Not All Rent Regulations Are Created Equal

As we work toward passing rent regulations in cities and states across the country, there’s an important distinction we should be making between two different sets of goals and approaches, and they could line up with some terms that are currently used interchangeably.

Close-up of the back of a T-shirt that says "Because the rent won't wait." Tenants all over the country are fighting for rent control and rent stabilization.
Photo by Kendra Sundvall

Rent control and rent stabilization. These terms are very imprecise—and outside of New York City, where they refer to two distinct sets of rent regulations affecting different units and tenants—the difference is muddy. All rent regulations limit the size of annual rent increases. They vary when it comes to how those increases are set, which units are covered, and what happens to the rent when a tenant leaves.

When we were researching an upcoming Answer column on these terms, Aimee Inglis of California statewide advocacy group Tenants Together told us she was would like us to make a distinction between rent control and rent stabilization based on the goals and ultimate impacts of the ordinances.

Ideally, Inglis told us, rent control would be about regulating the rental market as a whole, with the goal of reining in overheated markets. A rent control ordinance that achieved this would cover all or most rentals, set an annual percentage increase that provided a fair rate of return to the landlord but was low enough to be a meaningful protection against displacement, and would not provide any further increase in rent after tenant turnover.

Inglis says that rent stabilization should be used to describe laws which focus on stability for an individual tenant—they would cover a more limited number of units (i.e. focusing on protecting tenants in place when the ordinance was passed) and often allow for greater changes in rent between tenants, because their focus is on stabilizing a tenancy, not a market.

This seems like an extremely useful distinction to make. And given the number of ways to handle vacancy and units included, it seems that it’s not an either/or, but rather forms something of a continuum along with proposed rent regulations can be placed.

(Awkwardly, by these definitions, New York city’s rent-controlled units, which exit the program once the original tenant is gone, are more along the continuum toward rent stabilization than those called rent stabilized.)

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