Travel Update: Recent Articles On Housing

I wrote a housing-related article this week for Forbes, and in the process of research, came across several other interesting recent ones. Here’s the roundup:

1. My article discussed the connection between rent control and high housing prices. To my surprise, only 6 of America’s 50 largest cities still have rent control, as numerous others ended what they saw as a counterproductive policy. But those six remain among the nation’s most expensive, and I argue that rent control is a big reason why.

2. This didn’t prevent Seattle from trying to revive the policy this week, led by Socialist Party councilor Kshama Sawant.

3. While rent control is seen today as antiquated, this hasn’t stopped the rise of its close cousin, “inclusionary zoning.” Steven Greenhut writes for Reason about a California state court case that could determine the policy’s constitutionality. The case, he says, is “about whether cities have unlimited power to extract concessions from homebuilders for things that are not ‘impacts’ from the project. In other words, it’s legitimate for government to require new developments to pay to mitigate the effect of the new residents on local infrastructure (roads, sewers, fire service), but is it OK for cities to require affordable housing just because officials want to see more of it built?”

4. Michael Lewyn challenges the notion that Airbnb hurts housing affordability by taking units off the market.

5. Recently the New York Times published a short time-lapse video of lower Manhattan’s various developmental stages over 500 years. Daniel Bier at Newsweek points out something strange about the video’s last few decades: “The pace of change slows dramatically toward the end…because the city government has deliberately calcified New York City, encasing the city’s structures in a legal state of suspended animation.”

6. Emily Badger writes on Wonkblog about the rise of urban adult singles, and the way that cities’ housing stocks have failed to adapt–thanks to government regulation. Her piece is worth quoting at length.

Our housing stock wasn’t built for a society full of singles. Our communities instead are full of homes meant for the traditional nuclear family — two-bedroom starter homes, three-bedroom houses, apartments with more bathrooms than a singleton needs, full-service kitchens when 25-year-old bachelors now primarily dine by microwave….In New York, Austin and Denver, nearly 57 percent of adults were single in 2010 (although not necessarily living alone). In Washington, D.C., that figure is a whopping 71 percent. But none of these cities have anywhere near enough small-sized housing to accommodate them. That means that a lot of people are probably living with unrelated adult roommates who’d prefer to live alone (half you people in D.C. group homes?). And it means that some people who do live alone are likely paying more for space they don’t want in a large one-bedroom because there aren’t enough alternatives in studios and efficiencies.

Changes in demographics and social norms invariably occur faster than changes in the built world around us…[But] a lot of cities are also actively making it hard for the housing supply to adjust. The rise of singles calls in particular for more micro housing: apartments the size of studios or even smaller, and “accessory dwelling units” (think in-law cottages or garage apartments) that might be built in the back yard of existing homes. It also calls for a different model of housing where, for instance, four singles might share a communal living space adjacent to their separate units instead of each having their own living room. Neighborhood opposition and existing regulation make this kind of housing hard to build in most cities, though. Parking requirements, for example, often mandate that new housing come with new off-street parking spots, too. But that rule is impractical for someone who wants to rent a cottage in her backyard. And it makes projects financially unworkable for a developer who wants to build an apartment full of micro units next to a train stop for residents who don’t own cars. Other laws set minimum standards for how small a housing unit can be — in much of New York, it’s 400 square feet — making micro units effectively illegal.

 

How to Fix San Francisco’s Housing Market

Want to live in San Francisco? No problem, that’ll be $3,000 (a month)–but only if you act fast.

In the last two years, the the cost of housing in San Francisco has increased 47% and shows no signs of stopping. Longtime residents find themselves priced out of town, the most vulnerable of whom end up as far away as Stockton.

Some blame techie transplants. After all, every new arrival drives up the rent that much more. And many tech workers command wages that are well above the non-tech average. But labelling the problem a zero sum class struggle is both inaccurate and unproductive. The real problem is an emasculated housing market unable to absorb the new arrivals without shedding older residents. The only solution is to take supply off its leash and finally let it chase after demand.

Strangling Supply

From 2010 to 2013, San Francisco’s population increased by 32,000 residents. For the same period of time, the city’s housing stock increased by roughly 4,500 units. Why isn’t growth in housing keeping pace with growth in population? It’s not allowed to.

San Francisco uses what’s known as discretionary permitting. Even if a project meets all the relevant land use regulations, the Permitting Department can mandate modifications “in the public interest”.  There’s also a six month review process during which neighbors can contest the permit based on an entitlement or environmental concern. Neighbors can also file a CEQA lawsuit in state court or even put a project on the ballot for an up or down vote. This process is heavily weighted against new construction. It limits how quickly the housing stock can grow. And as a result, when demand skyrockets so do prices.

