For Paula Coar, rent control was a “blessing”.
Coar lived in a rent-controlled apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her sister and their children for over a decade in the 1980s and 1990s and credits the policy for the opportunities she was able to provide to her children.
“Rent control enabled us to have additional income left over, so I was able to send my children to a local private school, and later on a historically Black college, that invested more in Black students,” says Coar, who worked as a technician at Polaroid at the time.
At its highest, her three-bedroom rent-controlled apartment in Cambridge was $1,200 a month – the equivalent of $3,433 today. (The median monthly rent for a three-bedroom unit in the same neighborhood today is $4,195.) While not cheap, one of the chief advantages was that any increases in rent had to be approved in advance by the local rent control board, which established a finite maximum rent for every unit in the city.
But then rent control disappeared in Massachusetts – and it was banned in many other places in the US, too. Is it now on its way back in a slightly different form?
The allure of rent control is clear. Most renters now spend more than a third of their income on rent each month (a benchmark that signifies they are “rent-burdened”). Even residents who pay rent on time are subject to the whim of landlords legally entitled to raise rent prices as they see fit. And when households cannot afford these increases, they face the threat of eviction. US landlords file 3.6m eviction cases each year.
Proponents are not arguing that any increase in rent is unfounded. Owning property comes with increasing expenses from inflation and overhead costs from maintenance. But with rent-controlled or stabilized housing, residents know when to expect these increases and have a system through which to contest them.
Earlier this year, in response to the city’s affordable housing crisis, Boston’s city council voted to introduce measures that would stabilize rents, though the move is facing opposition. Pro-rent regulation coalitions have gained traction in other cities, as lawmakers in Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon and California have pondered efforts to introduce or tighten caps on rent increases.
The Boston city councilor Kendra Lara, who supports Boston’s rent ordinance, said that since the state ban in 1994, “our understanding of what rent control means, what it looks like, and the impact it can have on communities has grown leaps and bounds,” she says. “We’re ultimately having a conversation about whether families can afford to have a roof over their heads.”
If rent regulation has a resurgence, it would cap a precipitous fall from grace. Rent control laws in the US date back to the 1920s, and took off most prominently in New York. After the second world war, housing officials hoped to secure affordable housing for returning veterans and a burgeoning class of skilled laborers. Experts refer to this period as the first generation of rent control, and it entailed a hardline freezing of rent prices so they could not increase.
There were over 1m rent-controlled units in New York City, for instance, in the 1950s, but today there are less than 22,000. This is why Sophie House, the law and policy director of New York University’s Housing Solutions Lab, calls it “the more mythical option”.
“There’s this lingering cultural image of the little old lady who pays $200 a month for a rent-controlled unit she’s had since 1960. In truth, that applies to a very small amount of remaining units.”
By the 1970s, the second-generation model had taken hold: rent stabilization. While rent control fixes rents at a specific dollar amount, stabilization policies limit yearly rent increases to a certain percentage through a regulated process.
Most towns with rent regulation abandoned the policies by the 1990s, citing disadvantages for the real estate market, a common one being that the policy disincentivizes new home construction and dissuades landlords from maintaining their properties. Massachusetts cities and towns such as Boston, Brookline and Cambridge held on.
But Boston landlords claimed that financially privileged tenants who could afford to pay market values for their apartments abused the system. Soon after, a coalition of property owners introduced a ballot initiative to overturn rent control at the state level. Citizens in 351 Massachusetts towns and suburbs were given a vote on whether to outlaw a policy that affected only three cities – and the policy was indeed overturned.
Soon after the eradication of rent control in Massachusetts other states, such as Tennessee and Illinois, followed suit with laws that prohibited cities and towns from establishing rent control in 1996 and 1997 respectively. Such pre-emption laws now cover much of the US, according to the Urban Institute.
Massachusetts, though, is heading in the opposite direction.
Its state rent stabilization bill would limit allowable rent increases to the rate of inflation with a cap at 5% per year, and excludes newly constructed units for the first five years – so as not to drive down new construction.
But the opposition is steep. The broaching of rent control by Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration prompted the Greater Boston Real Estate Board to invest $400,000 in an anti-rent control campaign.
Jim Lapides, vice-president of advocacy and strategic communications for the National Multifamily Housing Council, whose membership consists of private landlords and commercial real estate developers, believes rent control is a Band-Aid solution that won’t result in more affordable rent for those who need it.
“Politicians are looking for an expedient solution to say they addressed the housing crisis so they can get re-elected,” said Lapides.
“Expanding housing choice voucher programs, which are underutilized, is a much better way to help families that need rental assistance,” he said, referring to a federal assistance program that subsidizes rent for low-income residents. (Only one in four people who qualify for federal housing assistance currently receive support.)
Activists, on the other hand, say drastic solutions are needed immediately. “Rent control is an anti-displacement tool,” said Andres Del Castillo, a lead organizer at City Life/Vida Urbana, a non-profit organization that supports tenants fighting for affordable and safe housing. “It’s not centered on housing production, it’s focused on the issue of real people being displaced right now,” he says.
It’s true that rent stabilization laws do help residents in protected units remain in place. But their broader effects are ambiguous. Do they disincentivize developers to build more units? Or, on the other hand, do they improve economic opportunities for tenants and reduce racial inequality? The evidence for all of this is “mixed”, experts say.
Amid this uncertainty, some efforts have foundered.
After outlawing rent control in 1981, the Colorado state legislature this year considered a bill that would have granted cities the power to set their own rent regulation policies. But the proposal failed amid concerns from some lawmakers that it would suffocate new development.
In Oregon, where lawmakers capped rent hikes in 2019 to no more than 7% plus the inflation rate, there have been calls for amendments to the bill, capping increases at just 3% plus inflation. That proposal has been weakened.
In Massachusetts, the proposal must be reviewed by the legislature’s housing committee, which includes a hearing at which the public can weigh in. The committee will decide whether the bill will be put up for a vote in the statehouse. All the while, the stakes feel visceral.
“Myself and my three daughters are living with rodents, cockroaches and lead in our apartment,” Suneyda Mejia proclaimed to a crowd of protesters on the steps of her apartment building. Earlier this year her landlord had threatened her with eviction after she resisted a $400 rent hike despite the poor condition of the building. She is hoping the landlord will negotiate a fairer rental agreement with the tenants.
“We cannot continue paying rent increases while living in such bad conditions,” said Lucia Guardado, another of the tenant organizers. “We must fight for rent control.”