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The three best cities for rent control

Rent control is the dream of renters everywhere. Yet only four states — California, New York, Maryland, New Jersey — and the District of Columbia have rent control policies in place. Read on for our guide to scoring a rent-controlled apartment in one of the best cities where price-protected apartments are signed into law.

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    A "for rent" sign is posted outside a home in Denver. Only a select number of states have rent-control policies in place.
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Rent control is the dream of renters everywhere. Yet only four states — California, New York, Maryland, New Jersey — and the District of Columbia have rent control policies in place. Read on for our guide to scoring a rent-controlled apartment in one of the best cities where price-protected apartments are signed into law.

San Francisco

San Francisco is one of 15 California cities with rent control. It's also one of the priciest places to rent an apartment in America. And while some city dwellers say rent control, along with foreign buyers and an influx of tech workers, exacerbate the sky high cost of housing, many folks, such as Joe Leung, are thankful for the relief rent control provides them. Leung, who is 42, is a tenant in a rent-controlled Chinatown complex. He pays $540 a month for a single room. That's about one-fifth the list price of a studio in that same area. In this city where the median rent tops $3,000, rent-controlled apartments are a huge help to many families, and people like Leung, who are just trying to make ends meet.

In San Francisco, rent-controlled units are those that were issued a certificate of occupancy before June of 1979, which amounts to a whopping 82% of the multi-family unit market. The rules are as follows: Landlords of rent-controlled units may raise a tenant's rent, but only by a set amount tied to inflation — the annual allowable rent increase for 2016–2017 is 1.6% — and not more frequent than once every 12 months. Landlords can petition for additional increases tied to costs such as capital improvements or maintenance, but these hikes must be approved by the Rent Board before they can be passed on to the tenant.

If Frisco's rent control policy sounds like a dream come true, be sure to note the following: While Leung enjoys his $540 monthly rent, some of his neighbors in the same Chinatown building are paying upwards of $1,200. That's because the city's policy allows landlords to adjust the rent of any rent-controlled unit to match the market rate when a tenant vacates the unit. When the vacancy is filled, the tenant's new, market-adjusted rent price becomes controlled by the aforementioned rules. So, theoretically, if an apartment is rent-controlled at $540 monthly in 1990 and the tenant moves out in 2016, the next tenant's rent very well may rise by several thousand dollars, depending on the market price. This facet of the law has been criticized for facilitating an environment in which landlords have an incentive to nudge out their tenants. Of course, the law includes protections to help insure that doesn't happen.

A renter's search for a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco would be most fruitful in the oldest neighborhoods, such as Forest Knolls, Downtown, the Marina, Russian Hill, Nob Hill, and Golden Gate Heights. Old may mean cheaper, but it doesn't necessarily mean cheap. Nob Hill, for example, is a long-established, upscale section of the city, where two-bedrooms go for nearly $5,000. Many rent-controlled apartments in Nob Hill are priced far higher than the average renter can afford to pay. The fewest rent-controlled options are in areas dominated by new construction, such as SoMa and Mission Bay. Notably, public housing projects are exempt from rent control, as well as most single-family homes and condos.

Benefits of scoring a place to live in San Francisco include access to great restaurants, wine country, and tons of high-paying jobs, especially those in the tech sector.

Washington, D.C.

Rent control provides residents of the nation's capital with a layer of protection against the prohibitive cost of living in a housing market where affordable options are quickly vanishing. Housing is generally deemed affordable when it amounts to no more than 30% of a household's income. But in D.C., the inhabitants of more than half of all rental units spend more than 30% of their income on rent. The median price for a one-bedroom rental in D.C. is now $2,000. There are almost no more apartments in D.C.'s open market that rent for less than $800 monthly.

Established in 1975, D.C.'s rent control law now covers more than 60% of all rental units. Apartments are generally rent-controlled if they're in buildings constructed before 1975 and owned by landlords who control at least five units. Federally subsidized units are exempt from the law. Landlords of rent-controlled units may not raise the rent more than the current rate of inflation plus 2%, and the rent generally cannot be raised more than once a year. When a tenant vacates a unit, however, the law permits landlords to raise the rent by up to 30%. As is the case in San Francisco, future tenants of rent-controlled units are typically charged much higher rents than the tenant before them. No matter how you dice it, the cheapest apartments, by logic, are already taken.

Though it's not a perfect system, the benefits of scoring a rent-controlled apartment in the nation's capital are indisputable — access to some one the world's best museums, political events and universities, as well as a cap on annual rent raises. Finding a rent-controlled unit, however, takes a little detective work. Luckily, landlords are mandated to divulge whether their building is rent-controlled. All you have to do is ask. You can also find out whether a particular apartment is subject to rent control by calling the D.C. rent administrator's office, which keeps a database of these units.

New York City

The city that never sleeps lures new residents for many reasons — the art, the theater, the big wig jobs — but the cost of living ain't one of them. The average New York rent tops $3,000, making it one of the nation's most expensive places to lay your head at night. Another blow to affordable city living: Less than 2% of New York's apartments are rent-controlled, a status applied to units in buildings erected before 1947. The clincher is that these units must have been occupied by the same family since 1971. Rent-controlled apartments can be passed down within a family, but only to a family member who resided in the unit for a minimum of two years prior to the key exchange. In other words, New York's rent control policy is all in the family, leaving most of us lustful and out of luck.

But, to prevent average Joe city dwellers from getting completely priced out of the market, New York also has a rent stabilization program that works similarly to rent control in other big cities. While the guidelines are complicated with many caveats and exceptions, most rent-stabilized apartments in New York are in buildings of six or more units erected before 1974 and priced below $2,500 monthly. Landlords cannot raise rents above a certain ceiling dictated by inflation. For 2014–2015, the increase was capped at 1% for a one-year lease. Once the rent reaches $2,500, however, or if the tenant's income surpasses $200,000 two years in a row, the landlord can deregulate the apartment and adjust the rent to match current market rates. All told, about 45% of New York's apartments are rent stabilized, making your chances of snagging one about 50/50.

The New York City Rent Guidelines Board keeps a list of all the city's rent-stabilized units. Inwood and Washington Heights are the Manhattan neighborhoods with the largest concentration of regulated units. In Brooklyn, Crown Heights is your best bet.

This article is from Brittany Lyte of Wise Bread, an award-winning personal finance and credit card comparison website. This article first appeared at Wise Bread.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best personal finance bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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