The Myth of “Market Forces”: Speculators, Not Demand, Are Raising the Rent Too Damn High

On Friday, Joe Biden signed an executive order “intended to increase competition within the nation’s economy and to limit corporate dominance, factors the White House says have led to higher prices and fewer choices for consumers while dampening pay and restricting the freedom to change jobs.” Non-compete clausesprohibit workers from “competing’ with a current employer by joining another group in the same business sector. These clauses are also known as restrictive covenants. They restrict freedom. You know what else restricts people’s freedom? Raising the rent by 30 percent in a single swoop, and that is what is happening around the country. This is not a story of “market forces”. This is a story of speculators drawing excessive profit from the veins of working people, especially women of color.

Nationally, rents have risen 7.5% since January, three times the average rate of rise. Meanwhile, according to, “household debt is at levels not seen since the Great Financial Crisis or wartime.” In every price category, rents for single-family homes are rising quickly. Rents on lower-middle priced single family homes have risen 4.8%, up from 2.5%, almost a 100% increase. 

For forty years of neoliberal urban development, the United States has steadily decreased the affordable housing stock. Trickle down development, irrespective of which party was in control of the municipality, and the drive to purchase global city status, meaning hordes of low-wage service sector workers servicing and serving a minority of upwardly mobile `clients’, turned urban real estate into the playground of the corporate speculators, many of whom used eviction, formal and `informal’, as a regular means of investment. Remember, during this past year’s eviction moratorium, the majority of eviction filings were done by a relatively small group of corporate landlords. Remember as well that prior to this past year’s eviction moratorium, the majority of eviction filings were done by a relatively small group of corporate landlords. Plus ça change, plus on meurt.

The current skyrocketing of rents is described as a `natural consequence’ of market forces. More people suddenly want rental units in places where there aren’t enough, but for those seeking affordable housing, or even somewhat affordable housing, this is the latest, more dire chapter of a novel they’ve been living in for decades. A woman in Phoenix wakes up one day and gets a note saying her rent is going up, effectively immediately, almost $400 a month, or 33 percent. She is informed she has four days to decide. There’s really nowhere else to go:  “It almost feels like there is nowhere to go. It’s just insane everywhere. It feels like I’m being chased out of my own home, and it’s the worst feeling in the world.” There is nowhere to go, she is being chased out of her own home, it is the worst feeling in the world. When she moves, as she will, her move will not be counted as an eviction, partly because there was no filing and more because, as a renter, she has little to no rights and less power.

Landlords … are realizing the power they suddenly have.” There’s nothing sudden about landlords’ power. Remember, in many places, the reasons rent relief hasn’t reached tenants is because landlords decided it wasn’t worth it to wait months to receive the overdue rent and chose to evict their tenants anyway. Before someone says, “Not all landlords”, the landlords who own and control the largest part of the rental market are the ones who opted out of the rent relief program. The landlords who own and control the largest part of the rental market make up a disproportionate part of those evicting and an even larger portion of those filing evictions. (There are exceptions, some, too few, such as the Winn Company, but they are exceptions and have not impacted their colleagues.)

The struggle for housing, and in particular affordable housing, has entered a new and perilous phase, made all the more dire by its being absolutely predictable and even foreseen. Adding fuel to the fire is this narrative of `market forces’. Stop talking about demand and talk, instead, about corporate landlords’ decisions and actions, their power, to restrict the freedom and impair the lives of millions of people who rent homes. Want to secure freedom in housing? Restrict the unrestricted power of corporate landlords, support tenants’ rights and power. Support rent control, support right to counsel in eviction cases, support freedom. 

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Infographic Credit: CoreLogic)

Why do landlords have so much discretionary, and ultimately fatal, power?

Yesterday, Virginia’s Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne informed the Virginia House of Delegates’ Appropriations Committee that the Commonwealth of Virginia is looking at a $2 billion surplus. The Virginia state legislature will meet in special session, starting August 2, to decide how to divide the Covid relief moneys. No matter what they decide, $2 billion is a lot of money. And yet … and yet people concerned about eviction are worried, very worried. Why? Partly because the money in Virginia, as elsewhere, has moved at a snail’s pace. The process of application is cumbersome and, for many, almost impossible. The scale of demand has far exceeded the capacity of state agencies. But there’s something else, something more structural than agency capacity and poorly designed procedures: landlords’ discretionary power. 

Virginia has more than a billion dollars in aid for people behind on rent”. Again, that’s a lot of money, and, again, people who need that money and their allies, communities and networks are worried. Why? “To tap into $1 billion worth of federal aid earmarked for Virginia, tenants or their landlords must proactively apply, and there’s no longer any rules requiring property owners to cooperate.”

Fairfax County, in northern Virginia, is the second richest county in the United States, a close to its neighbor, Loudoun County. Despite its great wealth, and despite the fact that it has access to great sums of rent relief money, Fairfax County officials and advocates are worried about eviction. Why? “Although Fairfax officials and other stakeholders say there’s plenty of emergency rental assistance to help low-income residents, they are concerned that it’s taking too long to get that money to landlords. County officials said that even if the rental assistance is available, landlords may decide it’s not worth it to wait months to receive the overdue rent and may evict their tenants anyway.”

Landlords may decide it’s not worth it to wait months to receive the overdue rent and may evict their tenants anyway.

Despite all the research and all the public discussion of the intimate link between transmission of the pandemic and eviction, between health and housing more generally, landlords still get to decide whose life is `worth it’ and whose life is not worth it. Do not ask what it is … 

Across the country, local jurisdictions are responding to this injustice. Some are instituting “just cause” eviction restrictions, others are going with right to counsel. Philadelphia, today, approved legislation to restrict landlords’ decision-making process. From now, landlords will not be able to deny potential tenants just because they have low credit scores or past evictions or evictions filings. The landlords’ process will have to be transparent and rational. Housing is not only a right, it’s also a matter of life and death, and that matter is passed down from one generation to the next. 

How did landlords become the arbiters of life and death, in the midst of a pandemic … or ever? Where does landlords’ discretionary power come from? And why and h ow did we let this happen? On one hand, the answer is in decades of real estate driven urban economies, that reward White homeowners and punish Black and Brown renters, creating an ever wider racial wealth gap, that is also a death gap. Some live long, others are “not worth it”, and the necropolitical maps of `urban development’ proceed. At its source, the concept of landlord is the power of a lord, “the male head of a household; a man who has authority over servants, attendants, or slaves.” It’s time to rewrite the terms and change the power. Our lives are worth it.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: NBC Washington)