Here are just a few astounding facts about renting a home in the U.S. in 2018: Median rents have increased 32% between 2001 and 2015 (not including utility costs), while salaries have flatlined. Around 80% of low-income people pay more than half their income on rent (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development classifies an outsized rent burden as more than 30% of someone’s salary). And this affects a lot of people: The majority of people living in 42 of the 100 largest cities in the U.S. (and a growing proportion in rural areas) rent their homes.
One of the most simple policy interventions to help the country’s renters is rent control, a cap on the amount a landlord can raise the rent in a year. While some states have rent control laws that allow cities to opt in to rent control, a new law in Oregon goes further: The legislature just passed a bill that implements rent control uniformly across the entire state. The policy, which caps rent increases at 7% in a state where some people have seen their leases increase by as much as 113% in the past few years, has been years in the making and is the first of its kind passed in the U.S., says Katrina Holland, executive director of the Portland-based nonprofit advocacy group Community Alliance of Tenants.
The bill in Oregon is just one example of how tenants and advocacy organizations are mobilizing for better rent stabilization measures in the face of rising rents and cost of living, according to a new report jointly produced by advocacy groups the Right to the City Alliance, Center for Popular Democracy, and PolicyLink. Activists in Illinois and Washington are pushing their states to implement rent control on a statewide basis, and several other states and cities like Philadelphia are angling for it. In places like New York City, where rent control has existed for decades, policymakers are aiming to close loopholes, like the expiration of affordability controls or the fact that changes in ownership can cause rents to rise. If all states implemented rent control, the report estimates that nearly 42 million renter households could be stabilized across the country.
“No one policy can solve the housing crisis, but rent control can quickly stabilize prices and halt rent gouging,” says Sarah Treuhaft, report author and PolicyLink director.
Treuhaft emphasizes that addressing the housing affordability shortage in the U.S., which arguably has been at crisis levels since the Great Recession, will require a multifaceted approach. It won’t be solved, for instance, without cities and developers clearing the way for more affordable housing construction, which has noticeably lagged in expensive cities like San Francisco. And employers must begin to raise worker wages to actually account for the increase in the cost of housing.
But rent control is a crucial first step. It’s unrivaled in speed and scale, Treuhaft says, as it can immediately put a stop to untenable rent hikes. While it requires government approval and oversight to implement, it costs next to nothing to carry out. And because rent control applies to all tenants universally, it’s especially effective in protecting the most vulnerable renters: women, people of color, seniors, and people living on low incomes.
A cap on rent increases also helps people to remain in one place. That, Treuhaft says, “creates cascading benefits throughout society.” Without having to spend more than half their income on rent, tenants have more resources to access necessities like food and healthcare. Children are be able to remain in the same school district instead of having to switch, often mid-year, as many now do. And as more expensive cities like San Francisco and Seattle implement $15 minimum wages, rent control will ensure that people can continue living in the city to access long-overdue pay increases.