Could redesigned voting maps one day boost rent regulation in Georgia?

Georgia Democrats’ attempt to repeal the state’s ban on rent control would require a major shift in political power in the Republican-leaning Gold Dome — but a federal court order to redesign voter rolls to curb discrimination against black voters raises the possibility that progressive housing policy could finally happen gain a foothold in the historically right-wing legislature.

In the upcoming legislative session, Georgia Senate Democrats plan to revive Senate Bill 125, which would repeal a 1984 law prohibiting counties and municipalities from adopting any form of rent control. The state law prohibits any local law “that would regulate in any way the amount of rent to be charged for privately owned rental properties, single-family homes, or multifamily properties.”

Because housing costs are rising faster than wage increases, proponents of rent control argue that local governments should have the power to pass laws that limit the rate at which landlords can increase rents annually. That way, they say, low-income Georgians won’t be prevented from living near their jobs, transportation hubs and good schools.

Opponents, including the Atlanta Apartment Association (AAA), contend that measures to cap rents or otherwise limit rent increases would lower property values, reduce housing quality and stifle tax-generating development.

“While we welcome discussion of the need for greater housing affordability in our state, rent control policies have proven to be counterproductive and harmful,” AAA spokeswoman Chelsea Juras said at a meeting of the Senate Urban Affairs Committee in September.

SB 125 failed last year without even a committee hearing. State Rep. Viola Davis (D-Stone Mountain) told the Atlanta Civic Circle that it is unlikely to pass at the upcoming General Session, which begins in January. About 25% of the Georgia Legislature are landlords.

“Given the political makeup of Georgia, it will be difficult for rent control to get through the legislative process,” Davis said.

But state lawmakers will meet in a special legislative session on Nov. 29 to redraft voting plans that Judge Steve Jones of the Northern District of Georgia found last month to violate the Voting Rights Act and disenfranchise Black voters.

The redistricting is expected to strengthen the electoral power of Black Georgians, who make up over a third of the state’s population. The expected changes in state legislative districts could result in more Democrats being elected.

“There may be a change in who controls the House in the next two to four years,” Davis said. “We need to address the whole issue of housing affordability [Republicans] want to or not.”

“It will stand,” she added of SB 125 — or rather, its future iterations. “It’s just a matter of when. Under the current administration you won’t even bring it to committee.”

But Rep. Dale Washburn (R-Macon) said it would take more than just a few seat changes for lawmakers to repeal the rent regulation ban.

“Unless the balance of power shifts dramatically, a change in rental policy is highly unlikely,” he said.

Washburn chaired a House study committee on housing last year and noted that the biggest barrier to housing affordability in Georgia is a “matter of supply and demand.”

“We are undersupplied,” he said, and that shortage is driving up prices. “That’s a big part of what hurts us cost-wise.”

Elizabeth Appley, a lobbyist for the Georgia Supportive Housing Association and other affordable housing advocacy groups, also doesn’t expect the state to lift the ban on rent regulation any time soon.

“We must pursue meaningful policies that increase access to affordable housing in Georgia,” she said, noting that the state has a nearly $11 billion budget surplus to spend as lawmakers see fit.

Nationally, Appley said, “Georgia is a special case in that it doesn’t provide even basic protections for renters… and we need to invest more resources in creating safe and affordable housing.”

Despite the legislative challenges, Appley hopes to see rent control enacted as more lawmakers recognize that the lack of affordable housing affects everyone. “There is an increased awareness of the relationship between housing and strong communities,” the lobbyist said. “We are at a crisis point.”

Dan Immergluck, a professor of urban studies at Georgia State University, echoed Appley’s call for devoting a “significant portion” of the state’s massive budget surplus to affordable housing initiatives. He also expressed skepticism that redistricting would increase lawmakers’ appetite for progressive housing laws.

“Even if Democrats won a modest majority, some Democrats are close to real estate interests and might not support them [repealing the rent regulation ban]Immergluck said in an email. “The key to this is a strong, statewide tenant organization to be able to put pressure on legislators – of both parties – to make this change happen.”