Rent Is Too Damned High: US Tenants Mobilize 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 those questioned reported that they had experienced homelessness — doubling up with family or friends or living in a car, shelter, storage shed or motel — at some point in the last few years.

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

Permanently affordable housing is, of course, key to achieving this outcome. “Winning rent controls is a nonpartisan issue across Florida,” Rolle told Truthout. “Regardless of age, race, gender or home ownership status, support for rent protections is nearly universal, and we see people moving toward an ideology of housing as a human right, a value.” This, she says, confirms the findings of the African American Research Collaborative. “People recognize how normalized homelessness has become. Most people know someone who works full-time but does not earn enough to pay rent and is living in a U-Haul, a storage facility, or a car parked in the Starbucks parking lot.”

And it’s not just Florida. Tenant activists and housing justice organizers in every part of the country are mobilizing in response to an unprecedented increase in the cost of rental housing, a spike that threatens approximately 3.6 million tenants with eviction each year if they fall behind on payments.

The reason is obvious: the rent is simply too damned high.

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

Even more outrageous, online rental marketplace rent.com notes that 19 states saw average rents rise by more than 10 percent, and two — Florida and South Dakota — saw what the real estate industry calls “registered rent growth” that exceeded 20 percent between October 2021 and October 2022.

Rolle knows that reversing this trend and winning protections against landlord price gouging will be a long process and will require a multiplicity of tactics and strategies, from electing tenant-friendly lawmakers, to enacting robust regulations to cap rents and lease renewal increases, to providing free legal counsel to low-income tenants at risk of eviction.

In many cities and towns, these efforts are already playing out. While some housing activists are working to push the White House to issue executive orders to regulate rents in federally managed housing, others are working to upend statewide bans on municipal rent controls, rules that bar local lawmakers from limiting the amount a landlord can charge when a tenant enters into a rental agreement or renews a lease. At present, 37 states have this type of restriction on the books. Meanwhile, 182 municipalities now have some form of rent control in place, and tenants and housing justice proponents are working hard to expand that number by pushing progressive city and state lawmakers to introduce pro-tenant measures.

What’s more, in some areas, voters in the November midterms had a chance to weigh in on ballot measures that support rent regulation. In Pasadena, California, for one, voters approved an initiative to limit rent increases to 75 percent of the Consumer Price Index and barred landlords from evicting tenants without good cause. Even more impressive, renters in Kingston, New York, voted to reduce rents by 15 percent.

Regardless of approach, they have their work cut out for them. Despite widespread public support for their efforts, the fight to expand tenant protections faces both legislative roadblocks and fierce, deep-pocketed landlord opposition. Thanks to groups including RealPage, a big tech firm that sells software to property 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, most prominently in California. Activists there report that since 2018, real estate interests have spent an estimated $1 million to defeat two propositions sponsored by Housing is a Human Right and its parent organization, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Both would have ended statewide restrictions on rent controls.

Similarly, the pro-landlord National Multifamily Housing Council has continually lambasted rent controls, telling the public that such laws cause more harm than good. “Rather than improving the availability of affordable housing, rent control laws exacerbate shortages and cause existing buildings to deteriorate,” their website states.

Housing justice activists call this hogwash and blame landlord greed for poor building maintenance and a lull in new affordable housing construction.

But even when rent controls are won, tenants can continue to face economic difficulties.

Take Oregon. In 2019, Oregon enacted statewide rent control when it passed Senate Bill 608. Loren Naldoza, policy and communications manager at Neighborhood Partnerships, the organizational convenor of the Oregon Housing Alliance, explains that the law allows landlords to raise rents by 7 percent a year plus the rate of inflation. “Normally, inflation is not something we worry very much about, but this year has not been normal,” Naldoza told Truthout. “Because of record-high inflation, rent increases for 2023 will be capped at 14.6 percent, which is a huge issue for many Oregonians. For folks who are already severely rent burdened, already paying more than 30 percent of their income for rent, this is effectively a notice of eviction.”

This jarring reality, he says, has pushed Neighborhood Partnerships to facilitate conversations between people who live in so-called affordable housing — residents of public housing as well as those who have Section 8 vouchers or other housing subsidies — and state lawmakers to ensure that legislators understand the impact of rent increases on the state’s poorest residents and will do something to help them.

“More than 100 million people live at or below [200 percent of] the federal poverty line,” Jasmine Rangel, senior housing associate at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute working to advance racial and economic equity, told Truthout. “Homeowners with a 30-year fixed mortgage rate essentially have price controls on their housing. Tenants do not have this kind of predictability and can’t easily plan for their future in the communities they call home.”

Ballot initiatives like the one passed in Oregon in 2019, she says, have traditionally been seen as an effective way to regulate the cost of rental housing, but because these measures do not include a rent rollback, they can be of limited long-term usefulness to those with the lowest incomes.

“Many people are one crisis away from being unable to pay rent,” Rangel says. “An unexpected car repair or medical bill can put them in a tight financial spot. When people are evicted, it’s almost always for less than a month’s rent, caused by an emergency they did not foresee. When people know that their rent cannot go up at their landlord’s whim, they’re better able to plan their finances and try to save for an emergency.”

But even the best-laid plans sometimes come to naught, something voters in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, discovered in 2021 when they voted to restrict landlords from imposing rent increases of more than 3 percent in any 12-month period. Despite the electoral mandate, within a year of passage, the largely conservative city councils in both cities overrode the vote and gutted the protections.

Joe Hesla, a member of the coordinating committee of Minneapolis United for Rent Control told Truthout that while housing activists are continuing to push for strong rent protections in the Twin Cities, the City of Minneapolis has commissioned a Housing/Rent Stabilization Work Group that is expected to issue policy recommendations sometime 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 way more than 30 percent of their income on rent, but every renter is in the crosshairs. If you do not own a house — and most people in the city do not — you are at risk.”

Hesla anticipates a protracted struggle to enact meaningful rent protections not only in Minnesota but throughout the country. “We’re going to have to fight like tigers,” he says, “but we’re also going to have to learn how to stay close to each other as neighbors. It’s going to be that brutal.”