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How Tenants Are Organizing For — and Winning — Rent Control
Rents are skyrocketing and further exacerbating the American housing crisis, but just a handful of states currently allow rent control.
By Paul Blest, More Perfect Union
Rent control is having a moment — and all it took to get there was a global pandemic, excessive inflation and stagnant wages, a national crisis of housing affordability, and a growing movement of tenants’ rights organizers.
Since 2022, rent control or stabilization has been implemented by either referendum or ordinance in several local governments, including St. Paul, Minnesota, Kingston, New York, and Pasadena, California. This summer, more have joined them, including Cudahy, California in June, and Montgomery County, Maryland, the state’s most populous, in July.
There have been renewed pushes for rent control at the state level this year as well. A bill in Colorado that would allow local governments to enact rent control advanced passed the state House for the first time before failing in a Senate committee in April. And nearly 30 years after Massachusetts residents narrowly voted to ban rent control during a Republican wave election, a petition filed by state Rep. Mike Connolly and more than a dozen other Massachusetts residents would put a measure to undo that ban on the ballot next year, if supporters are able to gather enough signatures.
And while Tufts University economist Gilbert Metcalf wrote in 2018 that opposition to rent control was “something like an oath of office” for the discipline, a group of 32 economists led by Rutgers professor Mark Paul signed a letter asking the Biden administration to implement rent stabilization in buildings where mortgages are backed by the federal government. “Similarly to the minimum wage debate, the economics 101 model that predicts rent regulations will have negative effects on the housing sector is being proven wrong by empirical studies that better analyze real world dynamics,” they wrote.
All of these developments have represented a sea change in the rent control conversation in the U.S. Oregon became the first state to enact statewide rent control in 2019. The number of states that allow local governments to set rent control is limited to just seven, while two-thirds of states outright ban rent control policies. And it’s even limited in the states that do allow it; a 2018 referendum to expand California’s rent control policy was defeated heavily at the ballot box.
But in the years since, housing affordability has exploded into a full-blown crisis in cities from coast to coast and everywhere in between. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimated in April that there was a shortage of 7.3 million affordable units available to renters with extremely low incomes.
Roughly 85 percent of residents are renters in Cudahy, a small, highly-dense, overwhelmingly Latino city in Los Angeles County. This year, the market rate for a one-bedroom in Los Angeles County has increased by an average of nearly nine percent, according to Department of Housing and Urban Development data.
Elizabeth Alcantar, a Cudahy city councilmember who has championed rent control, is one of those tenants. Alcantar told More Perfect Union rent control was part of the reason she ran for office in the first place.
"I've been a renter my whole life. Since I was a little kid, I knew this was something I wanted to see in the community,” Alcantar said. Last fall, Alcantar shared a letter from her landlord on Twitter informing her that her rent would be increased a full 10 percent to more than $1,500 per month.
“We're a very, very large working class community where the median income is just not going to allow folks to make ends meet. Especially in a housing market like the one we're seeing now, where rents are increasing every single year, as much as possible, legally, from the landlord's point of view.”
The battle for rent control has been ongoing in Cudahy for years — a group called the Cudahy Tenants Union formed in 2021 — but Alcantar said pressure for rent control began ramping up last September when the city issued a moratorium on increasing rents. The ordinance the city council eventually passed in June caps rent increases at three percent per year. (The city also passed a round of other tenant protections at the same time, including restricting the terms by which a landlord can evict a tenant.)
The next step, actually implementing rent control, could be just as difficult. St. Paul voters passed a referendum in 2021 that made it the first city in the Midwest to enact rent control, but the following year, the city council made substantial changes to the law that exempted new and low-income housing from the cap. The city has also approved hundreds of exceptions for landlords to hike rents by more than three percent, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. (Last week, a St. Paul tenant filed what’s believed to be the first lawsuit alleging her landlord is breaking the rent control ordinance.)
In Minneapolis, organizers have worked to get a similar rent control measure on the ballot this November. But in June, the City Council voted 6-4 to kill the proposal — on a day when three Muslim members, all of whom supported rent control, were absent while observing Eid. (The three council members later released a statement calling the vote “inappropriate, purposeful, and exclusionary,” and “a denial of our democratic process and obligation.”)
And further attempts to expand rent control throughout the U.S. are likely to run into stiff opposition from corporate landlords and the industry groups that represent them. In 2018, California tenant organizers and their allies gathered enough signatures to get a measure on the ballot, Proposition 10, which would have repealed a 1995 state law that banned cities from applying rent control to new apartments and single-family homes.
As The New Republic reported, corporate landlords like the private equity company Blackstone, Equity International, and AvalonBay Communities spent millions that year to defeat Prop 10. And in the weeks and months leading up to the Prop 10 vote, many landlords pre-emptively hiked rents while explicitly pinning the blame for increases on the pending vote.
During a wave election that saw Democrats pick up seven U.S. House seats in California, Prop 10 failed by nearly 20 points.
But while landlords and corporate interests will continue to fight policies that prioritize renters, the wins in Cudahy and elsewhere have provided a blueprint for organizers and policymakers to win rent control to stabilize prices and provide renters with some relief.
[The campaign] was really emphasized and strengthened by the community as a whole when we started organizing, knocking on doors, talking to one another,” Alcantar said. “Strengthening our numbers, really, so we could take it to City Hall.”