To remedy this, San Francisco should move from discretionary to as-of-right permitting. In an as-of-right system, it’s much more difficult to stop construction. As long as a project meets existing land use requirements, city planners have to issue a permit. And although neighbors can sue based on nuisance, they don’t have any input in the actual permitting process. As-of-right permitting would go a long way toward defanging NIMBYs and overzealous planners.

Yellow equals a height limit of 40 feet or less than 5 stories.  Credit Mike Schiraldi

Yellow equals a height limit of 40 feet or less than 5 stories. Credit Mike Schiraldi

 

But even if San Francisco opened up the permitting floodgates, height limits, floor-to-area ratios, zoning designations, and minimum parcel sizes all prevent land from being put to its best use. Land use restrictions like these can increase the price of housing by as much as 140% over construction costs. Relaxing–if not abolishing–these types of restrictions would be hugely beneficial.

But for as much as regulatory reform would help, there’s another way of encouraging supply to catch up with demand. And, interestingly enough, it involves raising taxes.

Tax the Land

The more you tax something, the less of that something society produces. Raise taxes on income and you discourage labor. Raise taxes on capital and you discourage investment. Raise taxes on property and the same logic applies; the higher the tax rates the greater the burden on new construction. But property taxes aren’t just a tax on buildings, they’re a tax on the land underneath as well. Separate the two in favor of taxing land alone, and construction is not only unburdened, it’s encouraged.

A pure land tax would amount to fixed overhead for each assessment period. This would encourage landlords to use their holdings as intensely as the market would bear. Holding a valuable parcel vacant or underused would become prohibitively expensive.

In San Francisco, where land is incredibly valuable, a land tax would encourage  denser development.

In San Francisco, where land is incredibly valuable, a land tax would encourage denser development. Credit Ascher, Kate. (2011).

 

There are a few different proposals for implementing land taxation. The most aggressive approach calls for a 100% fee on land values and the abolition of all other taxes. A slightly more moderate proposal favors an 80% land tax to allow for some margin of error in assessment. The most realistic plan would be to retire San Francisco’s property tax in favor of a land tax and make the change revenue neutral. Considering the city’s property tax rate is barely over 1%, a revenue neutral land tax probably wouldn’t deliver the sun, the stars, and the moon like it would at much higher levels. That said, it would still be an improvement over the existing property tax.

Fix the Market, Not the Price

Neither rent control nor inclusionary zoning will fix the housing crisis. Both amount to price controls. Both drive up the price of market rate construction. Both create a gap between subsidized and unsubsidized housing. And as long as San Francisco can’t set its own immigration policy, there will never be enough subsidized housing to go around. It’s simply not a scalable solution. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for a safety net.

Housing vouchers are like food stamps for….well, housing. They put resources directly in the hands of those who need them while avoiding the negative side effects of price fixing. It’s welfare that doesn’t try to mandate a price, but instead ensure that the least well off can pay whatever that price might be.

Funding via a land tax would tie the amount of revenue available for vouchers to the state of the housing market. When housing costs increase, it’s not the buildings themselves that are becoming more expensive, it’s the land that they’re sitting on. Houses aren’t wine, they don’t typically improve with age. The actual ground they sit on, however, can become more valuable if more people want to move into a neighborhood. If a sudden surge in demand sends land prices through the roof, a land tax would ensure that funding for vouchers would increase as well.

Funding through a land tax would also prevent vouchers from becoming a subsidy for landowners. Pumping other sources of revenue into housing might simply make the market more competitive and allow landlords to charge higher rents. A land tax would limit this by moving resources from landlords on one end of the market to tenants on the other end without increasing the total amount of dollars chasing housing. Regulatory reform would also limit any price increases from a voucher system since an increase in demand would better stimulate an increase in supply. The extra supply would then put downward pressure on prices.

Slowing down–let alone turning back–the rising cost of housing will require a massive amount of new construction. Relaxing land use rules will clear the path. Changing the tax code will hurry things along. And rethinking the social safety net will ensure that no one gets left behind.

Trying to make a bad policy worse in NYC

In New York, lawmakers are currently debating a compromise between New York City and upstate interests to change the policies that shape residents’ housing costs. New York City lawmakers are fighting for an extension and expansion of current rent control laws, while Governor Cuomo wants to tie this extension to a two percent cap on yearly property tax rate increases.

