Renters’ Rights Are Jewish Values

Rabbi Ariana Katz
Rabbi Ariana Katz (Courtesy of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College)

By Rabbi Ariana Katz

Right now, as they do every year, Baltimore city lawmakers are finalizing the budget — and in doing so, they are showing us what they value. Our Jewish values teach us that every person — no matter our religion, where we come from or what we look like — deserves housing. Our sacred texts recognize that safe, stable and affordable housing is key to a healthy society, and we know that it is key to reducing racial inequities.

The Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, teaches us that the bounty of the harvest should be used to meet everyone’s basic needs, like housing. The spirit of Shavuot calls us to demand a moral budget that keeps everyone in their homes, which is why, hours before the holiday began last month, I did just that, alongside tenants, organizers, advocates and others, in the citywide renters’ rights coalition Baltimore Renters United.

Baltimore tenants deserve better than skyrocketing rents and destabilizing evictions.

So, what changes to the budget are we fighting for? There are a few:

Emergency rental assistance: Jewish texts are full of conversation, laws and traditions about making sure that people can remain in their home. Yet emergency rental assistance funds, a critical eviction prevention tool, are running out as evictions skyrocket, even surpassing pre-pandemic levels. An allocation of $25 million would curb destabilizing evictions and help keep 8,000 families housed.

Right to counsel in evictions: Our texts also make clear the obligations of landlords and tenants. Legal representation for tenants is crucial to ensuring those obligations are met, yet funding to implement right to counsel in evictions, despite Mayor Brandon Scott’s stated commitment to this important program, does not clearly appear in the FY24 budget. As the city approaches the full implementation deadline of April 1, 2025, the budget should allocate at least $1.6 million for right to counsel, a proven, cost-effective way to prevent disruptive displacement in eviction cases.

Housing safety inspections: Our texts also emphasize the need for homes to be built safely, yet the Department of Housing and Community Development has said it cannot adequately respond to housing habitability complaints because the department is understaffed. With surrounding jurisdictions paying inspectors tens of thousands of dollars more, the department needs $2 million in additional funding to be competitive and promote health and safety in rental housing.

Right now, only a small fraction of the proposed budget goes toward DHCD and supporting the renters who live and work in our city. If the budget is to be a moral document, it must reflect our communal values and ensure that everyone gets their fair slice of the pie.

Rabbi Ariana Katz of Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebl is a member of Jews United for Justice’s Baltimore Leadership Council.

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