The history of rent control & how it applies to today's renters


Ally GreerBlog author Ally Greer

Published|3 min read

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The concept of rent control refers to the set of laws that places restrictions on the amount a landlord may charge a renter to occupy a unit. These rules can span everything from the timing and amount of a rent increase, to conditions that must be met to justify eviction.

But how did this come to be? Well...

It's been around a while

Many historians believe Julius Caesar enacted a law stating a landlord could not charge more than the ancient Roman equivalent of $100 per year for a home in Rome. This came after a Roman senator appealed to the courts claiming his landlord tried to double his rent and he could no longer pay it.

That said, the concept of rent control we’re familiar with today likely started sometime between World War I and World War II. It's not uncommon to experience a housing shortage after a major war because of the decrease in new developments during the war combined with population growth and the number of U.S. soldiers returning from overseas, so that's likely the culprit.

To combat this, many countries started government-controlled housing that limited how much a landlord could charge. However, the U.S. didn't immediately pass such a restriction on a federal level. The growing tension between public landlords and tenants, though, caused a few specific states and cities to implement laws of their own.

Eventually, the U.S. started a rent control policy, with the first ones starting in New York and Washington, D.C. These locations experienced significant housing shortages after the war, which led to public landlords taking advantage of tenants in a demand-heavy market, which then led to evictions, rent strikes and fear of revolt.

Where we're at today

Washington D.C. and four states — California, Maryland, New York and New Jersey — still have rent control laws. If you’re looking for a place to rent in one of these states, make sure you check out the local laws to make sure you know your rights.

The laws vary on a state & city level

There are a few levels of regulations placed on each city, including what properties are and aren’t subject to rent control laws, and then what exactly these laws are.

In San Francisco, for example, any building which was established before June 13, 1979 must follow all rent control laws and ordinances. A landlord may increase rent for a tenant by no more than 7% of the total annual rent; and when there is a rent increase, it cannot exceed the tenant’s current rent by an amount that is more than 60% of that increase.

In New York, on the other hand, there’s rent control and rent stabilization. Rent control in New York City only applies to tenants who have been living in their apartment since July 1, 1971 — or are a direct descendant of an original tenant from that time — and whose apartments are in buildings constructed before 1947.

If you couldn’t guess, finding a rent controlled apartment in New York City is nearly impossible. That said, rent stabilization also exists. In fact, about half of the rental inventory in New York City is rent stabilized. These laws apply to apartment buildings constructed before 1974 (similar to the rent control rule of San Francisco), and limits the percentage by which a landlord can increase a tenant’s rent each year.

It’s constantly evolving

If you’re looking for an up-to-date, comprehensive list of every state, city and municipality that has rent control laws, here is an excellent resource. When looking for your next rental, take these rules into consideration — including whether or not they'll apply to the unit you're moving into — so you can plan your rent budget accordingly for the coming years.

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Blog author Ally Greer

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