Legislators voted against a temporary extension of the current policy on Wednesday. The Wall Street Journal reports:

The Senate Democrats had been urged by tenant advocates to reject even a short-term extension in an attempt to ratchet up attention on their efforts to expand protections for existing tenants.

“Our members have said from the start: extension is not enough—we need to strengthen regulations,” said Austin Shafran, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, blamed the Democrats for the defeat, noting that they are acting against a bill pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who supports expanding regulations.

City lawmakers ignore that in fact rent control laws make housings costs more expensive for many residents and would-be residents in order to appease the fervent interest group of tenants who currently live in apartments priced below market rates.

In 1972, the Swedish socialist economist Assar Lindbeck famously wrote, “In many cases rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city – except for bombing.” Why then, are New York City politicians  — politically to the right of Lindbeck — fighting to protect rent control today? The policy is detrimental to all those unable to find housing at rent  stabilized or controlled prices as well as landlords.

Rent control has not had the dire impact in New York that it has in other cities because the number of apartments that are fully rent-controlled is a small portion of the total. A much larger number are rent stabilized (about 50 percent according to Wikipedia). Rent stabilization laws dictate the rate at which landlords can raise rents,] rather than permitting housing prices to equilibrate supply and demand. The tightening of the current price ceilings that city lawmakers support will further limit the rental market from serving middle class and lower income tenants who are not lucky enough to secure rent-controlled or rent-stabilized units.

All of the evidence against rent control begs the question: Why does such a detrimental policy persist with many favoring expansion? On Wednesday, pro-rent control protestors in Albany were arrested for blocking lawmakers’ access to the capitol, and clearly most democratic lawmakers think the current laws do not go far enough.

Rent control has some classic aspects that make it an enduring policy.  The costs are dispersed across all city residents while the tenants in rent-controlled buildings reap the concentrated benefits. Additionally, the harm of rent control is a classic case of unseen costs. Residents may see only the benefit of reduced rent without seeing the policy’s negative impacts.

 

Links

1. A shameless story of rent control in NYC. Glad to see that the city is forcing developers to subsidize wealthy Manhattanites’ Eat, Pray, Love-like dreams of moving to Paris.

2. The travails of getting a bus lane on a busy LA street where “[m]ore people already travel by bus than by car along the route during peak hours.”

3. Here is what appears to be another example of bad zoning creating blight, and the city using said blight to seize the property via eminent domain and hand it over to favored developers. NYC zoning maps are shockingly difficult to read – can anybody tell me what is allowed to be built, as of right, in the area bounded by 125th and 127th Sts. and 2nd and 3rd Ave. in Manhattan?

4. NYC’s new zoning lite handbook. No code should be so complicated that a 168-page handbook can’t even contain a zoning map.

Undead Ideas: Rent Control

Originally published at Freedom Politics:

Richard Nixon instituted Price Controls in 1971, which included rent control

Richard Nixon instituted Price Controls in 1971, which included rent control

In these days of economists constantly debating the right way to revive the economy, it seems like there is no way to find consensus among economists.  Economists don’t spend much time debating the issues they agree on, and to them, rent control is about as dead an issue as the earth revolving around the sun.  In 1992, 93% of American and Canadian economists surveyed agreed with the statement “A ceiling on rents reduces the quantity and quality of housing available.”  Opposition to rent control among economists spans the political spectrum from Milton Friedman and Walter Block to leftist Nobel Laureates Gunnar Myrdal and Paul Krugman.  In fact, it was the socialist Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck who famously said, “In many cases rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city—except for bombing it.” (Assar Lindbeck, The Political Economy of the New Left, New York, Harper and Row, 1972, p. 39)

Never underestimate opportunistic politicians when they smell blood in the water.  With housing prices already falling, politicians want to be seen as champions of the little guy and do something for “affordability” with one side of their mouth, and force housing prices to “recover” with the other.   With the economy in disarray, even widely discredited schemes such as rent control are making a comeback in politician’s playbooks of idiotic moves that please certain constituents.

Rent control was implemented twice on a national scale in the United States.  Rents were first frozen during the difficult years of World War II, and frozen again in 1971 as part of President Richard Nixon’s wage and price controls intended to curb inflation.  After Nixon’s wage and price controls expired, many cities kept some form of rent control intact. Could President Obama resurrect an undead Richard Nixon to implement nationwide rent control in reaction to the impending stimflation?  There’s a 93% chance his economic advisors wouldn’t let him do such a thing.  However, Nixon’s undead corpse has been spotted mumbling “I am now a Keynesian” in places like California and New York City where bad ideas never seem to die.

