National Movement for Stronger Rent Laws Grows

As the nation’s affordable-housing crisis deepens, tenants from New York to Nashville to California are demanding that local governments have the right to enact needed rent and eviction protections. Currently, 26 of the 50 states have laws forbidding cities from addressing their housing crises in the only way that works—with stronger tenant protections.

Activists in more than a dozen California localities, including Pasadena, Sacramento and Long Beach, are trying to get referenda on the ballot to enact rent-control laws and ban evictions without “just cause.” The Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation is promoting a statewide initiative to repeal California’s law that bars local governments from limiting rent increases on vacant apartments or in buildings constructed after 1995.

California is not unique. Tenants in Denver, Minneapolis, and Nashville are also demanding stronger rent laws. Last year, the Washington state legislature defeated a bill to repeal its rent-control ban.

In March, 75 percent of voters in nine wards in Chicago answered yes on a ballot question about ending the state ban on local rent controls. The measure was the result of organizing by the Lift the Ban coalition, a collection of 20 neighborhood and housing-justice groups.

In New York, Met Council has supported restoring New York City’s home rule over rent laws since it was taken away by the 1971 “Urstadt Law.”

There is no sound policy reason for state legislatures to prohibit localities from addressing their housing crisis. The “pre-emption” tactic was developed by the “robber barons” of the late 19th century.  As historian Robert Caro has noted, “Standard Oil did everything to the Pennsylvania legislature except refine it.” It’s been revived in the last few years, as states including Alabama, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin have enacted laws that have stopped local governments from raising the minimum wage, requiring paid sick leave, or protecting transgender people from discrimination.

“Wherever the power to protect tenants against profiteering landlords is taken and held by legislators who don’t have to answer to those same tenants at election time, you will find the corrupting influence of real-estate money,” says tenant attorney Timothy L. Collins. “The extent to which power is divorced from accountability is also a fair measure of tyranny.”