6th Annual Women's Housing March

6th Annual Women's Housing March by Caelie Frampton (CC BY)

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If there’s one thing landlords hate more than tenants' rights, it’s rent control. How else are they going to pay for their third home in the Hamptons and their daughter’s private school tuition? 

Of course, being the selfless, upstanding people that they are, landlords are also quick to argue that rent regulations hurt everyone. But as much as we want to believe landlords — that trustworthy, productive class of society — we did our own research to understand rent control from the tenant’s perspective.

What Does Rent Control Mean?

Rent control allows the government to prevent landlords from unfairly raising rents. In practice, they’re regulations that restrict price increases on residential leases. The earliest rent controls, like those in 1920s New York City, were outright rent freezes, meaning that landlords could never increase rents. But that style of renter protection has since been replaced by more moderate rent stabilization policies, which allow for occasional increases. In New York, for example, the rent guidelines board determines an annual cap on rent increases.

It’s important to remember that rent control is a broad category and that policies can vary drastically. For example, some rent control efforts only cap prices for low-income tenants, while others target specific buildings in specific neighborhoods.

Seattle Covid-19Photo credit: 400tmax/istockphoto

Who Is Against Rent Control?

Among landlords, investors, policy wonks, and economists, rent control is unpopular, which explains why 31 states have laws that specifically forbid housing price controls. While there’s plenty of academic literature and data about the ins and outs of these policies, the anti-rent control camp’s central argument is pretty straightforward.

If you lower rent prices below the market rate, you make it less appealing to be a landlord. Consequently, there’s less investment in new housing, landlords are disincentivized from making improvements, and they begin to convert rentals into more profitable condos and retail units. It’s a simple problem of supply and demand.

The only winners, critics say, are current tenants who benefit from below-market rents.

Who Supports Rent Control?

Beyond tenants’ rights organizations, some progressive politicians, pundits, and economists support rent control laws.

In a piece for Jacobin, the economist J.W. Mason lists five reasons why he supports such policies. He claims that people misunderstand the rent control’s central purpose, which he says is to prevent the displacement of long-term tenants.

“Just as we have a legal principle that people cannot be arbitrarily deprived of their property, and just as many local governments put limits on how rapidly property taxes can increase, a goal of rent control is to give people similar protection from being forced out of their homes by rent increases,” he writes.

Others, like policy reporter Jerusalem Demsas, argue that while rent control has its issues, rent-burdened tenants need a short-term fix. “Rent control gives policymakers a chance to redistribute the pains of scarcity in the near term,” Demsas writes, noting that even critics agree that rent control reduces the displacement of current tenants.

Both Mason and Demsas also agree that rent control should be paired with other policy measures, such as eviction protections and incentives for new development.

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Which States Have Rent Control?

According to the National Multifamily Housing Council, seven states and the District of Columbia have municipalities with rent control, including:

  • California: statewide rent control caps and city-specific laws

  • The District of Columbia: city-wide rent control

  • Maine: county and city-specific laws

  • Maryland: county and city-specific laws

  • Minnesota: city-specific laws

  • New Jersey: county and city-specific laws

  • New York: county and city-specific laws

  • Oregon: statewide rent control

While some politicians have called for the federal government to enact a national rent cap, most states remain hostile to renter protections. In fact, 31 states specifically forbid rent control policies.

The Bottom Line

To completely dismiss rent control or its many critiques would be foolish, especially since each policy is unique. It would be equally misguided to listen to landlords, real estate moguls, or investors on Wall Street who’ll fight tooth and nail to protect their bottom lines. Instead, it makes more sense to understand how rent control might work in tandem with policies that address its shortcomings. At the very least, we should engage with alternative affordable housing policies (like social insurance or social housing) because, at the end of the day, rents really are too damn high.

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