Bill to give Utah cities more rent control power gets chilly response from St. George leaders

ST. GEORGE — When the state Legislature convenes its general session later this month, one bill anticipated to be introduced will allow cities the ability to impose rent control.

Utah law currently prohibits cities from implementing rent control or a cap on the amount landlords can charge tenants “unless (they) have (the) express approval of the legislature.”

When the general session begins on Jan. 27, Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, plans to introduce a bill that would remove this provision giving cities and municipalities the opportunity to make that decision for themselves.

Although there is a desperate need to check the increasing costs of rental units across Utah, St. George Mayor Jon Pike doesn’t believe it would be a good fit for his town – though he does like the idea of more local control.

“While I think rent control is not a good idea from an economic standpoint, what is good is having local government have as much control as possible,” Pike said. “I am not sure I would support this bill, but I am always happy to see local authority winning the day. Government closest to the people can make the best decision when it comes to local concerns.”

Provost is crafting the bill in part to address the state’s homeless population. According to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, on any given day there are nearly 3,000 people homeless in Utah.

St. George city officials expressed apprehension about a rent control bill due to be submitted during the upcoming Utah general legislative session. St. George, Utah, Dec. 5, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St George News

In an interview with the Daily Herald, Provost said it is not the role of state lawmakers to regulate rental rates. A better approach, she said, was to place the decision on city officials who know the local needs better.

“If we’re a state that values small government,” Provost said, “then we need to be true to that philosophy and we need to put the decision-making power where it belongs.”

Critics of the bill point out that using the words “rent control” puts a bad taste in people’s mouths.

“When you do something like this, you might partially solve a problem. But generally, you might find developers hesitant to build projects if they are capped on what they can charge,” Pike said. “They might find they can’t build based on the numbers.”

The unintended consequence, Pike added, is a scarcity of rentals throughout Southern Utah.

“I don’t know if rent control will solve all the problems,” he said. “It might solve one, but it’s like squeezing a balloon. You solve something somewhere but create a problem somewhere else. Where this has been tried, it usually fails.”

According to a one-bedroom apartment in St. George can cost on average $1,500 per month on the high end and $1,050 on the low end.

Many people in Washington County spend more than 30% of their income on housing. County officials say that this percentage places renters in a category of struggling to pay for the basic needs of survival and a place to call home.

If passed by the state legislature, local communities in Utah would be able to place caps on the amount landlords could charge. St. George, Utah, Dec. 5, 2020 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

Rent control in America dates to the 1940s, but after World War II many cities abandoned price-control measures on housing. The practice had a resurrection in the early 1970s. Currently, the only states that have rent control are California, New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Oregon and the District of Columbia.

In a statement, the Utah Apartment Association said it opposes rent control.

“Rent control hurts all property owners in Utah by capping property incomes and values across the board,” the statement read.

The proper course of action, the association said, was to increase attainable housing by reducing barriers to development, allowing basement apartments, the passage at the local level for zoning on accessory dwelling units and fostering an economy that provides flexible rental opportunities.

“There are a lot of reasons for the costs,” Pike said. “Government really can’t control most of those costs. It is the cost of land, the cost of materials, the cost of labor as well as the cost of infrastructure.”

Although the government can control some of the costs of infrastructure and the costs of regulations, Pike added it comes down to partnerships with developers.

“We really have to deal with building what I call attainable housing,” Pike said. “I don’t think this bill is the way to achieve that, but Ms. Provost is free to bring that up to the Legislature and we will go from there.”

For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2020 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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