What is Rent Control?

Rent control refers to laws that limit the cost of rent and how much landlords can increase that cost in any one year. Since there is no statewide rent control in the U.S., each city passes their own rent control laws and regulations. Rent control laws concern rent limits and increases and dictate the landlord's responsibility to make repairs, lease renewals, evictions, and special rules for special groups like senior citizens. For more legal questions about rent control, use the free tool below.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Rent control refers to laws that limit the amounts of rent and rental increases in any year. There is no statewide rent control in the US, and all related laws and regulations are passed by cities. Most of the cities with rent control are located in New York, California, and New Jersey. Washington, D.C. also has rent control. State laws often affect city ordinances. So you should check both to find out about the law in your area.

In some places, like New York City, rent control and rent stabilization are different things and have different set of regulations. In other places, like Los Angeles, the two terms mean the same thing. Cities that have one or both of these in place usually have boards or agencies that enforce the laws and where both tenants and landlords can get information about their rights and responsibilities.

These laws also deal with the landlord’s responsibility to make repairs, lease renewals, evictions, and special rules for groups like senior citizens. In some cities senior citizens are protected from any rent increase, even when increases are allowed for younger tenants.

In some cities without these types of tenant protections, if a landlord doesn’t make necessary repairs the tenant sometimes has to take the risk of paying for repairs and then withholding rent. The danger is that the landlord will try and evict the tenant for nonpayment of rent. Many states are somewhere in between, not limiting rental prices, but also requiring property owners to maintain a rental unit to certain standards.

In places with a rent control board or agency, the tenant can typically report the violation to the board or agency and ask for permission to withhold rent. In some cities, if the condition of a rental property is very bad, the board or agency can take over, collect the rents, and make repairs. This is meant to maintain affordable housing options and protect tenants.

Because rent control regulations sometimes end or the rent can be raised when a tenant is evicted, landlords may abuse the right to evict tenants. Most cities that have rent control laws limit the reasons for an eviction. A landlord can’t give the tenant a 30-day or 60-day notice that the tenant must leave. The landlord must have a good reason for the eviction such as nonpayment of rent, breach of the rental agreement like pets that aren’t allowed, or illegal activity.

The broad powers of local boards and agencies mean that many more issues and disputes about landlord-tenant issues are resolved in informal hearings instead of in courts during eviction proceedings. Some cities provide mediation services as well, to help landlords and tenants work out their differences.

Rent control laws were popular in the 1970s into the 1980s, but organized landlord opposition to the laws caused some of them to be repealed or weakened after the late 1980s. In the places where rent control still exists, it has usually been affected by two kinds of decontrol. The first is called vacancy decontrol, which means that when a tenant in a rent-controlled unit moves out the regulations concerning the unit change. This may mean that the unit is no longer controlled at all, that different control regulations apply, or that the landlord can raise the rent before the unit comes under rent control again. The other main form of decontrol is an exemption for new construction, usually defined as constructions later than the mid-1970s. Tenants of newer buildings in these cities have no rent-control protection.

What Are the Criticisms of Monthly Rent Control in the US?

You might expect all the criticism to come from property owners who cannot increase their rent prices to meet market rate. While there are plenty of unhappy property owners, much of the criticism actually comes from economists.

On a base level, economists complain the cities with these rules cannot secure market rate on rentals. This impacts the life of the city, even going into affordable housing. How does this make sense? The idea is to let low-income or middle-income residents stay in their homes without being driven out through rental increases and gentrification, and to some degree it works. Many recipients are low-income, and they do stay in their homes.

The problem is movement. When you keep rental prices artificially low, people may stay in housing they don’t need taking it away from those who do. A family of four may move into a 3 bedroom unit and stay even as the kids go to college, income increases, etc. So the unit is unavailable to another family of four who may struggle to find affordable rent now.

Ironically, the low-income residents this is supposed to help most are often the most vulnerable. They’re subject to property owners who want to get them out so they can raise the rent. So they may do the bare minimum to stay in the good graces of the city boards or less assuming they won’t be reported by struggling tenants. Once a rent controlled tenant does move out, the sudden increase in rent can be a shock to the system and any family hoping to move in for affordable rates.

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What Are the Alternatives to Rent Control?

There’s an ongoing battle over rent regulations and how we find affordable options in expensive cities. Some cities have encouraged or funded affordable housing projects based on home sales. You have to meet certain income requirements to live there, and then you join a lottery system to see who gets each unit with preapproval required. Buyers or renters are given other assistance options to help them with down payments and other factors.

These buildings are limited in price even when resold. Of course, there are still issues that come up. For example, it’s not unheard of for a building with a combination of affordable and market rate units to create a separate entrance for the affordable units. Some have likened these separate entrances to a maid’s entrance.

What’s clear is there are still plenty of challenges ahead. If you have questions about rent-stabilized apartments and related laws in your city, you can reach out to a local board. Especially if you have complaints, reach out to a local attorney to review your case.

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