Most of the major campaigns to enact rent control laws were conducted in the 1970s and early 1980s. With the exception of the Hoboken case (which illustrates rent control advocacy efforts since 2000), the following case studies are from that period. Although they are somewhat dated, each of these case studies contains important insights and lessons that are still relevant today.
Hoboken , New Jersey. In Hoboken , a community undergoing major gentrification, tenants have repeatedly organized and successfully defeated attempts to weaken rent control. Hoboken 's rent control ordinance was enacted in 1972. Tenants and others successfully beat back vacancy decontrol measures in 1989 and 1994. Then, in 2000, there was a series of efforts to pass anti-rent control amendments such as eliminating owner-occupied two-family units from rent control and imposing market rates on HUD and state subsidized housing. The community mobilized and secured almost 2,000 signatures in two weeks - twice what was needed to get the issue on the ballot. The City Council subsequently withdrew the proposed amendments. (see below)
Santa Monica , California. Rent control was passed in Santa Monica in 1979. The case study compares the first, failed attempt with the second, successful campaign one year later. Defeated 47 percent to 53 percent in 1978, rent control advocates came back in 1979 stronger, wiser, better organized and financed to pass rent control 54 percent to 46 percent, while simultaneously electing pro-rent control city council members. More. (pdf format)
Baltimore , Maryland. The two case studies on Baltimore , written by participants in the rent control campaign, focus on the strategies used to build a multi-racial coalition in support of rent control. The first case study discusses the passage of rent control through a voter-approved charter amendment and the keys to success; the second chronicles activities after passage and highlights lessons learned. Later challenged in court, the new law was struck down as unconstitutional. But, the mobilization in support of rent control laid the foundation for development of a citywide housing organization. More. (pdf format)
San Francisco , California. Tenants in San Francisco eventually won a rent control law, but there were many hurdles along the way. This case study documents the role that money played in the 1979 initiative campaign and how landlords used the media to defeat this early attempt to win rent control. More. (pdf format)
Hoboken , New Jersey is not just the birthplace of Frank Sinatra. It is now one of the hottest gentrification sites in the nation. For most of the last century, Hoboken was a small, industrial city made up of tightly knit working-class, multi-ethnic neighborhoods, with tenants making up 70 percent of the population. Most of its housing consisted of two, three, and four family brownstones and small tenements. During the 1970s, Applied Housing, a for-profit development firm with a progressive reputation, built 5,000 units of affordable housing with public subsidies. A few other for-profit developers followed suit with smaller projects. This new housing gave the city a needed refurbishing and allowed the social fabric of the community to remain intact. Non-subsidized housing, including owner-occupied, two family houses, were covered by rent control. The city's rent control ordinance, enacted in 1972, allowed rent increases coinciding with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) but in no case could increases exceed 7.5 percent. Long-time residents welcomed what appeared to be "gentrification with a human face."
However, things began to change in the early 1980s. Hoboken is just a stone's throw from Manhattan, a five-minute drive through the Holland Tunnel, a quick ferry trip across the Hudson River, or a five-minute train ride on the PATH connects the two cities. The overheated New York City real estate market made Hoboken a prime area for gentrification. Compared to Manhattan rents, young professionals considered the cost of Hoboken housing a steal. There was a sharp increase in co-op and condominium conversions, favored tax treatment for developers, a wave of new upscale restaurants and shops, and a suspicious increase in arson incidents in older properties. Because of the city's strong rent control law and governmental controls placed on the subsidized housing, displacement of the existing tenant population was moderate, but municipal services to the city's poorer residents were given lower priority and began to decline.
By year 2000, the influx of more affluent people swelled Hoboken's population, and what remained of Hoboken's affordable housing stock was coveted by those who had not yet cashed. This required a significant attack on the city's rent control ordinance. In February 2000, Hoboken Council Member Stephen Hudock led efforts to amend the city's rent control ordinance in two fundamental ways. The first amendment would eliminate owner-occupied two-family units from rent control. This was quite significant because in New Jersey such tenants are not covered by the state's Eviction for Cause Law. Without local rent control protection several thousand Hoboken tenants could be priced out of their apartments in a month's time at the expiration of their leases.
