The next chapter in the fight for rent regulation in Georgia begins

Margie McLeod spent Tuesday outside the Georgia State Capitol in downtown Atlanta lobbying lawmakers to support a law she already knew was unlikely to go into effect this year.

“I’m not the type to give up,” the 75-year-old community activist told Capital B Atlanta on Wednesday. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

McLeod and her supporters pushed for a rent control law in Atlanta last year. In February, she met with State Senator Donzella James, who soon sponsored SB 125.

The law would have lifted Georgia’s 39-year-old ban on local rent regulation and allowed elected leaders in Metro Atlanta and elsewhere to limit how much landlords can charge renters per month. The bill failed to secure a single co-sponsor before the deadline for General Assembly Crossover Day on Monday.

Atlanta rental prices have skyrocketed in recent years amid a real estate boom in the metro area. Since then, rising rent costs have forced some of McLeod’s neighbors in Atlanta’s Cascade neighborhood to move to more affordable areas outside of the city, she said.

Technically, SB 125 could still be added as a complement to other laws, but according to James, the odds are not good.

“SB 125 didn’t get the recognition we needed,” she said. “It’s too late to get it [signed into law] this year, but we may still have hearings on that.”

James said other Democratic lawmakers and the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, where she serves as Senate whip, have expressed support for the rent regulation in meetings and conversations she’s had with them since SB 125 was introduced in early February.

“They said, ‘You’re right. We’ve got to do something, and we’ve got to do it fast,'” James said.

But other bills dealing with the health crisis, crime, insurance and business policy in Georgia have been higher priorities for Democrats this term, according to James.

“We will keep working on it [rent regulation], but it’s not going to be the number one and two issue,” she said. “We must have the time to promote good law and good prospects.”

It’s not over yet

James, that too is chairman of the Senate Committee on Urban Development, says the fight for the rental price brake is going on. The focus now is on building and demonstrating public support for rent regulation, with the hope of enacting legislation by this time next year.

James said she plans to invite residents across Georgia who have concerns about rising rents to speak with other General Assembly members through January 2024 in hopes of getting state legislatures to pass SB 125 or a similar measure during to be adopted during the next year’s legislative period.

“We have April through next January to sell this,” James said. “We are also looking for other ways to reduce the ever-increasing volume [rent prices] or to stop or limit it.”

Show support in Atlanta

McLeod has her own plan to demonstrate public support for rent controls.

She intends to continue to urge Atlanta City Council members to pass a resolution that would allow constituents to vote on whether they would support a local rent control law if the statewide ban is lifted.

She pointed out that Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said in early February he was conditional on introducing a rent control policy in Atlanta if members of the General Assembly lift their statewide ban.

The city of Atlanta’s statute sections, highlighted by the city clerk’s office earlier this year, propose that city council members may be required to vote within 30 days of a motion for an “ordinance or resolution” from 15% of registered voters was signed to call an election.

“We only need a certain number of signatures [saying] that we want rent control to be on the ballot and people to vote for it,” McLeod said.

Council members said earlier this year that state laws prevent them from putting rent control policies on the ballot. In 2020, the council passed a resolution asking the General Assembly to lift the rent control ban.

But James suggested local lawmakers have the power to let their constituents voice their views via ballot initiative.

“It brings clarity to what they think should happen in their space,” she said. “You can scream for more local control.”