But the concept behind the Moscone plan had resilience, and in 1980 it became embodied in legislation passed in the District of Columbia: the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act, or Topa. It gave tenants or allied developers the right to be first in line to buy any building about to be sold by its landlord. Once tenants made clear they were interested, the landlord had to give them time to make an offer and raise the funds.
Studies show that several thousand units of affordable housing in D.C. were preserved this way, for less than it would have cost to build new housing. Versions of Topa have more recently been proposed in other parts of the country, notably in New York, California and Massachusetts.
One place that has made the idea a reality is a low-rise complex in Minneapolis that houses 40 families. As recounted by Retro Report, the landlord sought to push out the tenants so that he could sell the buildings. But while lawyers duked it out, the residents took action, forming a collective to buy the complex, aided by city officials and an activist group called United Renters for Justice. The sale, for $7.1 million, was completed in May. A nonprofit group put up the money as a loan, and will manage the property for three years while the residents pay back the debt.
Tenant leaders like Chloe Jackson expressed confidence in their ability to keep up the payments. Still, success is not assured, especially when millions across the country are out of work. If people who lose their jobs can’t cover the rent, why would they be in a better position to repay a loan?
Some landlords have their own concerns. They are hardly real-estate giants. On the contrary, they are so-called “mom and pop” owners with maybe a building or two. But they account for nearly half of all rental units in the United States: 22.7 million out of 48.5 million. If little or no rent money comes in, they risk being unable to pay the mortgage, buy fuel and perform essential maintenance.
The fact that 40 years have passed since Topa originated in Washington without its being widely replicated across the country suggests that moving from renter to shareholder is no simple matter. Among other things, it can be difficult in larger buildings for tenants to agree on a collective course of action.
What will happen once the C.D.C.’s eviction moratorium ends is anyone’s guess. Even before the pandemic, millions of Americans were crushed by their rent burden. An Aspen Institute study shows that in 2018 nearly half of renter households paid more than 30 percent of their income to the landlord; some paid more than 50 percent.