What Is Rent Control?

Rent Control Explained

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Rent control is a government program that limits how much landlords can charge tenants in rent. Rent regulations are designed to make rental housing affordable for lower-income renters while protecting them against illegal evictions. 

If you're a renter, or soon will be, understanding how rent-control laws work and when they apply to you can help you safeguard your rights. Here's more on what rent control means and how it can affect what you pay to lease a home or apartment. 

Definition and Examples of Rent Control

The National Apartment Association defines rent control as "government-enforced price control measures limiting the rents that property owners may charge in market-rate rental housing." Again, this simply means government agencies can cap how much a landlord can charge for rent. 

Rent-control laws can apply at the local, state, or federal level. As of 2020, only Oregon and Washington, D.C., had broad rent-control measures in place. California had statewide rent-control caps and city-specific laws. New York, New Jersey, and Maryland also had rent-control laws, though they don’t apply statewide. Twenty-five states preempt localities from imposing rent- control measures altogether.

  • Alternate names: Rent regulation, rent stabilization, rent freezing

New York City is perhaps one of the best examples of a city that uses rent control to limit rental prices. Its rent-control program dates back to 1943 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Emergency Price Control Act into law after it was deemed necessary to control rental pricing during the inflationary wartime economy.

Rent control is a controversial topic, as many economics and housing experts argue that it leads to housing shortages and higher rental rates. 

How Rent Control Works

Rent control works by limiting the amount landlords can charge for rent. Local or state laws can dictate when rental-control restrictions apply. The restrictions you may be subject to can depend on where you live.

In New York, for example, rent control applies to residential buildings constructed before February 1, 1947, in New York City and in Nassau and Westchester counties. Under New York's rent-control laws, tenants are not required to sign renewal leases, rent increases are limited, and evictions are regulated.

Renters in San Francisco are protected by the San Francisco Rent Ordinance, which provides rent control and lists requirements for eviction. Rents can only increase by a certain amount each year and evictions can only be carried out under certain circumstances, such as:

  • Nonpayment of rent
  • Habitually late rent payments
  • Frequent bounced checks for rent payments
  • Breach of the rental agreement
  • Illegal use of the rental unit
  • Unapproved subtenants
  • Nuisance reports from neighbors or damage to the unit

California state rent-control laws cover many tenants not covered by the San Francisco Rent Ordinance.

The COVID-19 pandemic affected rent control regulations in certain areas. In San Francisco, for instance, emergency legislation was passed to temporarily ban rent increases. Federal regulations also put a temporary halt to rental evictions, including those considered lawful under rent control statutes.

Criticisms of Rent Control

Rent-control programs afford benefits to renters, particularly those in lower-income brackets since they prevent steep rate hikes and offer protections against unfair evictions. Those protections can help lower-income people stay in their homes, especially in hot rental markets where rental prices are skyrocketing even as incomes remain stagnant. 

However, plenty of arguments are made against rent control. For instance, rent control is often perceived to be distorting the housing market by driving away real estate investors. Rent-control laws could limit the potential for profit, so individual investors or developers may take their investment dollars elsewhere. 

If fewer development and rehabilitation projects take place, the rent-controlled area may have increasing numbers of renters vying for the same number of rental units. The quality of those rental units may decline, as landlords may be reluctant to invest in anything more than the bare minimum maintenance and upkeep. Landlords may also face challenges in evicting tenants from rent-controlled units. Any new rental developments end up costing more because of increased demand. 

In turn, as renters are pushed out of rent-controlled areas, they may look elsewhere for housing. Landlords in surrounding areas can capitalize on this situation by charging higher rental rates. That's a boon for those landlords, as they may be able to reap more profits. But it means renters may end up having to allocate more of their income to housing costs each month. 

If you believe your rent has been unfairly increased, you can contact your city or state housing authority for help. 

As of May 2021, the national median rent for a two-bedroom unit was $1,544, though of course rent varies widely depending on your location. That figure represents a year-over-year increase of 4.8%. Meanwhile, more than half of cost-burdened renters spend 50% or more of their income on rent.

Key Takeaways

  • Rent-control programs restrict how much landlords can charge for rent, how often they can increase rent, and what rules apply for evicting tenants.
  • Rent stabilization laws are designed to keep rental housing affordable for low-income renters. 
  • In the U.S., rent control is not widespread, though it is imposed in a handful of states and localities. 
  • Critics of rent-control programs argue that they result in housing shortages and drive up rental rates in non-rent-controlled areas.