Image by Lia Kantrowitz

'Universal Rent Control' Is the Left-Wing Dream That's Actually Happening

Capping the amount that landlords can raise what you owe every year is no longer a total fantasy.

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Mar 6 2019, 2:57pm

Image by Lia Kantrowitz

When I moved to New York City for the third time in 2016, I needed a place to live for six months until a more permanent apartment was available. I had it relatively easy—a friend of a friend of a friend had a spot in her cozy two-bedroom in Brooklyn for $1000 a month, steps from three train lines. Knowing NYC’s absurd market fairly well, and feeling the limitations of my then-public radio salary, I couldn’t believe my luck and prodded her to ensure the rate was real.

She said of course it was: Her apartment was rent stabilized.



A national housing crisis is going on, even if the stock market is far removed from the disastrous (global) meltdown of 2008. A smaller share of young adults own homes than in 1988, and 38 million US households are burdened by rents that take up one-third or more of their income, according to a Harvard University report from last year. There is no state in the country where someone earning minimum wage can afford to rent a two-bedroom home, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Last fall’s midterm elections, however, ushered in a new class of progressive politicians and raised the prospect of challenging the day-to-day conditions of late capitalism in the public consciousness. Medicare for All went from a fringe notion to a real possibility. The idea of a Green New Deal would likely have been brushed aside completely a few years ago, but it appears to have something like majority public support on both sides of the aisle, even if actual legislation on Capitol Hill is hard to come by.

Now housing is getting the blue wave treatment, with states and cities weighing a host of sweeping reforms to make both renting and owning more affordable.

That means “universal rent control,” or capping the amount that landlords can raise what you owe every year, is no longer a total pipe dream. A version of it has become law in Oregon, been considered state-wide on both coasts, and advocates in states like Illinois, Colorado and Washington have been pushing to repeal laws that restrict rent control as a first move toward what might be the same ultimate end.

“There’s been a change in state leadership and a groundswell of tenants’ advocacy,” said Corianne Scally, a senior research associate focused on housing at the Urban Institute, a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan think tank. “Folks are tired of being displaced from their home.”

Regulating rent prices exists on a spectrum, and "rent control" can mean different things in every locale. In cities like New York and Los Angeles, apartments occupied before a certain time period (1971 in New York and 1978 in LA) might be considered rent controlled, and if tenants have continuously occupied the unit, the increase of their rent has been aggressively capped. Rent stabilization, meanwhile, may mean that a city or state rental board decides how much most landlords can raise the rent of any given apartment.

Last week, Oregon, where rents had been rising quickly over the past decade, enacted the country’s first universal rent control law, which—in a testament to the urgency of the moment—went into effect immediately. The bill restricts most landlords from increasing rent more than 7 percent plus the consumer price index, which is a measure of cost of living and inflation, each year. That adds up to about 10 percent total this year, which, to be sure, isn’t nothing; the law also only affects a chunk of rental units in the state. But it includes provisions to protect those tenants: landlords, for example, have to cite a cause of violation in order to evict most people, in hopes of limiting the displacement caused by new development.

New York senators are proposing similar rent-control legislation this spring, as existing state rental laws are scheduled to sunset. Julia Salazar, the 28-year-old state senator and controversial tenants’ advocate, said in an interview that the new push—a housing justice campaign comprised of multiple bills—would build on New York’s history of rent control regulations, but with fewer loopholes. “The housing justice movement in New York state is definitely more unified than I’ve ever seen it,” she said. “I think more and more people coming around to the idea that housing is a human right that can’t be at the mercy of the free market.”

Salazar’s proposal, the “Good Cause Eviction Bill”, co-sponsored by Senator Brad Hoylman, would amend current real estate laws to prevent landlords from evicting tenants for not being able to pay for a rent increase beyond a certain "unconscionable" amount. (Salazar said the goal was to cap rent hikes at 150 percent of the consumer price index.) Right now, nearly half of New Yorkers pay one-third of their income or more in rent, according to a recent report by Housing Justice for All, a coalition of tenants rights advocacy groups, with nearly one million households enjoying no meaningful tenants protections at the county level.

Rebecca Garrard, a housing organizer at Citizen Action of New York, an advocacy group that helped craft some of the proposed policies, said Salazar and the state’s other progressive politicians had reinvigorated an idea that has been discussed more fancifully for many years. And with other similar campaigns brewing across the country, and the recent win in Oregon, she said, there was hope the new fervor might serve their cause this spring.

“Rent control is a progressive policy,” Garrard said. “There is heavy money being poured in from opposition groups who clearly have a vested interest in real estate. It requires a progressive stance to say we’re here standing up for the vulnerable members of society.” If all states were to enact the rent-control policies they’re currently considering, one report recently found, 12.7 million households in the United States would enjoy some form of rent control.

But while universal rent control seems to fit neatly in the new left agenda, some of its staunchest advocates will tell you there are caveats. For one, most states have laws that restrict rent control, and some don’t want to change: In California, for example, there was overwhelming opposition to Proposition 10 last year, a referendum that would have repealed existing restrictions on rent control, allowing cities to expand their rent control policies.

“The stunning margin of victory shows California voters clearly understood the negative impacts Prop. 10 would have on the availability of affordable and middle-class housing in our state,” Tom Bannon, CEO of the California Apartment Association, told LA Curbed.

Some economists have also pointed out that rent control can backfire: in one study of San Francisco housing, researchers found that rent control sometimes pushed landlords, hungry for more income, to convert existing units into condominiums to sell, thus reducing the number of housing units available to rent and raising costs elsewhere. “It’s not a well-tested universal strategy,” Scally said. “I’m skeptical as to how any renters will be helped. It could cut down on really rampant speculation [when landlords price out tenants to develop a building], but it’s not clear how the market responds.”

There’s also the fact that some of the universal rent control policies may not do enough to restrict rising rents. Scally pointed out that not only could landlords stop renting out units, they can also still hike up the rent significantly under the Oregon legislation, which was tempered by private real-estate lobbyists, and, again, isn't truly "universal"—it doesn't affect every rental unit. Likewise, a 10 or 11 percent rent increase for a middle-income household is still significant.

Most research supports the idea that rent control leads to fewer people moving out of their existing homes, but the unregulated private sector that remains out of rent control's reach can mean that middle- and low-income people continue to be priced out. And the idea that universal rent control would improve inclusion of marginalized communities was still being tested, according to an Urban Institute report.

Still, Garrard was confident the conversations happening in New York and other states around the country were just getting started—and that some kind of movement on such a foundational aspect of modern life was a change for the better. “There’s an issue with wage stagnation, increasing rents and the ability to access affordable housing,” she said. “It has to become an issue.”

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