Opinion: It is past time to repeal Michigan’s ban on rent control

Today, nearly half of Michigan renters can’t afford their housing. Minimum wage workers need to work 86 hours a week to afford an average two-bedroom rental. A staggering 1 in 6 Michigan renters face eviction each year, and the group most impacted are children under 5. There are many ways to address this crisis, and lawmakers need to draw on every trick in the book. 

Yet for 35 years, Michigan law has prohibited local governments from passing ordinances that could stop unreasonable rent increases. Now, the Michigan Legislature has the opportunity to pass House Bill 4947, which would repeal Michigan’s ban on rent control and restore the power that local governments need to curb the state’s escalating housing crisis. 

Why did Michigan ban rent control? The short answer is that the corporate landlord lobby wanted them to. Following a successful wave of tenants’ rights activism, local momentum for rent control was growing in the 1980s. Tenant groups in Detroit and Ann Arbor successfully petitioned for rent control to be on their cities’ ballots, and Warren and Southfield were also considering ordinances.

Alexa Eisenberg, a Detroit resident, researcher, educator, and organizer. (Photo by Jonah Raduns-Silverstein)

Amid fierce opposition by the landlord lobby, the state government banned rent control with bipartisan support in July 1988. One month later, Detroiters passed a “Fair Rent Ordinance” that would have regulated rent increases and required landlords to be in compliance with city code before raising rents, but the law could not legally take effect. The ban nullified the will of Detroit voters, undermining Black political power and delivering a blow to the autonomy of local governments throughout Michigan.

Since the legislature banned rent control, median rent in Michigan has increased by 149%, while median household income has increased by only 29%. In a state with roughly 1.1 million renter households, landlords have filed over 2 million eviction cases in the last decade. Michigan’s eviction crisis is acute in cities with many Black and brown renters, reinforcing structural racism within the housing system.

Overburdened renters need urgent relief. On our way toward creating a functional housing system (one that functions to house people, not produce profits), rent controls are cost-effective consumer protections that policymakers can use now to combat skyrocketing rents, landlord profiteering, and displacement while making tenant protections more effective. 

Kate Brantley, is a researcher and social worker based in Ann Arbor. (Courtesy photo)

The current ban on rent control makes it all but impossible for local governments to enact strong tenant protections. For instance, several Michigan cities have enacted or are considering right to renew and just cause protections, which seek to curb arbitrary evictions and lease non-renewals. While these policies can help stabilize renters, they lack teeth without rent control provisions. This is because landlords who want to circumvent the new laws have a loophole: raise the rent to a price the tenant can no longer afford.

Without rent controls, rental code enforcement is a double-edged sword: non-enforcement means tenants suffer unsafe conditions, but enforcement means they may be forced to bear the costs of their landlords’ disinvestment. Without rent regulations and other protections (like the right to counsel), tenants may face retaliatory rent hikes if they file a complaint with local authorities.

Though the landlord lobby has largely succeeded in making rent control a dirty word, governments frequently intervene in the housing market to benefit property owners. For instance, Michigan law caps taxable values for homeowners at 5% or the rate of inflation (whichever is less). This is a form of housing cost control, on top of fixed-rate mortgages that most homeowners enjoy.

Opponents argue that rent control regulations would result in a lack of new housing and landlord disinvestment. Not only do these problems exist without rent controls, but empirical studies and real-world examples show these arguments have little merit. Economic arguments tend to overlook the many social benefits of rent control regulations, including evidence that they enable low-income renters to remain in their homes, can curb gentrification and improve neighborhood stability, and may empower tenants to assert their rights. Though results are mixed, research has shown that the benefits of rent control for reducing inequality and stabilizing low-income households can outweigh its potential costs.

Rent controls require thoughtful implementation and are an incomplete solution to the housing crisis, but can provide a critical step toward housing justice. Repealing Michigan’s ban on rent control would not force the state or any city to enact rent control regulations – but it will equip local elected officials with the full range of policy tools they need to combat the crisis.

This fall, hundreds of renters gathered at the state capitol to tell the Michigan legislature that the rent is too damn high, and are demanding that the legislature take action to empower renters by repealing the ban on rent control. Recently, city councils in Detroit, Pontiac, and Ypsilanti have put forward resolutions advocating for the power to pass rent control laws.

Michigan’s unregulated rental market is failing residents and causing our communities to suffer. It is long past time to lift the ban on rent control. The legislature must act now to restore local autonomy and prioritize the public interest over the profit interests of the landlord lobby.

Alexa Eisenberg is a researcher, educator, and organizer living in Detroit. Kate Brantley is a researcher and social worker based in Ann Arbor. Together they advocate for tenants’ rights and study eviction injustice in Detroit.

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