Kendra Brooks made rent control a key piece of her platform in her insurgent campaign for City Council last year. She called for hearings on rent control at her first Council meeting after a historic win for the Working Families Party.
But now she’s slowing things down.
Although City Council approved Brooks’ resolution in January calling for hearings, there won’t be any for at least several months. And she said she’s not ready to introduce legislation for rent control in Philadelphia.
Beginning this month, she plans to host meetings around the city about “community stabilization" — a phrase she said she’s now using instead of “rent control” to include different kinds of renter protections, as well as support for long-term homeowners.
“We’re just trying to be more inclusive in the conversation,” Brooks said in an interview. “But rent control is definitely something that’s catching, and people will remember that and it will help us in the process."
Brooks, whose election to an at-large seat from outside the Democratic establishment promised a more liberal Council, said she’s not taking a different approach to the hot-button issue because of any political pushback. Nevertheless, the shift may demonstrate the limits of how quickly City Hall’s new progressive members can achieve major policy wins.
And her new colleagues praised the slow walk, saying that rent control, at least as it’s been implemented in other cities, may not be right for Philadelphia.
“As soon as you reference a term that was used in other cities, you’re going to take either the baggage or support from that other city,” Council President Darrell L. Clarke said. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
Several large U.S. cities have laws limiting the amount by which landlords can increase rent annually, including New York and Washington. Statewide rent control legislation took effect in California this year. Brooks’ resolution noted that 182 municipalities have rent control.
Philadelphia’s business and landlord communities are sure to fight against any rent control efforts.
In many places, rent control limits the amount by which a landlord can increase rent annually for certain apartments, and the policies are often paired with protections against eviction.
The charged legacy of rent control in New York, where people can stay in rent-controlled apartments regardless of wealth, also contributes to controversy over the policy. Some New York apartments are rent-stabilized, with limits on the amount by which landlords can increase rent. But rent-controlled apartments are different; increases are even more limited more for some apartments that have been occupied continuously by one tenant or family since 1971.
In Philadelphia, about 52% of Philadelphia residents own their homes and 48% are renters, according to 2017 U.S. Census data. New York City’s homeownership rate is 33%. Philadelphia used to have a larger majority of homeowners, but the portion of residents who rent has risen in recent years.
The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Philadelphia is $1,400, according to Zumper, a company that tracks rental rates.
More than half of Philadelphia renters spend at least 30% of their income on rent, making them cost-burdened, according to a 2019 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. That figure is above the national average for cost-burdened renters.
Brooks — the first Council member from outside the two major parties in the 100 years since the body adopted a modern legislative structure — said she’s going to use her background as a community organizer to draw attention to the fact that housing affordability is not only an issue for the city’s poorest residents.
“I would like to help people realize that housing affordability is an issue for working class people, and those are the steps we need to take in order to move toward legislation that more people would be willing to support,” Brooks said.
But Brooks may not have much support from her colleagues on rent control. The city’s housing action plan drafted in 2018 didn’t mention it. Nor did a report released Tuesday by City Council’s special committee on poverty reduction. The report instead focused on initiatives like increasing affordable housing and providing incentives for developers to include affordable units.
Councilmember María Quiñones Sánchez, who helped lead that committee, said affordable housing is a priority. But she doesn’t like using the term rent control because it can have a negative connotation “when you hear of a millionaire that’s in a rent-controlled property” in New York.
She applauded Brooks for exploring all options.
“I do believe that we have an opportunity to get to a fixed-rate housing model … based on the customer and what their income is, versus just a blanket ‘this property is rent controlled and if you’re lucky enough to get in it,'" Quiñones Sánchez said.
Even with a formal hearing months away, groups on both sides of the hot-button issue are mobilizing.
Activists pushing for rent control policy in Philadelphia held a rally outside City Hall last month, calling for both universal rent control and protections for homeowners who fall behind on property tax payments. Brooks attended.
The Pennsylvania Apartment Association, an association of landlords who own multifamily buildings, says it’s ready to fight.
“Philadelphia’s biggest problem is its high poverty rate — the highest among America’s big cities — not that it’s unaffordable," Marilyn Orlando, the group’s CEO, said in a statement. "If we focus on neighborhood job growth and revitalization, we can build sustainable, strong, and affordable communities.”
Orlando warned that cities with rent control, such as New York and San Francisco, still have “sky high rents.”
Councilmember Allan Domb, who owns his own real estate company focused on Center City condos, said earlier this year that Philadelphia has “an income problem,” rather than an issue with high rent. He said he prefers to focus on job growth.
City Council has taken other action to help renters. Councilmember Helen Gym, who cosponsored Brooks’ resolution on rent control, successfully pushed legislation last year that provides free legal counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction. And a bill passed in 2019 offers some protections for month-to-month renters. A Council committee will hold a hearing this month to explore the expansion of renter protections.
Councilmember Jamie Gauthier, who chairs the committee that would hold Brooks’ rent-control hearing, said the topic generated intense interest. Even though other councilmembers haven’t pushed for rent control, Gauthier said she thinks the rest of Council is open to discussing it.