Kendra Brooks is not messing around.
On her first day in City Council, the member from the Working Families Party introduced a resolution calling for hearings on rent regulations in Philadelphia.
Rent control and other rent stabilization policies have long been considered verboten in local political circles, but Brooks used it as a rallying cry in her insurgent campaign.
“Whether you are a teacher’s aide or a teacher, a janitor or the owner of a corporation, everyone should be able to live in Philadelphia,” Brooks told WHYY. “I want to begin a conversation to ensure that Philadelphia remains an affordable place to live.”
The resolution is notable in that it shows that Brooks is intent on pursuing policy ideas that were not taken seriously even a couple of years ago, when Councilmember Helen Gym was a lonely voice calling for rent regulation.
Local politics has traditionally been dominated by homeowner interests, but in the wake of the Great Recession, renting is on the rise and City Council has begun to view tenant rights as an area ripe for reform.
In 2019, right-to-counsel — guaranteeing low-income renters a lawyer in landlord-tenant court — and limited just cause eviction protections became law. Two renters now sit on the legislative body as well, Brooks and new West Philadelphia councilmember Jamie Gauthier.
Most recently, the city took a first step towards launching a local municipal voucher program for the poorest renters. But many advocates feel those measures aren’t enough, and that a rent regulation measure would help the most people for the least city dollars.
Brooks notes in her resolution that over half of Philadelphia’s renters are cost-burdened and that over a third spent more than half their incomes on rent.
Reaction from the business community appears muted at this early stage in the conversation. One industry lobbyist says business leaders are very aware that Philadelphia’s low-income renters need more aid.
“We understand that Councilmember Brooks is addressing the needs of tenants in the most dire situations,” said David Feldman, the director of the Development Workshop. “But there are also 300,000 rental units in Philadelphia, so we are hoping she approaches this with a chisel and not a mallet.”
Feldman says that studies of rent control in San Francisco have shown that it helps those in need in the short term, but in the medium term drove down the availability of rental housing and increased overall housing costs in that sector. He says New York’s program showed positive attributes for existing tenants but made it harder for renters to find new housing.
The scholarship on rent regulation is complex, as Feldman argues. But the long-held Economics 101 argument that rent control is a terrible idea with devastating side effects does not appear to hold up to scrutiny.
That’s partly because most laws now on the books are rent stabilization programs, which allow rents to go up a limited amount every year, instead of the hardline rent control laws that are the bete noire of academic economists. One comprehensive review of the literature on the subject found that rent regulations in New York City — where hardline rent control barely exists anymore — have preserved middle- and working-class housing in areas that otherwise would have lost it. The author also finds that rent regulations did not seem to discourage building new housing units in the city, in contrast to downzoning reforms which did have a seriously depressing effect on construction.
Brooks acknowledges that the debate around rent regulations is lively and complicated. That’s precisely why she wants to hold the hearing as soon as possible.
“Being able to hear and discuss variations of what that looks like, whether its pure rent control or rent stabilization or so many other things that have happened in cities across this country,” said Brooks. “With the extent of gentrification, displacement and homelessness in the city, we can’t wait on this issue.”
WHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.