Rent Control Saves Lives

Apartment for rent sign

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For millions of American renters, these are troubling times. In fact, the times have never been more troubling, given that the typical renter in today’s America is now classified as “rent-burdened,” with 30 percent (or more) of their monthly income going toward housing alone.

In a July letter to the Biden administration, 32 economists warned “there is not a single state where a worker earning a full-time minimum wage salary can afford a modest two-bedroom apartment.” And, according to a University of San Francisco study also released this summer, more than 170,000 people in California — my home state — are without any home at all.

We are in the midst of a dire humanitarian and public health crisis, and corporate landlords and real estate tycoons are spending their time and money demonizing rent control. According to Big Real Estate, the “best” solution to the problem is to build more luxury apartments that most people can’t afford. They would like you to believe that a rent control-induced reduction in the “overall supply of apartments” drives up prices and, somehow, expansion in the supply of $5,000-a-month studios in the West Village is the real antidote to homelessness.

Reality check: There is no legitimate evidence that rent control leads to a reduction in housing supply.

Virtually all existing rent regulations, including new statewide laws, exempt new construction. Moreover, empirical studies in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., have found no relationship between rent control and new housing development. According to the nonpartisan Urban Institute, “Even when rent control suppresses rent and property values, it has a negligible effect on new construction.”

To suggest otherwise is nothing more than a distraction. Big Real Estate’s talking points distract the overwhelming majority of Americans from recognizing the problem at hand and rallying behind a solution that actually works for them.

This is no time for real estate industry sloganeering — not when corporate landlords gleefully spend their profits on luxury cars and super-yachts while the rest of us crumble under the financial burden of monthly rent. The real estate website Zillow found that, in cities where the typical renter is overburdened, a spike in homelessness naturally follows and leads to an increase in unhoused individuals dying on the streets.

Rent control movements are picking up steam because people are anxious, concerned and desperate for answers from corporate landlords who ignore their cries for help. Recent victories in CaliforniaMinnesota and New York are testaments to the progress being made, but the war is far from won, especially in my home state.

In the words of housing expert Stephen Barton, “When the housing market is as dysfunctional as it is in many parts of California, tenants are effectively subsidizing landlords with rent payments above what a fully competitive market would allow landlords to charge.” Barton co-authored a University of California, Berkeley, study that found rent control is a key tool to stabilize California’s housing affordability crisis (experts at USC and UCLA agree).

Rent control works. It not only makes housing more affordable, it prevents people from falling into homelessness. No matter how many tens of millions of dollars Big Real Estate spends on industry propaganda, American renters will be just as rent-burdened as before, unless we act collectively.

The solution is to hold Big Real Estate accountable and mobilize community by community. In California, Housing Is A Human Right and its parent organization, AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), has proudly introduced the “Yes on 33 Act,” a 2024 ballot measure that repeals statewide rent control restrictions and empowers localities to pass updated rent regulations.

If passed, the Yes on 33 Act effectively would end California’s Costa-Hawkins Rental Act, a law that does not allow rent control to be applied for residential rental properties built after February 1995. Originally pushed by Big Real Estate, Costa-Hawkins simply is not working for California, and the millions of state residents who struggle to afford their monthly rent payments desperately need their localities to refresh outdated rent regulations.

This also applies to Florida, where AHF has mobilized for years on behalf of an expansion in affordable housing. Especially in the face of climate gentrification, Floridians in increasingly expensive cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale need more access to low-income housing, not less.

Only with rent control can we ever hope to address the housing affordability and homelessness crises. Until then, don’t expect a helping hand from Big Real Estate — unless you can afford their next penthouse pipe dream.

Patrick Range McDonald is the award-winning advocacy journalist for Housing Is A Human Right, the housing advocacy division of AIDS Healthcare Foundation.