Despite widespread liberalization of rent control laws, rent control remains a popular idea in many cities and states.  Last June, California voters reaffirmed their support of rent control, by voting down Proposition 98.  In New York, Democrats now control the state legislature and intend to revive some of the rent control laws that have been liberalized over the past few decades.  The legislation would return thousands of previously de-regulated apartments back under regulation; reduce allowed rent increase percentages, even when a tenant moves out; limit owner’s ability to use his regulated apartments for personal use; and crack down on harassment of tenants by landlords to induce eviction.

As Paul Krugman concluded with respect to rent control, “So now you know why economists are useless: when they actually do understand something, people don’t want to hear about it.“  A voting public, better informed by economic consensus, would be less tolerant of these legislative charlatans.  Before resurrecting bad ideas, let us rejuvenate the discussion of why rent control is bad for nearly everybody, particularly the lower and middle-class people politicians are pretending to protect.

As stated by the National Multi Housing Council:

Rents serve two functions essential to the efficient operation of housing markets:

  • they compensate providers of existing housing units and developers of new units for the cost of providing shelter to consumers; and
  • they provide the economic incentives needed to attract new investment in rental housing, as well as to maintain existing housing stock. In this respect, housing is no different from other commodities, such as food and clothing — the amount producers supply is directly related to the prevailing market price.

Those of us who have studied microeconomics understand the supply/demand consequence of price-controls: a decrease in the supply of a good, and thus shortages at the prescribed price.  But, rent control is much more than just a price control, it’s effects compound over time.

A conventional price control, let’s say on chickens, prescribes that all chickens be sold at a government-determined price.  If a farmer cannot profitably provide chickens at that price, he would likely just stop selling chickens until doing business is feasible again, or simply drown the chickens as many farmers did during the Nixon era price controls.  Now, imagine a price control on chickens where farmers are not only compelled to sell at a prescribed price, but also compelled to offer that rate to all customers who previously bought chickens from that farmer at the same quantity that was ordered previous to the price control.  Regardless of the price the farmer must pay for feed and other costs of raising chickens, he is not permitted to stop producing chickens as he is forced to sell a certain number of chickens indefinitely.

Some might call this a crude form of serfdom, or even slavery, but this is exactly what rent control does to landlords.  Would we be too surprised that suddenly the quality of the chickens have noticeably deteriorated as farmers cut back on the quantity and quality of feed? Would it be shocking if the farmer became rude to his now obligatory customers, or made it difficult for customers to safely pick up their orders?  When such a burden is placed on the ones who provide housing in the first place, it seems inevitable that the long-term effects of rent control on the housing market would be devastating.

Let’s look at some of the more subtle results of rent control:

Hoarding:

Just as price controls on gas in the ’70s caused long lines and hoarding of gas, the same thing happens with rent controlled housing. The tenants of rent-controlled units are not stupid. They know that the supply is artificially limited and will become more limited in the future. They know that if they stay put, they’ll be able to pay about the same rent forever, in real terms. They know that if they were to look for another apartment, and they were fortunate enough to find one, the rent would be significantly greater than what they pay where they are.

So, they don’t move. Well, almost never. Even if their family grows or shrinks. The incentive to stay is just too great, and the wealthy and well-connected are better equipped to take advantage of the situation.  It should be noted that New York’s Governor Paterson, Congressman Charlie Rangel, and various other politically-connected people enjoy landlord-subsidized apartments in the Lenox Terrace luxury apartment complex in Harlem, which happens to be owned by a politically-connected developer.  As Peter Salinas and Gerard Mildner wrote in Scarcity by Design: The Legacy of New York City’s Housing Policies:

To begin with, to earn the maximum benefits from New York’s rent regulations, it helps to occupy an apartment for a long time (because landlords are permitted to raise rents more than usual when an apartment is vacant). Affluent professionals have greater job stability and can, in any case, manage to fake their continued occupancy (in order to sublet) when they must move. Also, influence or good connections are helpful in the search for a desirable rent-regulated apartment.

When rent-controlled apartments become available, family and friends often know about it first and rent up the apartment immediately, knowing that rent-controlled apartments are so hard to come by and the opportunity to rent other vacant apartments may not come for some time.

Of course, this hoarding by existing and new tenants worsens the problems, because those who are shopping for apartments have very few, if any to choose from. The longer this goes on, availability declines further and the incentives to hoard grow exponentially, as do the negative effects.

rent control long-term

In fact, one study found that rent control tripled the expected duration of residence in New York City.

