Like most public policies enacted by state or local legislative bodies, rent control is susceptible to local economic conditions and the political climate. As discussed below, it has come under frequent attack over the years.
Community Advocacy. Nationally, outside the main rent-controlled regions, there has been little demand for rent controls due to the relatively low inflation rate and rising vacancy rates of the past decade. However, in hot local real estate markets such as Seattle, Boston, San Francisco, Hoboken (New Jersey) and other cities where neighborhoods are experiencing or anticipating gentrification, rent control is re-emerging in policy debates as a tool for preventing exorbitant rents and tenant displacement.
Anti-Rent Control Activity. In the midst of the more conservative political climate of the past two decades, the real estate industry lobby and its political allies have carried out a major offensive against rent control. Today, rent control survives in approximately 140 jurisdictions. At the national level, the National Apartment Association and the National Multi-Housing Council have encouraged and provided assistance to their state affiliates involved in anti-rent control campaigns. Activity is also occurring at the local level. In New York City, for example, the landlords' Rent Stabilization Association has conducted expensive lobbying campaigns to gut local rent regulations each time the law has come up for renewal, as well as contesting annual rent adjustment guidelines. In New Jersey, the New Jersey Apartment Association, a landlord trade association, has encouraged legal challenges, voter referenda, and the filing of massive tax appeals. California landlords have filed lawsuits and sponsored statewide initiative and referendums to undercut rent control.
While these anti-rent control activities have largely failed to abolish rent control, they have eroded its effectiveness in many places. For example, the enactment of vacancy decontrol provisions in the overwhelming majority of the nation's rent control laws is a direct result of the anti-rent control lobby.
Rent control first appeared in the United States in the early 1900s as a tool in dealing with wartime housing emergencies and rent gouging in tight housing markets. However, during the 1950s, rent controls were phased out in all areas of the country except New York.
The climate of political protest during the civil rights movement and anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s set the stage for a wave of tenant organizing in many cities and a revival of rent control. The Harlem rent strikes of 1963 received national attention and the Chicago Tenants Union mobilized thousands of renters to fight slum conditions. In New York, the Metropolitan Council on Housing organized tenants to secure legal rights, property maintenance and rent control. By 1968, similar organizing was taking place in Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Newark. In 1969, 67 major rent strikes took place in 29 cities across the nation. By the end of the decade, tenants in Boston won passage of a municipal rent control law, and, in New Jersey, the first statewide tenants' organization - the New Jersey Tenants Organization (NJTO) - was formed to win passage of statewide protective tenant legislation and local rent control ordinances.
By the mid-1970s, the fight for rent control became galvanizing issue for tenant organizing in many parts of the United States including California, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Baltimore, Maryland , Seattle, Washington and Washington, D.C. The economic and political climate of this era made the battle for rent control timely and winnable.
The inflationary pressures brought about by the Vietnam War and the OPEC oil embargoes placed economic hardships on increasing numbers of working families. In many areas of the country, rent increases far exceeded wage increases and a growing shortage of affordable housing exacerbated the crisis. Politically, there was an infrastructure of progressive tenant organizations led by skilled organizers who were able to mobilize large numbers of tenants. Groups such as the NJTO, the Metropolitan Council on Housing (NYC), the New York Neighborhood and Tenant Coalition (NYSTNC), the California Housing Action and Information Network (CHAIN) and the Massachusetts Tenants Organization (MTO) coordinated successful local and statewide rent control campaigns. This surge of tenant activism led to the formation in 1980 of a national umbrella organization - the National Tenant Union (NTU). The NTU was instrumental in successfully coordinating a national campaign to defeat the Reagan administration's repeated attempts to deny federal Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) to any municipality that had a rent control law.
Successful community organizing led to the enactment of rent control laws in almost 175 municipalities nationally by the early 1980s. Today, rent control survives in approximately 140 jurisdictions.