Rent Control’s Momentum

The midterms offered mixed results for affordable housing advocates. But one thing is clear: rent control is back on the agenda.

A development project in Los Angeles, December 2006, Los Angeles. David McNew / Getty

Rent control is back on the agenda. Its presence on the ballot recently in California and Chicago suggest that rent control has found new life amid a countrywide affordable housing crisis.

While it will take years of struggle to win, both campaigns have awoken the real estate lobby, long ago convinced that rent control was a dead letter. Although the lobby’s massive spending was critical to the defeat of Prop 10 this year, and landlord groups are gearing up for similar expenditures in Illinois, the demand for rent control is not going away anytime soon.

For the Left, these votes suggest an important question: with the future of decommodified housing still a distant reality, why should socialists organize for market reform now?


Both Prop 10 proponents and Lift the Ban, the Chicago coalition fighting for rent control, have entered uphill battles. Rent control currently only exists in cities in four states (California, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York), and in the 1990s, the far-right legislation syndicate American Legislative Exchange Council crafted model legislation that banned rent control at the state level. Some model of the bill now stands in thirty-seven states, including Illinois. In California, the Costa-Hawkins Act of 1995 currently limits the scope of rent control in the state, including a ban on rent control applying to single-family homes.

While Prop 10 failed during this election, support for rent control in Chicago was highly successful. After garnering more than 75 percent support on nine wards in Chicago during the March primaries, similar advisory referendums on another three wards in the city won nearly 70 percent support during last week’s votes.

These results were far from preordained: intensive volunteer canvassing, carried out for months before the vote took place, was integral to raising voter support. The campaign operated with almost no budget and will place increasing pressure on lawmakers that are holding up legislation that could lift the rent control ban and create rent control boards to monitor housing price increases in Springfield.

Still, while the November vote shows strong support in Chicago for greater regulation, organizers have a long road ahead of them. Each vote thus far has only been on nonbinding referenda and passing any legislation will require lawmakers from all across the state, not just those in Chicago, to pledge their support. While the coalition has already led lobby days in Springfield, growing opposition from the real estate lobby in the future will only add new obstacles for organizers.

The defeat of Prop 10 was a consequence of massive spending from the real estate lobby. Companies like Blackstone, the world’s largest property owner, helped to flood the California race with more than $75 million in anti-rent control propaganda. Their financial advantage, which almost tripled the amount of money spent by pro-Prop 10 forces, meant a sustained wave of deceptive advertising against the measure until Election Day.

Similarly, in Chicago, landlords in Rogers Park sent 4,500 households a scaremongering mailer on the day before the vote and even, according to rent control activists in the neighborhood, forced residents to canvass against rent control in their community. After watching the success of Prop 10 and Lift the Ban, Chicago real estate interests have stated they’re gearing up for an intensive lobbying effort against rent control after the election.

The influx of money into the debate on rent control will only continue. Socialists and others on the Left will never outrun the consequences of this financial disadvantage, a reality that hit hard in California on the same day the state elected Gavin Newsom, who expressed his disapproval of Prop 10 throughout his campaign.

But organizers in the state, defeated during this election, should take some solace in the burgeoning tenant organizing that coalesced behind a common demand in Prop 10. As a recent Jezebel piece on militant tenants’ unions argues, rent strikes are increasing in frequency in response to the housing shortage low-income households are facing. And a September poll from the Public Policy Institute of California showed 52 percent of responders thought rent control was a “good thing” (though only 36 percent supported the rent control measure).

Though passing further rent control is an end goal, the growth of tenant organizing in California by groups like the Los Angeles Tenants Union, already up to ten locals (smaller, place-specific branches of the wider union), despite being founded just three years ago, shows that there is momentum around affordable housing demands. If a similar measure be placed on the ballot in 2020, as some organizers have already suggested, tenants’ unions and other affordable housing groups could play a key role in building enough support to overcome landlord opposition.

The Role of Socialists

The result of both votes should tell socialists that rent control is a valuable measure to organize around. Within a set of diverse coalitions representing many different communities and political perspectives, socialists have the opportunity to push the conversation around rent control further left, treating its passage not as a final end in itself, but a step on the road towards the full decommodification of housing.

In Chicago, the Lift the Ban coalition has emphasized passing the most sweeping, universal legislative vision possible. As the Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America joined the campaign’s steering committee earlier this year, DSA members argued for stronger proposed legislation, including removing means-testing access to rent control based on income levels.

At the same time, rent control is an issue that holds the potential to create an eclectic coalition, inclusive of small landlords as well as renters. In Chicago, the proposed legislation has provisions in place to benefit small-time landlords, many of whom live in gentrifying areas and face displacement themselves thanks to increasing property taxes and limited capital to complete necessary repairs.

And while rent control seems to be an obvious solution — primarily in cities where renting is more common, and prices are trending upwards — Lift the Ban has shown that rent control can actually speak to a large audience. Because the campaign must first lift a statewide ban before enacting rent control, the coalition has built support throughout Illinois, meeting renters in smaller cities like Rockford, where mobile-home owners are seeing the cost of renting land to park on grow steadily. It’s evidence that rent control is a kind of universal demand, like Medicare for All, that could unite increasingly large, previously unorganized segments around a common cause.

The Future

Rent control is only the beginning on the longer journey towards a right to housing for all. But elsewhere on Election Day, support for affordable housing spending is clear evidence that people want greater government intervention in the housing market. While increased affordable housing spending and rent control can only curtail the worst excesses of the marketplace and offer no guarantee of housing as a basic human right, the growing housing squeeze gives socialists an opportunity to advance a vision of housing beyond current political horizons.

Perhaps the most promising affordable housing measure passed during the recent elections came in Austin, where voters overwhelmingly supported Proposal A, creating a $250 million housing bond funded by new property taxes. The measure was endorsed by the Austin DSA, and also saw a broad coalition organize to ensure its passage. Although Austin voters rejected a $78 million housing bond in 2012, organizers fought for as much money as possible this year, pushing the city to triple its initial $85 million proposal.

With the quarter-billion investment, the city will begin buying up land for future affordable housing construction, as well as funding a rental assistance program. Their ambitiousness is a testament to an expansive vision of state intervention into housing, and a recognition by voters that the market has failed many who can no longer find affordable shelter.

Though the dream of slowing the overheated real estate markets of California and Chicago wasn’t realized on Election Day, conditions are right for affordable housing activists to continue making strides. As the Los Angeles Tenants Union, one of the coalition partners involved in Prop 10, wrote after the vote: “They say ‘No,’ and we say, ‘Soon.’”