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  • Writer's pictureSean Keenan

What is rent control?

Here’s what you need to know about rent control, aka rent stabilization, aka rent regulation

 
Art clippings of $100 bills in the shape of a house
Illustration by Khoa Tran

“Rent control” is on a list of phrases—alongside “housing vouchers” and “affordable housing”—that make developers, investors, landlords, and policymakers wince. For some, the term evokes dense and dilapidated apartment projects in places like New York and Los Angeles—cities where the cost of living skyrocketed such that public agencies found it necessary to cap rent in order to keep legacy residents in decades-old buildings. For others, rent control represents a chance to live for a bargain in expensive communities. But that’s hardly the full reality of rent control (which is now more commonly referred to as “rent regulation”). So what does the term actually mean?


First, how does rent control work?


In some cities, rent control means limiting the amount a landlord can charge for rent per month—based on limits established by legislation and/or city bodies, such as New York City’s Rent Guidelines Board—but that’s not always the case. When lawmakers or activists demand rent control, they more often mean they want rent regulation or stabilization, a method of limiting the rate at which landlords can hike monthly costs. That’s an approach Democratic politicians in Georgia have proposed, despite facing the state’s Republican-dominated, landlord-friendly legislature.


Is rent control allowed in Georgia?


Absolutely not. Georgia law, like in most states, explicitly says, “No county or municipal corporation may enact, maintain, or enforce any ordinance or resolution which would regulate in any way the amount of rent to be charged for privately owned, single-family, or multiple-unit residential rental property.” Ratified in the early 1980s, the statute has long served as a stumbling block for efforts to rein in price gouging by landlords, and it’s held strong against repeal efforts by Democrats.


This means there is no limit to the amount a landlord can raise rent in Georgia.


What do critics say about rent control?


Landlord groups argue that the traditional version of rent control leads to poor upkeep of housing units and reduces the value of properties near rent-controlled projects. But there’s scant evidence to suggest that regulating rent prices devalues communities, experts have said.


Georgia’s Republican-heavy legislature—roughly a quarter of whose lawmakers are landlords—is historically averse to government intervention in economic matters and tends to favor free-market policies, allowing supply and demand to set rent prices.


Does rent control work?


In some states, rent stabilization measures have successfully curbed landlords’ ability to raise rent prices to their hearts’ content. California, for instance, passed the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, which caps annual rent increases at 5 percent plus inflation. (To put that in perspective: The average rent price for a one-bedroom in Georgia rose by about 29 percent between March 2020 and October 2022, according to Apartment List data.)


Has anyone tried to enact rent control here?


Sure, but their efforts have always failed. During the most recent legislative session, Georgia state Sen. Donzella James, a Democrat representing Atlanta, proposed legislation to repeal the nearly 40-year-old ban on rent regulation. Her bill continued a surge of interest in doing away with rent control prohibition that ramped up as the pandemic exacerbated the housing crisis.


But Senate Bill 125, which James pitched as part of a broader effort to boost housing affordability in the metro area and beyond—by capping the percentage at which landlords can raise rent—was never even heard by a Senate committee, much less by the full Senate. It could be considered by the Legislature during the latter half of this legislative session, which will commence in January.


Can Atlanta or other cities circumvent the state’s rent control prohibition?


Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens championed inclusionary zoning policies when he was a city council member in 2017. Those measures require developers building new apartment complexes in fast-gentrifying areas—like near the BeltLine and in some west-side neighborhoods—to earmark units for affordable housing.


Dickens has said he’d like to enact citywide inclusionary zoning, as the vast majority of Atlanta is unaffected by the current policy, but the city’s lawyers have told him the state government will see that as rent regulation and shoot it down.


The mayor has also said he would adopt rent increase caps locally if efforts like Sen. James’s passed, but housing advocates aren’t holding their breath.

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