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Opinion: Renters in Montgomery County — and elsewhere in Maryland — need real rent stabilization

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By Terry Lierman

The writer is the former chair of the Maryland Democratic Party, a former chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), an entrepreneur and activist.

Over 23 years ago, when I ran for Congress, I emphasized three key issues on the campaign trail.

One was banning handguns, which Republicans turned into “common sense gun control,” which has morphed into nothingness.

Another was increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour — a living wage then, but where are we today with 23 years of inflation behind us?

I also advocated for a monorail system up Interstate 270 to Frederick, down I-95 to Richmond, Va., and up the Baltimore Washington Parkway to Baltimore.

Three incredibly important issues and literally nothing has happened in 23 years.

Today we suffer from the inertia of nothing getting done while we pay the consequences. Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

Now there is another pressing issue that cannot wait another 23 years for our leaders to act — affordable housing. The Montgomery County Council is expected to vote on rent stabilization legislation soon, and other local governments may consider the issue.

Montgomery County is slated to lose 12,000-plus affordable housing units in the coming years without price controls. Housing is not simply a commodity that should rise and fall at the whim of the market. When prices go up, some make more profit, but other people lose their livelihoods. Stop and think about it: What would you and your family do if tomorrow you were kicked out of your home?

Real rent stabilization is the most expansive way to address that issue, which is why we and our elected leaders need to pass a bill that would cap rents at the rate of the Consumer Price Index. As always, there are exceptions to this that allow owners that show they are investing in the property to increase the price beyond the CPI.

Currently, owners can and do raise rents without putting any dollars into their property, which creates more slum conditions in some housing complexes (many of which already have extremely unaffordable rent).

Property owners make a few points that are unproven at best, including that rent control is bad policy and doesn’t work. Well, we are trying to pass rent stabilization in Montgomery County and around the state, not rent control.

Second, they argue that rent stabilization will lead to less investment in properties and more slum conditions.  As I’ve pointed out, rent stabilization incentivizes more investment. Third, landlords say rent stabilization will force them to drastically increase the rent before legislation takes effect. Landlords can only increase rents when leases are up every year, which is why we should pass a rent stabilization bill in Montgomery County without delay.

Finally, landlords say rent stabilization will lead to less future investment in housing. Yet rent stabilization does not affect development. We have not seen any impact on the amount of development in more than 180 cities nationwide that have passed it.

Further, developers should not complain, as pending legislation in Montgomery County exempts new developments for 10 years, allowing these landlords to set the rents they will charge and any increases they want.

Rental prices should go up less than the CPI every year because the biggest cost to rental owners is the mortgage, which is a fixed cost. So why have rental prices increased more than the CPI for so many decades? It is because it is an unequal market between renters and owners.

Indeed, we see more private equity and corporate money entering the rental market as a result of lack of regulation. Renters often cannot move because they are sub-leasing a room to be able to afford the already high rent or they have bad credit or they can’t afford a security deposit and a month’s rent at a new place, or they can’t move because of their children’s school.

The list goes on. Over the last two decades, the percentage of rent-burdened families in Montgomery County has increased dramatically. Council members should recognize the need for lawmakers to regulate the market.

Montgomery County legislators, and those throughout Maryland, can take bold action now by passing real rent stabilization no higher than the CPI for existing properties.

Families across the county and state cannot wait yet another 23 years for relief … and a fair chance to keep a roof over their heads and a little stability in their lives.


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Opinion: Renters in Montgomery County — and elsewhere in Maryland — need real rent stabilization