States consider rent control to address housing crisis

State legislators are considering changes to laws that govern rent control and the relationship between renters and owners.
Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham, speaks Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, on the floor of the House at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

A vicious cycle of inflationary cost increases falling on both tenants and the landlords who own their homes and apartments has state legislators considering changes to laws that govern rent control and the relationship between renters and owners.

The bills vary widely, all specific to the intricacies of existing statute after decades of evolution. But a growing number of states, those led by Democratic governors and legislators, are for the first time in recent memory considering rolling back state laws that preempt cities and local governments from imposing rent controls.

“We’re in a housing crisis,” Washington State Rep. Alex Ramel (D) told fellow lawmakers at a recent hearing. “If we protect the status quo, if we choose not to act this year, then we’ll be protecting those who have wealth and power — landlords, property owners, land owners. And we’ll be doing so to the detriment of those without power and wealth, the tenants.”

Ramel is one of a handful of Washington Democrats who has introduced or signed onto at least five bills addressing the relationship between renters and owners. One bill he leads would cap rent increases at 7% per year, with an exception for landlords who have recently paid for major improvements to their rental properties.

Other bills introduced in Washington would require landlords to give six months’ notice before substantial rent increases; give greater protections to renters whose landlords stake claims to damage deposits; and create a statewide database of rental properties.

Thirty-one states have bans on rent control written into state law, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council, an owners industry group.

Only one state, Oregon, has approved statewide rent control. California sets a statewide rent control cap while leaving specific rates to cities.

Democrats in some of the states that have bans on rent control want to revisit those laws. In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu (D) made rent control a cornerstone of her 2022 campaign. Wu has asked Massachusetts legislators to tie rent hikes to inflation, with a 10% annual cap.

Lawmakers in at least four other states — New Mexico, Michigan, Colorado, Tennessee, Virginia and Arizona — have introduced bills to roll back rent control prohibitions, according to Pluribus News reporting and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“The rent is too high in Colorado, and that’s not just for essential service workers,” state Rep. Javier Mabrey (D) told Colorado Public Radio. “This is not just a Denver problem, and so this is why I have cosponsors on this bill from the Western Slope and Colorado Springs and places Democrats haven’t won election in decades.”

But even in states like Colorado or Massachusetts, where Democrats hold total control, quick repeals are far from likely.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Maura Healey (D) and House and Senate leaders have been noncommittal so far. In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis (D) is skeptical that rent control can help solve the housing crisis.

Landlord and apartment owner groups are universally opposed to rent controls, which they say exacerbate the housing crisis that sent rents skyrocketing in the first place.

“All the research shows that rent control is great for an individual,” said Jim Lapides, vice president of advocacy and strategic communications at the National Multifamily Housing Council. “It makes the problem worse for literally every other person in the housing market.”

In some states, Republican lawmakers are advancing legislation that would impose new limits on city and county rent controls.

Florida Senate President Kathleen Passidomo (R) included a ban on rent control in a housing package she proposed last week, which also includes tax breaks for developers and limits on local zoning laws. Montana Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick (R) is leading one of a handful of bills in his state to restrict cities from imposing rent controls on both residential and commercial buildings.

Rent control has “been proven to result in less housing stock,” Fitzpatrick told Pluribus News. “We’re responsible for everybody in the state of Montana. It’s insane what people are paying.”

In a news conference introducing her housing package, Passidomo characterized the rent control ban as a way to limit government intrusion on personal property.

“The key is this is your private property, this is anyone’s private property, we can’t tell you how much to charge in rent,” Passidomo told reporters. “What’s the next thing, how much you can sell it for? That’s not appropriate.”