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Just cause

What is it?

Just cause eviction ordinances are a form of tenant protection designed to prevent arbitrary, retaliatory, or discriminatory evictions by establishing that landlords can only evict renters for specific reasons — just causes — such as failure to pay rent. In many cities and states, landlords can evict tenants for no reason at all. Just cause eviction ordinances are an important policy tool to prevent displacement and promote tenant stability, especially in neighborhoods where rents are rising and vacancies are low, where landlords may seek to evict existing tenants to renovate their buildings and attract wealthier renters at higher prices. Just cause ordinances also protect tenants who report inadequate housing conditions or request repairs. Cities also have a bottom-line interest in housing stability: when financially insecure residents are evicted from their homes, city budgets pay a big price due to lost tax revenue, unpaid utilities, and the costs associated with services for homeless people.

In concert with other anti-displacement strategies, just cause policies can help slow the processes of gentrification that can displace entire neighborhoods in a matter of years — so that all residents, regardless of race or income, can stay and benefit from reinvestment and growth. Stable housing allows residents to build close connections to their neighbors, which can support increased economic and political power over time. Preventing evictions is also a key strategy to maintain neighborhood stability in housing markets where landlords may be tempted to use eviction as a tool to remove rent-protected households. At the household level, a recent study linked evictions to depression, poorer health, higher levels of stress, and higher rates of material hardship, especially among low-income mothers.

In addition to the PolicyLink resources listed to the right, see Causa Justa/Just Cause, the Association of Bay Area Governments, and the Right to the City Alliance for more resources on just cause ordinances.

Who implements it?

  • Elected and appointed city officials can champion and pass just cause eviction ordinances and allocate sufficient resources for enforcement. In most jurisdictions, an administrative agency, such as a rent board, oversees and enforces any just cause ordinance.
  • Tenant associations, community-based organizations, and other advocates can build grassroots campaigns to build public will and advocate for just cause as a key measure to preserve affordable housing, and educate tenants about their legal rights.

Key considerations

Just cause ordinances are often established by city councils or through a ballot initiative process; in some instances, states have also established just cause policies. The key steps to success include mobilizing a strong case and broad base of support, drafting a strong law that can withstand legal challenges, pairing just cause with other rent stabilization efforts, and ensuring adequate enforcement and community education.

Cities seeking to implement a just cause eviction ordinance must consider a range of related legal and logistical questions.

  • Defining applicable cases. Decide what type of rental units the just cause protections should apply to, such as those in multifamily buildings larger than four units. An ordinance can also provide further protections for vulnerable populations like seniors, disabled, or terminally ill people by exempting them from certain allowed eviction causes.
  • Defining just causes. Defining "just causes" for eviction is at the heart of just cause ordinances.  Seattle's policy includes 18 such causes, while Oakland's includes only 11. Common covered causes are non-payment of rent, continued lease violations after written notice, or substantial damage to the unit. Cities should also carefully define instances where "no fault" evictions are allowed, such as owner or relative move-in, especially given rising accounts of loopholes these exemptions create.
  • Protecting renters in foreclosed unitsTenants living in rental properties where the property owner faces foreclosure can end up being evicted, even if in full compliance with their lease terms. Just cause ordinances can define tenancy as surviving foreclosure in order to protect these renters against unfair evictions.
  • Support for tenants facing "just cause" eviction. In the case of allowed "no fault" evictions, such as instances of owner move-in, cities can provide supports for displaced tenants. Ordinances should also include a method for tenants to contest evictions with an adequate window of time, and may require landlords to pay relocation assistance for certain evicted tenants.
  • Effective enforcement. Cities should define and enforce meaningful penalties for landlords who illegally evict tenants, which may include fines paid to the city, restitution paid to the tenant(s), and the reinstatement of tenancy. Policymakers should lay out a clear and expedited legal process for tenants to fight unjust evictions and require an adequate notice period for tenants to exercise their rights.
  • Tenant education. When just cause eviction ordinances are passed, outreach to existing and future tenants can help ensure that they understand their rights and the legal means to contest unjust evictions.
  • Establishing complementary tenant protections. Whenever possible, just cause policies should be coordinated with other tenant protection policies, such as rent control or vacancy control laws; otherwise, exorbitant rent hikes can serve as an effective means of displacing tenants without resorting to an official eviction process that would be governed by the just cause ordinance.

Where is it working?

Grassroots campaigns across the country are calling for just cause ordinances to protect tenants from arbitrary, retaliatory, and discriminatory evictions. These ordinances are most effective when matched with rent control policies and part of a larger ongoing strategy to protect tenants' rights.

  • The City of Oakland passed its Just Cause for Eviction Ordinance in 2002. It includes 11 legally defined "just causes." Within weeks, the Rental Housing Association of Northern Alameda County, a group representing landlords, filed a petition seeking to invalidate several of its provisions. The most significant provision, prohibiting landlords from evicting tenants without cause, was upheld.  The case was appealed, and several advocacy groups came together to reach an agreement with the Rental Housing Association. In recent years, average rent in Oakland more than doubled due to the Bay Area housing crisis. Facing unprecedented displacement pressures, voters passed Measure JJ in 2016 to strengthen the city's just cause protections and expand coverage to about 12,000 more units. The city council is currently considering actions to end fraudulent owner move-in evictions.
  • In 2017, San Jose took action after decades of community activism to enact the Tenant Protection Ordinance implementing just cause protections.  Amid soaring Silicon Valley rents and a shortage of affordable housing, the city council required landlords to cite one of a dozen reasons for eviction, distinguishing between "just causes" based on tenant actions and "no-fault just causes," which would require relocation benefits paid to tenants. The ordinance covered existing rental agreements and was initially set to take effect after 45 days. However, shortly after the ordinance passed, at least 30 families received no-cause eviction notices. To curb these last-minute evictions, the council passed an urgency ordinance within weeks to enact the previous ordinance immediately. The protections, which apply to all rental units, are expected to impact 450,000 renters citywide.