Landlords, Your Lease Is Up: A New Movement for Rent Control Is Spreading Across the U.S.

Tenant activists, local unions, community organizations and socialists are leading campaigns to regulate rents and weaken the market’s grip on housing.

Rebecca Burns March 5, 2018

Tenants’ rights advocates rallied Dec. 5, 2017, in Seattle outside a meeting of landlord associations. (PHOTO BY ALEX GARLAND)

Nan­cy But­tan­da, 68, has watched in hor­ror as her rent check eats up more and more of her fixed income. The rent on her apart­ment in Fed­er­al Way, Wash., has increased annu­al­ly at least $100 a month for three or four years, she says, and her land­lord rarely makes repairs. She now pays $1,245 a month for rent, water and trash, while liv­ing on pen­sion, Social Secu­ri­ty and dis­abil­i­ty pay­ments that amount to around $3,300. A recent auto acci­dent stuck her with $400 car pay­ments, and after pay­ing for Medicare, elec­tric­i­ty and every­thing else, she’s often left with less than $300 each month for necessities.

“Pushing to repeal the ban on rent regulation will allow us to have a broader conversation about housing affordability throughout the country."

Because she strug­gles with mobil­i­ty due to mul­ti­ple knee replace­ments, But­tan­da dreads the idea of mov­ing and doubts she’d be able to find anoth­er apart­ment in her price range with an ele­va­tor. She applied last year to coun­ty-sub­si­dized afford­able hous­ing devel­op­ments that cater to seniors, but was told she was over the income lim­it — by $80 a year.

I feel like I’m out of options,” she says. I’ve nev­er been so scared in my life.” Fed­er­al stan­dards set the thresh­old for afford­able hous­ing” at 30 per­cent of a family’s income, a thresh­old that Buttanda’s rent exceeds. One in four U.S. house­holds spends more than half of its income on rent. In 1985, the medi­an U.S. fam­i­ly spent just 19 per­cent of its income on housing.

Nan­cy But­tan­da is part of a revived move­ment for rent reg­u­la­tion in Wash­ing­ton state. (Pho­to by Chloe Collyer)

In the 40 years pre­ced­ing the Great Reces­sion, rents grew twice as fast as incomes. Then came the 2008 hous­ing crash, in which more than 10 mil­lion fam­i­lies lost their homes to fore­clo­sure. Less than one-third are like­ly to buy again, thanks to wrecked finances and cred­it scores. As a result, more U.S. house­holds are rent­ing now than at any point in at least the past 50 years. Due in large part to preda­to­ry lend­ing, Black and Lati­no house­holds were more than 70 per­cent more like­ly than white ones to lose their homes in 2012, and they’re now near­ly twice as like­ly to be renters. Rent afford­abil­i­ty is also worse in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or: Medi­an renters in pre­dom­i­nant­ly Black neigh­bor­hoods spend 44 per­cent of their income on rent, and renters in pre­dom­i­nant­ly Lati­no com­mu­ni­ties spend 48 percent.

As this nation­wide hous­ing afford­abil­i­ty cri­sis becomes hard­er to ignore, Wash­ing­ton state is one of sev­er­al places where advo­cates are launch­ing a renewed push for rent reg­u­la­tion, thanks in large part to activism by ten­ants like But­tan­da. While a scat­ter­ing of cities and towns in four states — Cal­i­for­nia, Mary­land, New Jer­sey and New York — and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., have rent con­trol laws in place, 35 states, includ­ing Wash­ing­ton, pro­hib­it or lim­it local gov­ern­ments from reg­u­lat­ing rent hikes. But leg­is­la­tion intro­duced by Democ­rats in Wash­ing­ton in Jan­u­ary would repeal the state’s ban, in effect since 1981. As a mem­ber of the pro­gres­sive advo­ca­cy group Wash­ing­ton Com­mu­ni­ty Action Net­work (WCAN), But­tan­da hopes to con­vince a new­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic-con­trolled state leg­is­la­ture that curb­ing sky­rock­et­ing hous­ing costs should be a top priority.

Pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tors in Illi­nois also have pend­ing leg­is­la­tion that would repeal restric­tions on rent con­trol. And in Cal­i­for­nia, a first-of-its-kind nation­al renters day of action” in Sep­tem­ber 2016 helped pro­pel rent con­trol to vic­to­ry at the bal­lot box in two cities and launch new cam­paigns in at least sev­en oth­ers. While rent con­trol remains a con­tro­ver­sial mea­sure among main­stream Democ­rats (many of whom receive hefty dona­tions from real estate lob­bies), these cam­paigns are attract­ing sup­port from a broad swath of local unions and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions, as well as social­ists who see rent con­trol as the first step toward weak­en­ing the market’s grip on a basic human need.

Ris­ing rents aren’t an act of God; they’re an act of price goug­ing,” said Kshama Sawant, social­ist Seat­tle City Coun­cil mem­ber, to a cheer­ing crowd dur­ing a July 2015 debate with local developers.

On Dec. 5, 2017, hun­dreds of mem­bers of WCAN, ten­ants’ rights groups and local unions gath­ered at the annu­al meet­ing of sev­er­al state real estate orga­ni­za­tions in Seat­tle. The renters were there to crash the land­lords’ party.

Inside the Wash­ing­ton State Con­ven­tion Cen­ter, a series of demon­stra­tors stood up, one by one, and inter­rupt­ed the meet­ing to speak about ris­ing home­less­ness and the dire need for afford­able hous­ing. Event staff quick­ly escort­ed the demon­stra­tors out.

Out­side, State Rep. Nicole Macri (D) announced her plans to intro­duce a bill to over­turn the ban on rent reg­u­la­tion, to cheers from the crowd. We can­not waste this oppor­tu­ni­ty,” Macri said of Democ­rats’ new­ly won con­trol of the state house. Up until this point, the leg­is­la­ture has been nib­bling around the edges.” In recent years, Wash­ing­ton state and the city of Seat­tle have both passed a series of ten­ant pro­tec­tions that fall short of rent con­trol. In 2016, for exam­ple, the city unan­i­mous­ly passed leg­is­la­tion pro­posed by Sawant that caps the move-in fees for a new apart­ment at the equiv­a­lent of one month’s rent.

But that leg­is­la­tion is being chal­lenged in court by sev­er­al major land­lords, who charge that it vio­lates their free speech and due process rights. Hous­ing advo­cates expect a sim­i­lar chal­lenge to cur­rent efforts at rent reg­u­la­tion. The land­lord asso­ci­a­tions have fought any and all ten­ants’ rights leg­is­la­tion at the local and state lev­el,” says Xochitl Maykovich, polit­i­cal direc­tor for WCAN. We decid­ed to protest their con­ven­tion to make the point that we’re not going to roll over.”

The his­to­ry of rent con­trol bans also involves a back­lash by real estate lob­bies. A wave of mil­i­tant ten­ant orga­niz­ing won the pas­sage of new rent con­trol laws in four states and dozens of cities from 1972 to 1985. Spooked by these reforms, real estate inter­ests quick­ly orga­nized a pow­er­ful coun­ter­move­ment that pushed through a slew of so-called pre­emp­tion laws, which allow states to over­turn or pre­vent munic­i­pal-lev­el pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy, begin­ning in the 1980s. At the cen­ter of these efforts was an old bête noire of pro­gres­sives: the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil (ALEC), which writes sam­ple right-wing leg­is­la­tion. State pro­hi­bi­tions on min­i­mum wage hikes and frack­ing bans have received recent atten­tion, but ALEC’s lit­tle-noticed rent con­trol pre­emp­tion act” also appears to have been qui­et­ly adopt­ed in state after state.

