US tenants are mobilizing to demand rent controls

When the African American Research Collaborative surveyed a cross-section of Florida voters earlier this fall, more than 25 percent of respondents said they had been homeless — being with family or friends, or being in a car, shelter, storage shed, or a motel living sometime in the last few years.

This came as no surprise to Sheena D. Rolle, senior director of strategy at Florida Rising, an organization formed from a 2021 merger between the New Florida Majority and Organize Florida. The group’s goal, according to its website, is “to win elections, change laws, and create a state where everyone can be safe, happy, healthy, and whole.”

Of course, permanently affordable housing is the key to achieving this goal. “Winning rent controls is an impartial issue throughout Florida,” Rolle said truth. “Regardless of age, race, gender or home ownership status, support for rent protection is almost universal, and we’re seeing people moving towards an ideology of housing as a human right, as a value.” This, she says, supports the African’s findings American Research Collaborative. “People are realizing how normal homelessness has become. Most people know someone who works full-time but doesn’t make enough to pay the rent and lives in a U-Haul, a warehouse, or a car parked in the Starbucks lot.”

And it’s not just Florida. Tenant activists and housing justice organizers across the country are mobilizing in response to an unprecedented rise in the cost of rented housing, a surge that threatens about 3.6 million renters each year with eviction if they default on payments.

The reason is obvious: the rent is just too damn high.

According to statista.com, a company that monitors business trends, the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the US was $1,295 in February 2022, up from $1,100 a year earlier.

Even more outrageously, online rental market rent.com notes that 19 states saw average rents rise more than 10 percent and two — Florida and South Dakota — saw what the real estate industry calls “registered rental growth” between Oct Percent exceeded 2021 and October 2022.

Rolle knows that reversing this trend and protecting against landlord price gouging will be a lengthy process, and will require a variety of tactics and strategies, from electing tenant-friendly lawmakers to enacting tough regulations capping rents and extending leases to providing free leases to legal counsel for low-income tenants at risk of eviction.

These efforts are already being implemented in many cities and communities. While some housing activists are working to urge the White House to issue executive orders regulating rents in state-managed housing, others are working to lift statewide bans on municipal rent controls, rules that prevent local lawmakers from capping the amount that a landlord may require if a tenant enters into a lease or renews a lease. Currently, 37 states have this type of restriction on their books. Now, 182 municipalities have introduced some form of rent control, and renters and housing justice advocates are working hard to expand that number by urging progressive city and state legislators to introduce tenant-friendly policies.

In addition, voters in some areas had a chance to comment on voting measures in support of rent regulation in the November midterm elections. In Pasadena, California, for example, voters approved an initiative to limit rent increases to 75 percent of the CPI and bar landlords from evicting tenants without good reason. Even more impressively, tenants in Kingston, New York, voted to cut rents by 15 percent.

Regardless of the approach, they have their work to do. Despite widespread public support for their efforts, the fight to expand renter protections has met both legal obstacles and fierce, deep-pocketed opposition from landlords. Thanks to groups like RealPage, a big tech company that sells software to real estate owners and managers, the real estate lobby has poured tens of thousands of dollars into campaigns to stop pro-tenant ballot initiatives and defeat pro-tenant candidates, particularly in California. Activists there report that since 2018, real estate prospects have spent an estimated $1 million to thwart two proposals sponsored by Housing is a Human Right and its parent organization, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Both would have ended nationwide restrictions on rent control.

Similarly, the pro-renter National Multifamily Housing Council has consistently criticized rent controls, telling the public that such laws do more harm than good. “Rather than increasing the availability of affordable housing, rent control laws are exacerbating scarcity and leading to the dilapidation of existing buildings,” their website reads.

Housing justice activists call this bullshit, blaming landlord greed for poor building maintenance and a lull in the construction of new affordable housing.

But even if the rental price brake is enforced, tenants can still get into economic difficulties.

Take Oregon. In 2019, Oregon enacted a statewide rent control with the passage of Senate Law 608. Loren Naldoza, policy and communications manager at Neighborhood Partnerships, the organizational organizer of the Oregon Housing Alliance, explains that the law allows landlords to increase rents by 7 percent a year and more than the rate of inflation. “We don’t usually worry too much about inflation, but this year hasn’t been normal,” Naldoza said truth. “Due to record-high inflation, rent increases will be capped at 14.6 percent for 2023, a major concern for many Oregon residents. For people who are already heavily rent-burdened and are already paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent, this is effectively an eviction notice.”

That harrowing reality, he says, has pushed neighborhood partnerships to facilitate conversations between people living in so-called affordable housing — residents on public housing, as well as people who have Section 8 vouchers or other housing assistance — and lawmakers to ensure lawmakers make the impact of rent increases on the poorest residents in the state and do something to help them.

“More than 100 million people live on or below it [200 percent of] the federal poverty line,” said Jasmine Rangel, senior housing associate at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute dedicated to advancing racial and economic justice truth. “Homeowners with a 30-year fixed rate mortgage essentially have price controls on their homes. Renters don’t have that kind of predictability and can’t easily plan their futures in the communities they call home.”

Voting initiatives like the one in Oregon in 2019, she says, have traditionally been seen as an effective way to regulate rental housing costs, but because these measures don’t involve rent repayment, they may be of limited long-term benefit to those on the lowest incomes.

“Many people are only one crisis away from not being able to pay their rent,” says Rangel. “An unexpected car repair or medical bill can leave you in financial distress. When people are evicted, it’s almost always for less than a month’s rent, caused by an emergency they didn’t anticipate. When people know their rent can’t go up at the whim of the landlord, they can plan their finances better and try to save for emergencies.”

But even the best plans sometimes fail, as voters in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, discovered in 2021 when they voted to block landlords from enforcing rent increases of more than 3 percent in a 12-month period. Despite the electoral mandate, the largely conservative city councils in both cities defied the vote within a year of passage, invalidating the protection.

Joe Hesla, a member of the Minneapolis United for Rent Control steering committee, said truth that housing activists continue to push for strong rent protections in twin cities, but the City of Minneapolis has commissioned a housing/rent stabilization task force that is expected to issue policy recommendations in December. “We are confident that they will either make weak recommendations or write nothing at all,” he says. “We know that 56 percent of African Americans in the city are rent-burdened and pay well over 30 percent of their income in rent, but every renter is in the crosshairs. If you don’t own a home – and most people in the city don’t – you’re at risk.”

Hesla anticipates a protracted battle over meaningful rent protection not just in Minnesota but across the country. “We will have to fight like tigers,” he says, “but we must also learn to stay close as neighbors. That’s how brutal it gets.”

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