Atlanta urges Legislature to allow return of rent control

Apartment rents are generally higher in the city of Atlanta than in the suburbs, but they are rising faster in many suburbs than in the city.

Combined ShapeCaption
Apartment rents are generally higher in the city of Atlanta than in the suburbs, but they are rising faster in many suburbs than in the city.

Longtime Vine City resident Alma Lott has lost several neighbors. They had to move because they could no longer afford to live on the quiet south Atlanta street they’d called home for decades.

Speaking from a house she pays $1,000 each month to rent, Lott welcomed the news that the city is working to control rents that have spiraled higher in recent years. Lott said she wants to move, but it all comes back to the same problem: “There’s no (rent) stabilization in our community.”

Last month, Atlanta City Council passed a resolution urging the Georgia General Assembly to repeal a long-standing statewide ban on rent control. Georgia’s landlords can now raise rents without limits. Repealing the ban would allow cities and municipalities to set ceilings on rent costs and could help Atlanta address its problems with housing affordability — an issue identified by City Hall as a priority.

The median rent in Atlanta is $1,474 a month, according to an analysis by RentCafé, a property listing service. The city ranks 10th nationally for the most costly rents: Behind cities like San Francisco, where the median rent is $3,680, and Washington, D.C., where it is $2,235. Renters pay more in Atlanta than any other city in the South. Atlanta rent has gone up in the past year by less than 1%.

Rent control was common after World War II and was allowed in Georgia until 1984. Now, five states have rent control laws: California, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, and Oregon. Rent control is also being considered in Massachusetts, where it was banned in 1994.

Rent control has reentered the national conversation just as many cities are working to find ways to make rent affordable for longtime residents.

“We’re in dire need of rent stabilization to keep our residents in their homes,” said Atlanta Councilmember Antonio Brown, who introduced the rent control resolution.

Lott hopes to find a new place to live that she can afford, but to qualify for designated affordable housing, she will have to show her income is only 30% of the area's median income, or about $15,750 a year. But even if she qualifies, rising rents could soon price her out again.

“If I’m not making over the minimum wage, there’s no way I’ll be able to afford to stay in a community where the rent prices are still rising,” said Lott, who is in her mid-50s and cleans homes for elderly residents.

Working to make Atlanta affordable

In Brown's district, which includes Vine City and much of Atlanta's westside, 92% of the residents are renters, according to a 2018 study conducted on the area. By comparison, 57% of Atlanta residents are renters. The median household income is about $31,000 in Brown's district, but rental rates in Vine City go as high as $1,030 for a one-bedroom apartment.

Ideally, a renter should pay no more than 30% of their income toward rent.

In addition to pushing for rent control, Brown is proposing the city amends its ordinance to also prohibits renters from discriminating against low-income renters. Right now, the legislation prohibits renters from discriminating on race, gender, age, and other identifiers. Brown has heard stories from renters who say landlords turn down an applicant who lists a low income.

“We want to be in a position to support (residents) and not allow entities to discriminate against them,” he said. “We could really deter a lot of what I call unconstitutional practices occurring as a whole.”

Concerns about housing affordability are also at the state level. Senator Nikema Williams is working with Brown on legislation that would repeal Georgia’s anti-rent control law.

“I’m not saying this is going to be the solution for affordability on everything, but it’s a step in the right direction,” she said.

Williams, who represents residents as far north as Buckhead to parts of south Fulton County, said she moved to the metro Atlanta area in 2002 from rural Alabama. “Atlanta represented so much promise for me and I wanted to be a part of the city, the culture.” Williams, who at the time worked as a teacher in the Fulton County School system, wanted to stay in downtown Atlanta.

“I finally found an apartment that I thought was somewhat affordable (in downtown Atlanta), and every month I had late fees because of the day of the month I got paid on with the school system.”

Groups such as the Atlanta Apartment Association oppose rent control legislation, saying there are "unintended consequences" of rent control that further hurt housing affordability.

“(Rent control) has been shown to reduce the quality and quantity of a jurisdiction’s rental housing stock,” the group said in an emailed statement. “This drives demand and housing prices upward while impeding investment in new housing construction.”

Brown said he understands those concerns and wants to come up with a structure that supports everyone: “There are entities that are in business to rent units and we recognize that.”

Sen. Williams said she plans to meet with those who oppose rent control policies and is working to better understand the history of the law.

The good and bad of controls

While rent control is a step in the right direction, Georgia State University professor and housing expert Dan Immergluck said even if rent control returns, the city will still need to worry about affordability for low-income residents.

“The problem is it’s seen as solving the affordable housing problem when it really only limits growing rent,” he said.

Immergluck also pointed out there are other potential consequences to rent control that the city likely can’t avoid. For instance, it could be difficult to stop landlords from converting rental units into condominiums and offering them for sale at high prices.

But there are ways rent control can be beneficial.

“(It can limit) abusive landlords who charge a lot, but raise the rent when they don’t improve the property,” Immergluck said.

Repealing anti-rent control laws would also take overcoming some legislative hurdles.

“You can try to tighten up loopholes, but in a state like Georgia, if you make it stronger it’s going to become harder to pass,” Immergluck said.

State Representative David Dreyer, who represents Atlanta, said rent control is nonetheless “something we absolutely need to look into.”

“It’s going to take a couple of years and probably a few elections before we’re able to pass something like this,” Dreyer said. “But this starts the conversation.”

Dreyer said part of the struggle is the Republican majoritywhich has opposed previous efforts to make housing affordable. But Dreyer said that could be avoided if Atlanta organizes with other cities to push the Legislature on repealing the law.

“I think this is kind of a clear policy issue where we need to make some changes on this,” he said.

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