Even where rent con­trol hasn’t been banned out­right, land­lords have suc­cess­ful­ly chipped away at pro­tec­tions. In Cal­i­for­nia, where 13 cities passed rent con­trol between 1972 and 1985, the real estate lob­by and sym­pa­thet­ic leg­is­la­tors launched sev­er­al unsuc­cess­ful efforts to ban the mea­sure at the state lev­el — both through leg­is­la­tion and through a propo­si­tion that vot­ers defeat­ed 65 per­cent to 35 per­cent in 1980. A 1987 report by the Cal­i­for­nia Asso­ci­a­tion of Real­tors claimed that the indus­try had spent over $14.2 mil­lion to fight rent con­trol. Final­ly, in 1995, a right­ward shift in state pol­i­tics pro­vid­ed an open­ing for pas­sage of the Cos­ta-Hawkins law, which pro­hibits rent con­trol on apart­ments built after that year and allows land­lords to hike rents in old­er build­ings once exist­ing ten­ants leave.

The law also restricts the types of units cov­ered by rent con­trol, a major issue in areas such as Sacra­men­to Coun­ty, where the largest pri­vate land­lord is the Wall Street-owned Invi­ta­tion Homes. The com­pa­ny bought up tens of thou­sands of fore­closed homes nation­wide in the wake of the finan­cial cri­sis, and the sin­gle-fam­i­ly homes it now rents out are exempt from all local rent con­trol laws in California.

Reni­ta Bar­bee was forced to leave her sin­gle-fam­i­ly home in Los Ange­les last year when Invi­ta­tion Homes, which has a heavy pres­ence in the city, hiked the rent from $2,120 a month to $3,000. After Bar­bee attend­ed a protest against the com­pa­ny orga­nized by a local com­mu­ni­ty group, Invi­ta­tion Homes informed her that the ini­tial increase had been a mis­take” and the new rent would be just $2,320 a month. But for Bar­bee, at the time the only wage earn­er in her house­hold after her mother’s recent death, that amount was still out of reach — near­ly half her income. If com­pa­nies like Invi­ta­tion Homes keep these rent increas­es up, we’ll all end up on the street,” she says. We need rent con­trol for sin­gle-fam­i­ly homes.”

Cal­i­for­nia hous­ing rights groups are wag­ing a mul­ti-pronged cam­paign to repeal Cos­ta-Hawkins and allow cities like Sacra­men­to and Los Ange­les to enact stronger rent con­trol laws. A bill to that effect was intro­duced in the state assem­bly in 2017 but was slow to attract sup­port, even from Democ­rats. In Jan­u­ary, the bill died in committee.

The Alliance of Cal­i­for­ni­ans for Com­mu­ni­ty Empow­er­ment (ACCE) and two oth­er groups filed a pro­posed bal­lot ini­tia­tive in Octo­ber 2017 that would allow vot­ers to repeal Cos­ta-Hawkins. To get the ref­er­en­dum on the Novem­ber 2018 bal­lot, the groups will have to gath­er 365,800 sig­na­tures by April 24. They kicked off a sig­na­ture dri­ve in ear­ly January.

To win, advo­cates will need to con­vince vot­ers that rent con­trol works.

An oft-cit­ed 1992 poll by the Amer­i­can Eco­nom­ic Asso­ci­a­tion found that 93 per­cent of its mem­bers agreed, a ceil­ing on rents reduces the qual­i­ty and quan­ti­ty of hous­ing.” That helped cement the con­ven­tion­al wis­dom that rent con­trol actu­al­ly hurts ten­ants by dis­cour­ag­ing devel­op­ers from main­tain­ing exist­ing prop­er­ties or build­ing new ones. In 1999, Forbes named rent con­trol (along with col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing) one of the dumb­est ideas of the cen­tu­ry,” cit­ing this rationale.

