Inside Sanders’ Controversial National Rent Control Pitch

Inside Sanders’ Controversial National Rent Control Pitch

By Carly Stern

The United States has never had a national rent control standard — rent control laws can, and do, vary from state to state and even within states.


Nowhere is a call for rent control more likely to strike a chord than in the Golden State.

By Carly Stern

During Justin Tombolesi’s first stint in the Bay Area, he experienced his fair share of unexpected rent hikes. He once moved four times in two years.

Tombolesi had grown tired of how difficult it was to get by — so, in 2019, he moved in with relatives in Argentina for a year. Now back in the Bay Area, the 28-year-old tenants’ rights organizer shares a two-bedroom unit in a quadruplex with a married couple in their 50s. He’s helping them convince their landlord to fix up the building in exchange for renting their spare bedroom at a reduced rate.

Voters like Tombolesi are at the heart of a growing pitch from Democratic presidential contenders who insist they have a dramatic fix: national rent control. It’s a key plank of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Housing for All” plan, which seeks to regulate rent increases. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed a housing plan that she says will reduce rents by 10 percent over a decade. Other candidates have their own plans. And nowhere is this call for rent control likelier to strike a chord than in California, where last year Gov. Gavin Newsom passed a law capping annual rent increases at 7 percent, plus inflation, until 2030. 

The biggest delegate prize in the race to the Democratic nomination (415 pledged delegates) is a state where housing affordability is a full-blown crisis: The majority of California’s 17 million renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Voters listed homelessness as the most important issue facing the state, according to 2019 research by the Public Policy Institute of California. 

Rent control is an appropriate tool nationally, to tell landlords that they cannot simply jack up their rents to any rate that they want.

Sen. Bernie Sanders

That’s a sentiment Sanders in particular will look to tap for the March 3 primary. The United States has never had a national rent control standard — rent control laws can, and do, vary from state to state and even within states. Under Sanders’ plan, annual rent hikes across the U.S. would be capped at 3 percent or 1.5 times the inflation rate — whichever is higher. A “just cause” requirement for evictions would bar landlords from evicting tenants without a reason as defined by the law. Tenants would also have guaranteed access to counsel.  

Woman Sitting in Moving Van

California enacted a landmark rent control law last year.

Source Getty

As he has stormed to the dominant front-runner position in the Democratic primary, Sanders hasn’t directed attention to his national rent control platform on the debate stage, and it’s not a regular feature of his stump speech. But he dove into the topic when asked about it during a Nevada town hall last week. “We believe rent control is an appropriate tool nationally, to tell landlords that they cannot simply jack up their rents to any rate that they want,” said Sanders, who grew up in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, New York.

Critics argue that rent control deters mobility and serves those who already have housing, leaving out those who need it. Some argue that it further discourages multifamily developers from building — amid a shortage of 7 million affordable rental homes nationwide for those at or below the poverty level, and a particularly thorny regulatory environment in California. “Typically, rent control is anathema to apartment construction,” says Keith Gurnee, a board member of Livable California, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing, slow growth and local control. Research by Stanford economists in 2019 found that landlords subject to local rent control laws in San Francisco had lowered rental housing stock by 15 percent, limiting the number of beneficiaries. Rent control can be one tool to address the affordability shortage, but Gurnee argues that it should allow local communities to fine-tune norms instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all approach.

Unlike Sanders, Warren isn’t proposing new regulations. Instead, she’s promising to invest $500 billion over a decade in building, preserving and renovating 3 million housing units for lower-income families. Her other proposals include opposing state laws that prevent local rent control ordinances, creating a Tenant Protection Bureau and enacting a federal “just cause” eviction standard. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has committed to affordable housing construction, former Vice President Joe Biden is pledging $100 billion for affordable housing construction and renovation while expanding rental vouchers, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s plan includes giving renters access to emergency funds.

While a national rent control proposal might sound extreme elsewhere, it’s a concept Californians are familiar with — though the cap under Sanders’ plan is far more restrictive. The state law passed last year has a just cause requirement similar to what Sanders is proposing. California’s move was preceded by that of Oregon, the first state to pass a statewide rent control measure, earlier in 2019. Other states, like New York, have moved in this direction: New York City effectively banned broker fees for rentals in February before a state judge temporarily blocked the ruling, while New York state passed what are considered historic tenant protections last year.

Logistical questions persist. Some California residents like Tombolesi argue that the state’s 7 percent cap is a short-term compromise — with loopholes — to appease developers and tenants’ rights groups without repealing a 1995 state law that exempts single-family homes, and all units built after that year, from rent control. This means Newsom’s 2019 law doesn’t apply to all renters — and it’s unclear how a federal rent control plan would address this restriction.

The federal government also has no authority over local land use and zoning rules apart from public parks and federally owned land, says Matthew Lewis, director of communications for California YIMBY, a pro-housing advocacy organization that supported Newsom’s bill. This is why the candidates’ push for rezoning could prove integral.

The challenge of building housing to keep pace with job growth will remain key: San Francisco added only one new unit of housing for eight jobs created between 2010 and 2015. And even advocates acknowledge rent control is just one arrow in the quiver to address the desperate need for production, preservation of housing and protection for existing renters. To that effect, Sanders’ plan includes boosting the low-income housing stock and changing zoning, among other measures.

Still, even if a national rent control proposal proves hard to enforce, there’s symbolic value in elevating these conversations onto the national stage, argues Lewis. And California and its voters offer the perfect test case.