After decades on the defensive, the pro-rent control tenant movement is scoring significant wins despite having to battle constant misinformation from landlords, as recently published on this site. Washington, Oregon, and California have each expanded rent control measures in recent years; tenant organizations in Minnesota and Illinois are running impressive campaigns for rent control. In 2019, New York expanded its rent control system for the first time in decades and closed major landlord-friendly loopholes that were causing the system to disappear by attrition.
Rent control is enjoying this moment in the sun for a simple reason: It works!
By curbing excessive rent hikes and preventing retaliatory or unjust eviction, rent control mitigates the power imbalance between tenants and landlords, advances overall neighborhood stability and prevents an eviction crisis as our cities become more expensive places to live. Despite decades of false “sky is falling” alarmism by the well-funded landlord lobby, rent control has done more to keep housing affordable and keep people in affordable housing than any other program in New York’s history. Nearly one million rent-regulated apartments house over 2 million renters with a median income of just $35,000, renters who would be either homeless or faced with crippling rent burdens without the protections that New York’s rent laws offer.
Across the country, cities are gentrifying as a result of both public and private investment in neighborhoods that have long suffered economic decline. It’s the same story everywhere: As money begins to flow back into distressed neighborhoods, low income tenants face displacement and rising housing costs. But rent control can guard against this and promote economically and racially diverse neighborhoods in the face of gentrification.
Stable housing and affordable rents are vital for each city’s future. It is well documented that frequent and forced moves year over year have a negative impact on childhood social development. Strong protections for renters are good for families with children, and improve the overall health and education outcome of neighborhoods and cities overall.
And without security of tenure, renters are less likely to build local relationships and engage in the civic life of a community. Renters are on the whole less wealthy than homeowners and people of color are far more likely than white households to rent their homes. Rent regulation should be understood as a tool to promote political participation amongst working class and low income communities and communities of color.
Rent control also leads to safer living conditions in the housing stock. Code enforcement by nature relies on resident self-reporting of unsafe conditions. A Washington, D.C. based study of tenant protections and living conditions found that 61 percent of tenants were more likely to seek repairs after receiving the benefit of rent regulations, with low-income renters especially reporting that regulations made them more willing to insist upon repairs. The survey revealed that protected units turned out to have better conditions than market rate units, with 20 percent of rent-stabilized units having poor conditions compared to 25 percent of market rate units.
And, as economist JW Mason has pointed out, recent studies of rent regulations have noted that its impact on housing has been largely exaggerated and that rent regulation has been extremely effective at limiting the cost of rent.
Rent control, while not a cure-all for the housing crisis, is a key component of any serious program to address the high cost of living. When combined with robust rental assistance and ambitious housing production goals (undertaken by cities or states themselves) rent control leads to positive impacts for local housing conditions. Rather than seek to reverse the steps forward that pro-rent-control advocates have made in the last few years, policy makers should double down on them.
Cea Weaver is campaign coordinator of Housing Justice for All, which led the successful effort to strengthen New York’s rent laws.