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An abridged history of Michigan’s rent control ban

Housing header, collage of photos about rent control
Images from the Detroit Free Press and the Ann Arbor Human Rights party files from the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan.

Are you rent burdened? If you spend more than 30% of your paycheck on rent and utilities, the answer is yes.

In a number of Michigan cities including Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, more than one in four renters are spending at least half their income — or more — on rent.

That’s got some people revisiting an old idea: rent regulation. Like Marquette resident Alex Cowles — who fears being priced out of the city where they were born and raised. Like Detroit activist Sammie Lewis — who is part of the city’s expanding tenant association that is demanding action to keep rising rents from pushing Detroiters out of their neighborhoods.

Renters can get sticker shock when they go to renew their lease and see a sharp hike in price.

Rent control is when the government limits how much a landlord can charge for a unit. Rent stabilization is when there is a cap on rent increases.

But Michigan banned local governments from enacting any type of rent regulation in 1988, after a handful of cities – notably Detroit – made moves toward local ordinances.

At that time there was a flurry of tenant activism around housing affordability. Renters held protests in Ann Arbor and Detroit, and gathered signatures to put rent regulation on the ballot in both cities. There were tenant association leaders like Cleothia Odom, who — as United Community Housing Coalition’s Ted Phillips described — was so passionate about her work that once, while very ill and lying on a gurney in the hospital, she demanded to be wheeled over to a desk with a phone so she could call and let the Detroit Organization of Tenants know she would miss that night’s meeting.

Rent regulation has been around for decades — with its origins in the U.S. dating back to World War I — and is almost always opposed by landlords. Critics argue the policies actually drive up housing costs, by disincentivizing new development.

Here’s a timeline of events from the mid- to late-1980s, when rent control was a hot topic in Michigan, assembled from the Detroit Free Press archive.

February 1986: Tenants get a win at the Supreme Court

In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court said Berkeley, California’s rent control ordinance is legal. Landlords claimed the city’s ordinance was illegal price-fixing under antitrust laws. The case is widely seen as a victory for tenant advocates nationwide.

(This wasn’t Berkeley’s first rent control fight that went to the nation’s high court. In 1981, the city lost a case in which an anti-rent control groupfought a campaign financepenalty.)

July 1986: Warren’s mayor shows interest in rent control 

Meanwhile in Michigan, Warren’s mayor — Ronald Bonkowski — submits an ordinance modeled after Berkeley’s, which would set up a board that would approve all rent increases.

August 1986: Southfield discusses a rent control ordinance

October 1986: Warren does a rent control study

After Southfield’s study into rent control recommends against enacting an ordinance, Warren agrees to do a study too. Warren city council members said they are “besieged” by tenants who want the ordinance in effect, and by landlords who want it gone.

June 1987: John Engler opposes rent control

John Engler, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, voices his opposition to rent control ordinances in a Detroit Free Press op-ed, emphasizing his support for market-based solutions to low-income housing availability.

“Government should be reducing its involvement in the housing business rather than expanding it,” he writes.

November 1987: Rent control petitions are filed in Detroit

The Detroit Organization of Tenants filed a petition to put rent control on the November 1988 ballot. This would ask for a rent review commission to handle complaints between tenants and landlords, and allow rent increases based on “cost-of-living increases, capital improvements or economic hardship of building owners.” It also would limit rent increases to five percent a year.

An pro rent control Op-Ed
From the Detroit Free Press, written by UCHC's Victoria Kovari in
From the Detroit Free Press, written by UCHC's Victoria Kovari in 1988.

December 1987: Michigan Senate approves rent control ban

The Senate votes 27-9 on a bill that bans local governments from regulating rent. At this point, no Michigan city has a rent control ordinance, according to local papers.

The billstates, “a local governmental unit shall not enact, maintain, or enforce an ordinance or resolution that would have the effect of controlling the amount of rent charged for leasing private residential property.”

December 1987: Ann Arbor activists submit petitions to put rent control on the ballot

Advocates get over 5,000 signatures to put rent control on the April 1988 ballot. The proposal asks that rent increases be connected to costs of operating and maintaining rental properties, that a rent stabilization board be established, and that all apartments meet city codes.

Click through below to see a series of graphics made by the Ann Arbor Human Rights Party in the 1970s.

February 1988: Ann Arbor landlords sue to block rent control from the ballot

Landlords challenge petitions filed by tenant rights advocates, in an effort to keep the question off the April 1988 ballot.

April 1988: Ann Arbor votes against rent control

Ann Arbor voters reject the rent control ordinance by a 2-to-1 margin, after opponents campaign on claims that rent would increase property taxes by double digits. Anti-rent control groups elect three Republicans to the Ann Arbor city council in this same election.

June 1988: State House votes to ban rent regulation 

Lawmakers in the House vote 3-to-1 to ban local rent regulation, with supporters of the ban claiming rent control discourages housing development and creates shortages. The Detroit Free Press quotes Cleothia Odom, the president of the Detroit Organization of Tenants: “I trust God that [Gov. James Blanchard] will veto it.”

Ted Phillips, from UCHC, tells the Free Press: “I think that overwhelmingly the people would have supported the ballot, and the only way to defeat it would be to maneuver other than the democratic process. And that's what happened."

July 1988: Coalition sues to remove the Detroit rent control referendum from the ballot

The Coalition, called People for Better Housing in Detroit, includes real estate agents, developers, and the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce.

Anti rent control ad
An anti-rent control ad in the Detroit Free Press
An ad in the July 31, 1988 edition of the Detroit Free Press.

July 1988: Gov. James Blanchard signs the rent regulation ban

According to the Associated Press at the time, those against rent control hired Detroit’s largest and most influential lobbying firm to push the ban through Lansing.

July 1988: Wayne County judge allows rent control to stay on the Aug. 2 Detroit ballot

August 1988: Detroit says yes to rent control 

With 19,031 more votes, Detroiters approve of the rent control ordinance — that ultimately will not be enacted. It’s a “hollow victory” for activists, said Ted Phillips, who still works for UCHC.

“The state law kind of also took the wind out of their sails a bit,” he said.

Phillips said he thinks about what could have been if the ordinance was enacted like Detroiters wanted. The measure would have required rent increases to be tied to building improvements, among other things. In Detroit today, few rentals have a certificate of compliance, reflecting they’re up to code. Phillips calls it one of the most-violated laws in the past 30 years.

“Had we been allowed to go forward back then, I think you would see a very different city today,” he said.

Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.
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