Last week, Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to implement universal rent control. Senate Bill 608, signed in to law by Governor Kate Brown, will restrict annual rent increases to 7 percent and ban what are known as “no-cause” evictions, in an attempt to provide immediate, widespread relief to the state’s rent-burdened households.
Although Oregon tenant groups had been mobilizing to pass rent control legislation for over two decades, the law’s passage will address what has recently become a crisis situation, according to Pam Phan, of Oregon’s Community Alliance of Tenants. “It’s the most immediate and effective way to stop displacement and gentrification at scale.”
Oregon now joins the states of California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and the city of Washington D.C. as places with some rent control or rent stabilization policies on the books. Another three states—Colorado, Illinois, and Washington—are considering similar statewide measures. Currently, 37 states prohibit or ban rent control outright.
About half of all renters across the country are cost-burdened, meaning that they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. While the problem transcends urban and rural jurisdictions, it is most prevalent in low-income and segregated communities.
As homelessness rates skyrocket across the country, the push for tenant protections has emerged as a pivotal issue in local politics, with cities and states crafting rent stabilization ordinances that specifically address displacement. Now, there’s even some movement to offer rent relief at the national level. Oregon’s legislation could serve as a model.
The “crucial first step”
Rent stabilization measures could go a long way to alleviate the country’s affordable housing crisis, according to the “Our Homes, Our Future: How Rent Control Can Build Stable, Healthy Communities” report out last month by PolicyLink, the Center for Popular Democracy, and the Right To The City Alliance.
If all the jurisdictions that are currently debating rent control policies adopted them, 12.7 million households of American renters could be stabilized, the report says. If rent control was adopted by all states—or through a federal policy—a total of 42 million households could be stabilized.
In Oregon alone, the new rent control legislation will immediately stabilize a half-million households, the report notes, a majority of which are low-income.
“We know we need multiple policies to address the affordable housing crisis, but we see rent control as this crucial first step,” says Sarah Treuhaft, managing director of PolicyLink, and co-author of the February 2019 report. “Policymakers are recognizing the need for solutions that immediately protect renters from unsustainable and sometimes unconscionable rent increases.”
Rent control can be implemented quickly, deployed across a wide geographic area, and costs governments next to nothing, the report notes. It also disproportionately benefits the most at-risk renters, including families, people living with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and seniors, “who have the least choice in the rental market and are most susceptible to rent gouging, harassment, eviction, and displacement.”
“It’s a solution that tenants are calling for and know will have an immediate impact,” says Treuhaft. “And it’s a tool that policymakers know they can implement to relieve pain and suffering right away.”
Additionally, rent control policies provide benefits to renters that go beyond financial stability. The stress of being evicted or having to find a new place to live creates duress which can impact emotional and physical health, particularly for children.
Phan says the need to pass Oregon’s law became more urgent after her organization started tracking mass evictions, which they noticed were becoming more common starting around 2015. “Just at one elementary school, there were 30 kids affected by one eviction notice,” she says. “The impact at the neighborhood level is unacceptable.”
A powerful, but limited, tool
Oregon’s law has limitations—rent protections can only be applied to units which are at least 15 years old, and renters are not eligible until they have lived in their apartments for a year. But what’s unique about Oregon’s rules is that they will be mandatory across the state. Even in the handful of states that currently allow rent control, it is not always utilized or applicable statewide.
In New York, rent control is currently restricted to the counties in and adjacent to New York City. Even those protected units aren’t safe: Of the state’s one million stabilized apartments, most of which are in New York City, 284,000 lost their rent-controlled status from to 1994 and 2016. Last year, a coalition of 13 tenants groups created the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance to advance universal rent control policies across the state.
In California, only 15 out of 478 municipalities have voluntarily passed rent control, and larger efforts to strengthen the statewide policy have failed. Last November, California voters shot down Proposition 10, a ballot measure that would have overturned the Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which weakened rent control policies statewide when it was passed in 1995.
After the failure of Proposition 10, a handful of California cities have passed new tenant protections on their own which specifically address urgent concerns about displacement.
Just this week, in the Southern California city of Inglewood, the city council adopted an “emergency rent control” ordinance. For the next 45 days, property owners will not be allowed to raise rents more than 5 percent and cannot evict tenants except for reasons of “criminality or drug use.” The council has the option to extend the moratorium for up to a year.
“After years of advocacy, we are proud to have gotten the city to take this important step to send the message to corporate landlords that rent gouging is not okay in the City of Inglewood,” said D’Artagnan Scorza, a member of the Uplift Inglewood Coalition.
Tenant advocates from Uplift Inglewood claim that evictions and rent hikes increased after construction began on a new NFL stadium. Corresponding data from CoStar showed that rents in Inglewood have been increasing at a faster rate than the county average—up 10.8 percent last year, compared to 7 percent across Los Angeles County—creating worries about rising rents pushing out longtime members of the city’s black community.
Similar displacement concerns were echoed in Oregon when Portland saw a documented, dramatic decrease in black residents from its city center, demonstrating more problematic trends with the way renters are being treated in the state’s largest metropolitan area, says Phan. “That to us really speaks volumes about who has historically had access to wealth creation, and that is all due to housing discrimination.”
Giving cities time to build more
In the same way that emergency rent control offers breathing room for tenants, it also buys cities time to assess how to best help their most burdened communities. “Everyone knows we need to build more,” Phan says, noting that now local governments can work to allocate resources to increase housing supply, which requires additional time, money, and political will.
That’s also the conclusion of a 2018 USC study on the impact of rent-stabilization measures, which calls rent control a “useful tool in a crisis” that doesn’t limit housing production. In fact, it’s particularly effective when paired with efforts to build more units.
Oregon’s leaders are working to address the supply challenge with a separate piece of legislature. House Speaker Rep. Tina Kotek introduced House Bill 2001, which would require cities with populations of 10,000 and up to allow “middle housing” of up to four units on land zoned for single-family dwellings.
House Bill 2001 would end so-called “apartment bans” and make Oregon cities more accessible, much same way that Minneapolis recently upzoned nearly all the city to allow triplexes in places where only single-family homes were previously allowed. Kotek told Oregon Public Broadcasting she saw the bill as a way to restore the different types of housing that allowed people of all backgrounds to live in cities before lower-income families were forced out.
“You had mixed income communities living side by side,” she said, “and I think that’s where we want to be.”
Lifting residential zoning restrictions is also something that hasn't yet been implemented at the state level. When paired with universal tenant protections, these two laws could allow Oregon to develop a more robust set of tools to address the housing crisis now—followed by long-term policy reforms to protect more of its most vulnerable residents in the near future.