A second amendment dealt with the more than 5,000 units of HUD and State subsidized housing. Landlords of these properties had announced their intention to take advantage of HUD's "expiring use" policy which would allow them to impose market rents on these units after pre-paying mortgages they held for at least 20 years. Tenants assumed that since government regulation ended, these properties would come under the jurisdiction of the rent control law at the current rents. However, an amendment supported by the Mayor and several City Council members would allow the owners of these properties to fully decontrol 30 percent of the units at the expiration of their government contracts and allow gradual decontrol on the remaining 70 percent. A long-time resident, Phyllis Spinelli, told the council, "by offering free market vacancy decontrol to this class of landlord, you are taking official action to dismantle Hoboken's affordable housing."
This was not the first time that city officials attempted to enact draconian vacancy decontrol measures. In 1989 and 1994 tenants beat back similar attempts by threatening a public referendum. Tenant leaders Daniel Thumpsen and Annette Illing decided to carry out the same strategy this time around and began to call for the issue to be put on the ballot. In a city with a large tenant majority, these amendments would most certainly be defeated. Thumpsen stated, "Why is the destruction of rent control an objective of city policy? Is it not rather an objective of a small minority who would profit at the expense of thousands of others? Shouldn't such a major change be put on the ballot as thousands have demanded?" Other residents, including some homeowners, saw these amendments as leading to permanent changes in the nature of the community. One resident, Jean Forest, noted that by enacting these changes Hoboken would "close its doors to the working families who have been the backbone of this town."
In spite of public outcry, the Mayor and Council passed the amendments in March 2000. Tenant leaders immediately responded by launching a petition drive to get the issue put on the ballot. Tenants took advantage of a state law which stipulated that if a prescribed number of signatures could be gathered within 20 days of the council vote, the issue must be placed on the ballot. Tenant leaders gathered almost 2000 signatures in a two-week period, double the number needed. Mayor Anthony Russo and the five city councilmen who supported the amendments were facing almost certain repudiation of their vote at the polls. Hundreds of tenants continued to flood city council meetings. The supporters of the anti-rent control amendments began to waver. Councilman Hudock, who originally sponsored the amendments, moved to rescind them and the council concurred. Pro-tenant Council Member Tony Soares stated, "they blinked...that's all I'm going to say...they blinked they blinked!"
Unfortunately, the anti-rent control members of the city council hardly let the dust settle before they introduced a new amendment that would again weaken the rent control ordinance. This one would grant landlords unlimited vacancy decontrol in the subsidized buildings once a subsidized tenant vacated. Again, tenants mounted pressure to successfully beat back this initiative. However, state regulatory agreements concerning the subsidized buildings have done much to undermine the Hoboken Rent Leveling and Stabilization Board's local jurisdiction of this matter. Local tenants found themselves fighting on two fronts, battling against pro-developer politicians locally, and the state government. Because the issue of "expiring use" has statewide impact, particularly in communities undergoing gentrification, the New Jersey Tenants Organization and other statewide housing advocacy groups joined the battle and filed suit against Applied Housing, the largest owner of these Hoboken properties, and the N.J. Department of Community Affairs. The suit's goal is to void agreements that will allow 75 percent of these units to eventually go to market rents. As of this writing (December, 2001), the case is still pending.
In the meantime, Hoboken tenants won another significant battle when a court decision overruled a provision in rent control law which placed a time limit of two years for tenants to recoup illegal rent overcharges. Undaunted, the anti-rent control council members introduced a modified version of this provision one month after the court ruled it illegal. Tenant leader Thumpsen stated the obvious, "this encourages lawlessness by giving the landlord a prize if he can get away with charging illegal rents for a certain amount of time." Again, an outpouring of tenants at council meetings and intensive tenant lobbying was successful in defeating this new attack on the rent control law.
In June 2001, David Roberts, a council member who played a key role in defeating the anti-rent control initiatives, was elected mayor. However, political alliances can shift quickly in a gentrified marketand Roberts received considerable support from a key developer. So Hoboken tenants are vigilantly waiting and prepared for the next attack on rent control to unfold.