he National Fight for Rent Control

PROTEAN, Oksana Mironova, February 25, 2024

Rent control is back from the dead with a vengeance, with serious organizing campaigns underway in at least 15 states.

In April 2015, the Pacific Standard (RIP to yet another quality outlet shuttered) published a defense of rent control—with an opening salvo declaring it dead. New York tenant organizers would go on to win small, highly technical improvements to their rent regulation system a little later that year, but in the broad strokes, the Standard’s appraisal at the time wasn’t wrong. Localized systems in New York, California, and New Jersey were riddled with pro-landlord loopholes, while 31 states had instituted outright rent control bans, most at the behest of a shadowy neo-con organization. Diego Morales, an organizer with the Lift the Ban Coalition, remembered rent control as a “taboo” topic inside the halls of the Illinois Capitol, unmentionable because of how resoundingly hated it was by economists and policy experts.

Just eight years later, rent control is back from the dead with a vengeance, with serious organizing campaigns underway in at least 15 states. There are campaigns to strengthen and expand existing rent regulation statutes in coastal cities, to lift statewide pre-emption laws in the Midwest, and to instate local control of rents in Western and even Southern states. A lot has changed since 2015: the U.S. has been through an aspirationally fascist presidency, a global pandemic, and a national rebellion for racial justice. After multiple failures in the housing system, more people are renting than ever, and those who do rent are often in a significantly more precarious position. Both tenant organizers and landlord lobbyists have adapted their strategies to our current political moment, with high-profile victories in some places (St. Paul and Oregon) matched by setbacks in others (Minneapolis, Florida).

How did rent control come back from the dead so quickly?

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Rent control has been around for as long as the landlord. Since antiquity it has served as a tool for limiting land speculation, especially during economic shocks. In Rome, beginning in 40 B.C.E., in the wake of civil war, a debt crisis, and political turmoil, the government instituted a temporary rent cap and a cancellation of rent for one year. Likewise, imperial China under the Song Dynasty began to use rent controls around the year 1000 A.D. to curb speculation and stabilize the rental market. Examples of temporary rent control measures can be found in dozens of late medieval cities, especially during times of armed conflict, pandemics, or great fires.

Rent control in its modern incarnation, argues historian Jo Guldi, can be traced back to the 1881 Land Court of Ireland; Guldi describes it as an anti-British, anti-colonial measure to “reverse the racism of an economy established under empire”—an empire that had stolen Irish land and banned Catholic landownership. Unlike earlier iterations, the Irish system was a permanent response to inequities within the housing market, rather than a temporary response to an economic shock. The law owed as much to economically crippling rent strikes by tenant farmers as to the anti-colonial Irish intelligensia, who had developed the concept of a “fair rent” system. The latter aimed to replace an extractive real estate market with a “quantifiable and objective” system of land valuation that took tenant farmers’ productive use of leased land into account. To operate, the Land Court depended on two key factors: a new class of Irish civil servants trained to collect data in a systematic fashion, and the public acceptance and legitimacy of a new judicial body that could adjudicate between tenants and landlords.

Establishing an analogous fair rent system would later become a goal shared by anti-colonial tenant farmer organizers in farther reaches of the British empire, like India and New Zealand. Labor organizers in industrialized English and Scottish cities had also began to agitate for rent control at the turn of the century. But it was not until the outbreak of World War I that England saw its first comprehensive rent control act, which limited rent increases, provided urban tenants with good-cause eviction protections, and regulated warehousing of vacant units.

The economic impact of World War I, paired with ongoing radical labor organizing in the U.S., also paved the way for the first two U.S. rent control laws. In New York, radical agitation around worsening living conditions, including a rent strike organized by Jewish textile workers that swelled to 10,000 strong, pushed the New York State legislature to create a court-based rent arbitration process in 1920. A year earlier, Washington D.C. created a new judicial body to determine fair rents and resolve conflicts between tenants and landlords. D.C.’s law was immediately challenged in the Supreme Court, but it withstood the legal assault. Like the Irish Land Court, these early U.S. rent control systems depended on the combination of the perceived neutrality of judicial bodies and expert data analysis to justify their intervention in the real estate market. Yet as a result of pressure from landlords, both systems were quickly phased out within just a few years.

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