Tenants' rights groups rally outside the Massachusetts State House

Tenants' rights groups rally outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston on January 14, 2020.

(Photo: Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

'Renters Are Struggling': Economists Back Tenant-Led Push for Federal Rent Control

"We have seen corporate landlords—who own a larger share of the rental market than ever before—use inflation as an excuse to hike rents and reap excess profits beyond what should be considered fair and reasonable."

More than 30 U.S. economists have signed a letter expressing support for strong federal tenant protections and rent control as housing costs remain sky-high, even amid broadly cooling inflation.

The economists note in their letter, released Thursday, that the median rent in the U.S. "has surpassed $2,000 for the first time, and there is not a single state where a worker earning a full-time minimum wage salary can afford a modest two-bedroom apartment."

"We have seen corporate landlords—who own a larger share of the rental market than ever before—use inflation as an excuse to hike rents and reap excess profits beyond what should be considered fair and reasonable," the letter continues. "Renters are struggling as a result."

The letter's signatories—including Mark Paul of Rutgers University, James K. Galbraith of the University of Texas at Austin, and Isabella Weber of the University of Massachusetts Amherst—call on the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to require rent regulations as a condition for federally-backed mortgages and reject the "economics 101 model that predicts rent regulations will have negative effects on the housing sector," likening it to typical arguments against raising the minimum wage.

"Empirical research on local rent control policies in San Francisco, CA and New York, NY found that rent regulations lower housing costs for households living in regulated units," the economists wrote. "In Cambridge, MA, empirical research showed that the repeal of rent stabilization laws resulted in an average rent increase of $131 for tenants."

Given that "Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgages on the secondary market support nearly half of rental units in the U.S.," they argued, "Government Sponsored Entities (GSEs) have the influence needed to meaningfully change the trajectory of the housing crisis."

The economists' letter is part of a broader push by tenant rights groups and housing justice organizations to secure federal protections against egregious rent hikes and wrongful evictions.

Earlier this week, 17 U.S. senators wrote in a letter to the FHFA that "renters also have too few protections, making them vulnerable to steep rent increases and deteriorating housing conditions—factors that are out of their control."

"Tenant protections vary drastically from state to state and even sometimes from county to county, often leaving renters without recourse," the senators added. "There have been repeated reports of investors using low-cost financing from Enterprise-backed loans to buy properties and then sharply raising rents, mistreating tenants, and allowing buildings to fall into disrepair."

More than 140 academics, over 70 climate researchers, and dozens of local elected officials have also joined the call for nationwide rent regulations.

Tara Raghuveer, director of the Homes Guarantee campaign at People's Action, said in a statement Thursday that "tenants are coming for rent regulations, and everyone from senators to economists agree: tenant protections are common sense."

"Due to lack of regulation, affordable housing is lost quicker than it can be built," said Raghuveer. "Corporate landlords call the shots with federal financing through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That's why tenants spent this summer organizing to win what we need: federal tenant protections like caps on annual rent increases."

In late May, the FHFA issued a request for public input on tenant protections at multifamily properties with mortgages backed by GSEs.

Tenants with the Homes Guarantee campaign responded by knocking on more than 4,000 doors at GSE-backed properties and organizing more than 2,000 comments in support of tenant protections and rent regulations.

"The system as we know it today has failed everyday people, many of whom make impossible choices between rent and food, their homes or their medications," said Raghuveer. "The status quo is not working for the people, it is only working for the profiteers, and it is time for change. It is time for the federal government to make changes to that system, to correct the imbalance of power between landlords and tenants, to protect tenants, and to stabilize the American economy."

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