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Analysis

Universal Rent Control Is The Most Vital Policy Response to LA’s Housing Crisis

We need this now.

Cities across California are facing a major crisis. Some figures from Los Angeles:

  • Real rents have increased by 32% since 2000, while renter incomes actually decreased 3%.
  • L.A. has over 58,000 unhoused residents living alongside 58 billionaires.
  • The number of homeless students in LAUSD public schools grew by 50% in a single year, to 17,258 children.

And none of these trends show any signs of slowing down — in fact, global investors are literally betting billions of dollars on rents continuing to rise in LA.

We could put a forceful brake on the crisis by expanding rent control to cover every rental property in the region, providing immediate protection to 1.2 million households in LA County and 200,000 households in LA City. (In truth, we must first repeal a state-level law called Costa-Hawkins if we want to cover every household. But that’s not what this piece is about.)

Rent control measures based on LA City’s policy would essentially tie allowable rent increases to the rate of inflation, or around 3% per year. This would prevent thousands more from becoming homeless, preserve millions of homes at their current levels of affordability, protect entire communities of color, and put desperately needed money back into the pockets of low-income renters. And it would do this all INSTANTLY, and at almost no cost to the government!

Kshama Sawant, an open socialist on Seattle’s City Council, has rallied massive popular support in part due to her strong support for rent control.

Unfortunately, most debates over rent control quickly move to the question of whether or not the policy will reduce supply of future housing, as if that’s the only thing that matters, and as if the capitalist market is the only institution capable of erecting homes. (Let’s quickly get this out of the way upfront: the evidence on rent control reducing supply is far from certain, and relying on the market to increase supply is, at best, a trickle-down solution that would do absolutely nothing to help vulnerable renters in the immediate future.)

When this happens, we immediately lose sight of why rent control is such an unmistakably good policy for the current moment. So let’s instead clearly spell out the enormous benefits rent control can and does provide.

When we start here, the onus shifts to the other side to prove why the potential negatives outweigh the undeniable positives. That is: how in the world does the mere possibility of reduced future construction overshadow the certainty of immediate protections for millions of renters and the stabilization of entire communities of color?

Let’s play some offense. As I see it, there are three major benefits from rent control.

#1: Expanding rent control would protect millions of vulnerable renters from homelessness and displacement.

This point is incredibly simple, but we must make it perfectly clear: when rents go up, people are forcibly displaced, and many become homeless.

A recent study by Zillow estimates that in Los Angeles, for every 5% increase in rents, 2,000 individuals are forced into homelessness. The LA Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) similarly recognizes the (obvious) connection, explicitly pointing to rent increases as the principal cause of the recent 23% rise in homelessness over the last year alone. With rents continuing to rise, we can expect the number of our unhoused neighbors to continue increasing rapidly. This disproportionately impacts Black and Latinx residents.

Furthermore, displacement itself is often extremely harmful even for those who aren’t forced into homelessness. The adverse impacts of evictions and forced residential instability, especially on mothers and children, are very well established. When people are forced out of their homes, they often must move farther away from their families and friends, their jobs, and their communities. We should do all we can to limit these awful experiences.

Universal rent control would instantly slow both of these escalating crises, providing desperately needed security to millions of tenants who are one rent increase away from having their lives uprooted and potentially joining the ranks of the unhoused.

Sounds like a no-brainer to me.

#2: Expanding rent control would stabilize communities of color, quell gentrification, and keep our cities and regions economically and racially diverse.

This point is rooted in a more zoomed-out perspective of the current crisis, looking at its impact on entire communities and the residential geography of the region as a whole.

Los Angeles, or at least the areas that border Downtown and the Westside, is being purged of poor people of color, rapidly becoming a place exclusively for the rich and white.

Rents are skyrocketing in communities of color like Boyle Heights, Inglewood, Koreatown, and Crenshaw as investors see massive profits to be made from remaking these areas to suit the tastes of wealthier, whiter incomers. Renters are being forced out and non-white communities erased as the entire region resegregates along racial and class lines, with the poor (disproportionately POC) pushed farther and farther away from jobs, transit, and social services. Here’s just one stunning figure: L.A.’s Black population has declined by over 100,000 in just a few decades, going from 13% of the County population to only 8%. The Inland Empire, meanwhile, with its cheaper cost of living, has gained 250,000 Black residents.

Los Angeles is racing towards a future featuring an affluent white core and impoverished Black, brown, and yellow suburbs. Expanding rent control would drastically slow down these processes, preventing the displacement of entire communities and preserving some base level of diversity.

Seems obvious, no?