Rent control expands as tenants struggle with record-high costs Voters in several cities approved ballot measures to cap rents, part of a larger resurgence of rent control. Economists warn that such caps can actually reduce affordable housing overall.

Rent control expands as tenants struggle with the record-high cost of housing

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This month, voters in a handful of U.S. cities approved ballot measures for rent control, part of a larger push driven by the record high cost of housing. As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, it's happening even though economists have long warned such measures don't actually work.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Dozens of tenant activists recently converged in Washington, D.C., where they lobbied Biden administration officials for rent caps on federally funded housing, then protested outside the White House.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: The rent. The rent. The rent is too damn high.

LUDDEN: LaMonica Dickerson traveled from Louisville, Ky., where she says an out-of-town investor bought her apartment building this past spring. A month later, it sent out 120 eviction notices and announced it would hike rents by hundreds of dollars.

LAMONICA DICKERSON: You're forcing homelessness. Married couples are having to split because they don't have anywhere to go together.

LUDDEN: Dickerson negotiated to stay put and pay only 200 more. But if rents go up again when the lease is up next year, she doesn't know what she'll do.

DICKERSON: I was going to go back to Nashville. And when I saw the rent in Nashville - because that's my home. I love Nashville. It broke my heart.

LUDDEN: Jim Lapides has tracked a rise in rent control proposals in both cities and states amid spiking rent and painful inflation. He's with the National Multifamily Housing Council and says he understands the desperation for what seems like a quick, easy fix. But this is not it.

JIM LAPIDES: It's a shame because rent control attempts to address the symptoms of the problem while making the core issue worse.

LUDDEN: That core issue is a shortage of millions of homes and apartments. It's driven up rents most everywhere. But Lapides cites years of research that has found, over the long term, capping rents can actually lead to fewer affordable units because...

LAPIDES: Either they go into disrepair and fall into obsolescence because they don't have the resources to reinvest into those units. Or they get converted to other uses. Maybe they're converted to condos or even not residential at all.

LUDDEN: Some landlords say rent caps make them question spending money on improvements.

BRIT VITALIUS: I have some vacant units right now. I'm trying to decide what to do with them.

LUDDEN: Landlord Brit Vitalius heads the Rental Housing Alliance of Southern Maine, where Portland just tightened its rent control. Normally, he'd use a vacancy to upgrade kitchens and bathrooms, maybe replace a century-old clawfoot bathtub.

VITALIUS: I take great care of my tenants. I care about my tenants a lot. But there is no reason that I can justify putting any more money into these buildings. The market is hot. I don't have to do anything. And I'll get the rent that I get.

LUDDEN: Portland's new measure also imposes a $25,000 fee if landlords convert to a condo. And it requires a 90-day notice to ask tenants to leave. On the other side of the country, voters in Pasadena, Calif., also passed rent control. Tenant activist Jane Panangaden says the state already caps rent, but not enough to keep it from rising higher than the rate of inflation. Now Pasadena will limit hikes to 75% of inflation so that, perhaps, over time, a smaller share of people's income will have to go toward housing.

JANE PANANGADEN: And that will hopefully create a lot more stability, because right now, tenants are moving, you know, every two or three years as their rent goes up.

LUDDEN: Research shows rent control can keep people from being displaced. But to actually create more affordable places to live, housing experts say cities will need to do something else that's not as politically popular and takes longer, rezone to allow for denser housing and then build lots of it.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.


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