entire security deposit amount as well as tack on additional charges for unsubstantiated damages. 

The bill doesn’t specifically name Rhino, a real-estate startup that launched in 2017, but it’s widely understood that “security insurance” refers to a financial product that Rhino promotes.

The “security insurance” process would prevent renters from filing disputes in rent court. Rhino would have access to initiate debt collections against renters. If rents are in escrow over disputes, Rhino can still file a claim against renters for damages.

During the campaign to demand a veto, activists distributed literature which described Rhino as “a company run by a wealthy, longtime landlord and backed by a venture capital fund called Kairos.” This bill in reality is a landlord choice as it in no way gives renters any choice at all.

Rhino has been promoting the so-called “renters’ choice” legislation around the country — most recently in Columbus, Ohio, and Atlanta. In New York, Rhino is aligned with landlords, and is pursuing its scheme with help from an executive order issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

‘Enough housing exploitation’

At a recent rally against the bill, the two council members who voted against it addressed the crowd. 

Ryan Dorsey remarked, “This bill allows exploitation of people who are already in desperate situations.” Zeke Cohen observed: “This is subprime policies by a different name that allows predatory lending. Baltimore was the first city in the country to do redlining. Enough is enough for housing exploitation.”

Mayor Brandon Scott finally vetoed the bill at the eleventh hour on May 17. Community pressure gave rise to the power of the people to organize and defeat this giveaway to the landlords. 

The fact that the well-meaning intent of the original concept was able to be twisted and turned around at this level exposes that legislative bodies are in the hands of lobbyists for landlords and big business. It took a united effort of people’s power to rightly defeat this insult to renters’ intelligence. This provides a great lesson of the organizing power of the working class to win victories on our own behalf.