But research exam­in­ing the effect of rent con­trol on dis­place­ment has yield­ed dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions. In 2015, the Urban Dis­place­ment Project — a col­lab­o­ra­tion between researchers at UC Berke­ley, UCLA and Port­land State Uni­ver­si­ty — looked at the aver­age rate of dis­place­ment in hun­dreds of gen­tri­fy­ing Cal­i­for­nia neigh­bor­hoods. Rent con­trol was a com­mon fac­tor among those that expe­ri­enced less dis­place­ment than expect­ed, based on the rate of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and oth­er risk fac­tors. The researchers also not­ed that the actu­al num­bers on hous­ing pro­duc­tion belie the claim that rent con­trol stunts con­struc­tion. Between 2007 and 2013, the six cities in the Bay Area with rent con­trol pro­duced more hous­ing units per capi­ta than the cities with­out it.

Could rent con­trol dis­cour­age land­lords from mak­ing repairs? Amy Schur, cam­paign direc­tor of the ACCE, has lit­tle patience for this argu­ment. Land­lords have an oblig­a­tion to keep their prop­er­ties up to code,” she says. The state con­sti­tu­tion even guar­an­tees a rea­son­able rate of return, so land­lords can peti­tion a rent con­trol board to raise rents in order to make repairs.”

Anoth­er argu­ment holds that high rents are the result of con­strained sup­ply, and build­ing more hous­ing will nat­u­ral­ly low­er costs with­out gov­ern­ment inter­fer­ence. But WCAN’s Maykovich doubts that the mar­ket will ever pro­duce hous­ing that’s afford­able for senior and dis­abled renters like Nan­cy But­tan­da. I hear a lot that if we just fix sup­ply, then every­thing will be mag­ic and life will be great,” says Maykovich. But there will always be land­lords try­ing to gouge their tenants.”

Pro­po­nents of new, mar­ket-rate hous­ing often sug­gest that, as these apart­ments age, they will nat­u­ral­ly fall in price and become avail­able to low­er-income house­holds. A 2014 study sug­gests that this process, known as fil­ter­ing,” occurs at an annu­al rate of about 1.9 per­cent. But in tight urban hous­ing mar­kets, espe­cial­ly in neigh­bor­hoods made to appear more desir­able by lux­u­ry con­do devel­op­ment, this process may hap­pen much more slow­ly. Researchers at Berkeley’s Insti­tute for Gov­ern­men­tal Stud­ies con­clud­ed that fil­ter­ing is not enough” to pre­vent dis­place­ment. More effec­tive, accord­ing to the study, is build­ing new sub­si­dized housing.

In Decem­ber 2017, more than a dozen orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing WCAN, con­vened in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., for a Peo­ples’ Hear­ing on Hous­ing,” where they out­lined a slate of more far-reach­ing demands. In addi­tion to con­trols on rent, the coali­tion called for new fed­er­al invest­ment in pub­lic hous­ing, a $200 bil­lion anti-dis­place­ment fund” for afford­able homes in gen­tri­fy­ing cities, zero-inter­est loans for com­mu­ni­ties of col­or where preda­to­ry lend­ing has his­tor­i­cal­ly run ram­pant, a $350 bil­lion cli­mate resilience fund to finance ener­gy effi­cien­cy upgrades to homes, and a nation­al ten­ants’ bill of rights.

In the mean­time, how­ev­er, Con­gress has been gut­ting fund­ing for pub­lic and sub­si­dized hous­ing pro­grams for years, a trend the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has moved to con­tin­ue. Many hous­ing advo­cates see rent con­trol as a mea­sure that’s winnable in the short term, with­out back­ing from hos­tile fed­er­al agencies.

Push­ing to repeal the ban on rent reg­u­la­tion will allow us to have a broad­er con­ver­sa­tion about hous­ing afford­abil­i­ty through­out the coun­try,” Maykovich says. Ulti­mate­ly, we need to be call­ing for increased invest­ment in hous­ing from all lev­els of government.”

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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