State Sen. Donzella James (D-Atlanta) last week pitched legislation to repeal Georgia’s nearly 40-year-old ban on rent regulation, so that local governments can curb price gouging at a time when landlords are hiking rents with abandon.
But if Senate Bill 125 earns the unlikely approval of the state’s predominantly Republican and landlord-friendly legislature, local rent regulations shouldn’t resemble legacy rent control laws that set price ceilings in hyper-expensive cities like New York, James told Atlanta Civic Circle in an interview.
She said she knows many lawmakers and landlords who hear the term “rent control” picture dilapidated apartment towers filled with lower-income tenants—in other words, concentrated poverty—while landlords fear profits will tumble.
Distinguishing any potential local regulations from that stereotypical New York model will be key to getting the state ban on rent control lifted.
Instead of rent ceilings, James said she envisions capping the rate at which landlords can raise prices each year. “We just have to do something to protect the citizens,” she said.
Historically, there has been little appetite for rent stabilization under Georgia’s Gold Dome, but James said the financial strain the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on households statewide should make SB 125 appealing to politicians who have opposed similar efforts in the past.
“Everybody knows somebody who has had this problem [affording rent] in the communities they represent,” she said of her fellow lawmakers.
What’s more, the surge of out-of-state investor interest in housing markets in metro Atlanta and across the state has caught the eye of lawmakers who traditionally align with landlords’ interests. They’re seeing private equity and hedge funds buy up scores of residential properties, then leave them empty until they appreciate enough to flip or retool them into luxury rentals.
“These owners have no compassion, because they are millionaires,” James said. “If they evict the person and can’t fill [a unit], they’ll just write it off as a tax loss. Other times, they’ll just raise the rent on everybody.”
James said some of her Republican colleagues have voiced cautious support for the legislation, but none have officially endorsed it.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has also expressed support for James’ legislation and, if her bill passes, local legislation to limit rent hikes.
Dickens has said his administration would consider citywide inclusionary zoning policies—regulations requiring developers to set aside a certain number of affordably priced rental units in new residential projects—if state lawmakers remove the primary barrier, Georgia’s rent control ban.
Some rent stabilization critics have said the state law precludes that kind of zoning. Right now, the only inclusionary zones in metro Atlanta are fast-evolving districts where developers receive increased density allowances in exchange for agreeing to set aside a certain amount of affordable units.
The Georgia code currently bans rent regulation very explicitly: “No county or municipal corporation may enact, maintain, or enforce any ordinance or resolution which would regulate in any way the amount of rent to be charged for privately owned, single-family or multiple-family residential rental property.”
“I disagree with the state’s decision at that time to have a ban on rent control statewide,” Dickens said at a press conference earlier this month. “I think jurisdictions can make their own decisions.”