County Executive Marc Elrich calls for county-wide rent stabilization at budget forum

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“Rent Advisory Board” newspaper distributed in Chicago around the 1940s adequately summarizes the what happens when politicians abandon strong rent control

The newly elected county executive is a longtime advocate for regulating the rise of rent. However, opponents to any form of “rent control” permeate other branches of government, the media, and the landlord lobby.

A spectre is haunting Montgomery County — the spectre of Rent Control. All the powers of old Montgomery have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise this spectre: County Council Members, the liberal blogosphere, the Montgomery County Republican Party, Summit Hills management, and the Apartment and Office Building Association are all involved in efforts to ensure Montgomery County housing is affordable to working class people.

The powerful always decry any efforts to protect the rights of tenants as “rent control,” but their panic at this current moment tells us three things.

  1. Housing Developers fear an organized movement of tenants, activists, and their allies calling for rent control.
  2. The Montgomery County government recognizes the growing influence of affordable housing advocates
  3. Advocates for affordable housing can shift the conversation further to the left by continuing to advocate for effective rent control and public housing policies.

Last night the spectre of rent control reappeared in disguise to haunt the attendees of the first County Executive Budget Forum in Silver Spring. Newly elected County Executive Marc Elrich summoned the spectre, intoning: “If I had my way, we’d have some kind of county-wide rent stabilization.”

Regulations capping rent increases can be complicated. It isn’t possible to publish an entire strategy rent control in the county based on Marc’s commitment alone. However, at least we can clarify the county executive’s comment and the different forms of rent cap policies for the edification of future struggles.

So what is “rent stabilization” compared to the “rent control” policies that newly-elected County Councilmembers like Evan Glass flatly reject. Why is it so easy for property management lobbyists like the AOBA to twist any tenant-friendly policy such as Just-Cause Evictions into “rent control?”

Recent research considers traditional rent control (or “rent freeze”) to be, “rent regulations that strictly limit increases in rent.” Meanwhile, rent stabilization (also referred to as “second-generation” rent control) is a more moderate regulation which, “[is] more flexible (e.g., allow for small annual rent increases, vacancy decontrol, etc.).”

In the case of rent stabilization, “vacancy decontrol” most often means that after a tenant leaves a unit that was previously rent controlled the property manager can offer the unit to new tenants at market rate.

The history of the two policies reveal further differences. Rent control emerged in urban areas at the dawn of the 20th century. Led largely by local socialist and communist movements, the campaigns were a reaction against mass evictions and skyrocketing rents. Most of the surges in rent control laws also occurred right after, or during World Wars I and II, when the federal government stepped in with national rent freezes that reached up to 80% of the country’s housing stock up through the late 1940s.

The socialist and communist led tenants movements involved into organizations like the New York City City-Wide Tenants Council, founded in 1936. City-Wide was not a front for the Communist Party USA, but communists were present in its ranks, influencing its policies and its network of alliances. City-Wide worked with liberal professional organizations, but also maintained a  commitment to mass mobilization and an identification with the downtrodden.

City-Wide organized federated tenants associations in buildings across the city, employed escalation tactics that ranged from legal representation for tenants, to picketing governemnt offices and rent strikes. While City-Wide did not succeed in the 1930s in implementing rent control policies, it played  an important role in passing later rent increase prohibitations and made the struggle for rent control a major political priority. City-Wide declined in the mid-1940s but its methods of organizing have been continued by numerous  tenant groups and left wing political organizations since. (source)

With the dawn of the Reagan administration, the federal government was more interested in government austerity and increasing the home mortgage interest deduction than keeping renters in affordable homes. Federal rent cap policies essentially ceased and local jurisdictions like Washington D.C., parts of New Jersey and California passed local controls.

Yet the economic and political forces had changed since the days of communist organizing for rent control. Neoliberalism meant the government must foster the private accumulation of wealth, no matter the public costs.

A key feature of more “moderate” rent stabilization policies that emerged after the rise of neoliberalism is that landlords were guaranteed a “fair and reasonable return on investment.” Research into rent stabilization policy saw that the regulations let landlords pass increased operating or improvement costs to the tenants, exempted new construction from controls, allowed controls to “float” each year according to economic conditions or be “pegged” to the Consumer Price Index.

There are so many differences among modern rent stabilization policies that researchers are beginning to abandon the terms “control” and “stabilization” and instead refer to a rent control policy’s “hardness,” or resemblance to first-generation controls. For tenants and advocate, the “hardness” spectrum  reflects the degree tenants have power over dictating their housing costs.

Rent Control, Stabilization in Montgomery County

Montgomery County more or less followed the history laid out above.

During the slow retreat of the federal government from ensuring affordable rental housing, the county briefly had full rent control in the 1970s. This was discontinued in 1977 in county bill 35-77, ironically titled the, “Omnibus Tenant Protections Act.”

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Since Bill 35-77, the county has released annual voluntary guidelines regarding rent increases. Tenants are encouraged to contact the Dept. of Housing and Community affairs if landlords dramatically overshoot the voluntary guidelines, but this is hardly a bulwark against consistently rising rents. Readers can decide for themselves where a voluntary rent increase guideline lies on the rent control “hardness” spectrum.

Takoma Park is the final holdout on involuntary rent caps in the county. The city’s rent stabilization law was enacted in 1981 and strengthened later in the ’80s thanks to then-City Councilmember Marc Elrich.

This year we’re observing the thirty-sixth anniversary of the death of rent control in Montgomery County. But under the current county executive, strong tenant protections are positioned to make a comeback.

Understanding the difference in rent cap policies is one way to outflank the landlords and developer capitalists.

But if there is one lesson left to us by tenant organizers of mid-20th century like the City-Wide Council it is that the history of all hitherto existing rent regulations is the history of class struggle.

by Erik O. Write and Frank Dalca



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