The ones who suffer the worst are those who are trying to relocate to the area for job opportunities as vacancies become more rare.

Black Market and Deceptive Acts

Supply/demand diagram showing the black market incentive with price ceilings.As current renters hoard their rent-controlled apartments, it is rare that new apartments become available. Sometimes, tenants would illegally sublet their units at higher rents.
Landlords do under-the table deals or rent to friends and family. New York had to crack down on landlords charging “key fees” as high as several thousand dollars to new renters.

Landlords will often find loopholes that will let them de-regulate a building, just to be released of the financial burdens. For example, in NY landlords will take their rent-controlled building and deregulate it by using the entire building as a residence for a certain number of years. This is space that could otherwise have been rented at a market rate.

Deterioration of Existing Housing Stock

Because of the disincentive to improve and maintain the property, landlords will often become slumlords and allow unhealthy conditions or activities to take place in the apartments. This lack of improvement not only is unpleasant to the current renter, but accelerates the end of the usable life of the apartment building. The Rand Corporation studied Los Angeles’ rent control law and found that 63 percent of the benefit of lowered rents was offset by a loss in available housing related to deterioration and disinvestment.

The burdens of rent-control could become so heavy on a landlord that he may find it beneficial to burn his building down to collect insurance. Of course, this is dangerous to tenants and neighbors, but happened regularly in the Bronx. The Bronx’s arson epidemic led sports announcer, Howard Cosell to proclaim “‘There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning”, as the TV camera panned over the neighborhood during a 1977 Yankees World Series Games.

Discrimination

The free-market typically disincentivises any discrimination based on factors other than price, quality, and quantity because of the self interest of the participants. However, rent control removes this disincentive.

Since under rent control, the price is set and there are many applicants, a landlord has the incentive to choose tenants based on other factors. A landlord will more carefully examine applicants’ credit history and income, which a good landlord should do, but lends toward biases against younger applicants. A landlord may decide renting families is less desirable, or may prefer to rent to attractive young females. Often times, racial preferences have influenced renting decisions, which traditionally worked against minorities. Thus, rent control can exacerbate segregation problems because landlords choose not to rent to people who would change the demographics of an area.

Mobility

As mentioned above, duration of residence in a rent-controlled apartment has been observed to be three times as long as duration at market-rate apartments. One can see that the incentive to hoard rent-controlled apartments is also disincentive to relocate.

The mobility of both the tenants and newcomers are drastically hampered by rent control. Unless the tenant has the money to rent a second apartment (or Governor’s mansion), it will be difficult for him to relocate closer to better employment. The tenant may rather endure a very long commute in order to maintain the rent-controlled apartment. As Walter Block put it, “They are, in a sense, trapped by the gentle and visible hand that keeps them where they are rather than where they might do better.”

Difficulties are multiplied if the local economy takes a turn for the worse. A downturn in local employment would not be relieved by people relocating for jobs, thus making the unemployment and poverty situation worse.

Employees looking to relocate in the city with rent control are hurt the worst as they will have a difficult time finding available apartments. The drawbacks to the local economy are discussed in the section on regional growth and adaptation.

The reduction in mobility is especially burdensome on families with children, since public schools tend to be local. If the local school is under performing, a family under rent-control will lose it’s reduced rent if it makes the difficult decision to relocate to an area with better schools. To relocate to a better school, a family would also have to find a new apartment, which would be much more expensive and almost impossible to find.

Regional Growth and Adaptation

The hoarding of rent-controlled apartments makes finding an affordable apartment in the the city with rent-control. Not only is this a burden on the newcomer, this makes it harder for a city’s businesses to attract skilled workers. Employers may decide to relocate to other cities, if their recruits consistently can’t find decent housing.

Often times workers who’s industries have relocated will not relocate in order to maintain the rent controlled apartment. In the long-run, this worker’s family may become a burden on the public assistance system as they may not have the skill sets to quickly pick up another profession that pays as well.

Tax Revenues

Rent control reduces the market value of regulated rental property. Typically, this negatively effects the assessed property value relative to unregulated properties, decreasing overall property tax revenues and burdening market properties disproportionately. A study of rent control in New York City in the late 80s estimated reduction in taxable assessed property values attributable to rent control at approximately $4 billion, which costs the city approximately $370 million per year in property tax revenues.

Housing Development

Developers would have very little incentive to build affordable housing if they knew the rents they charge were to be restricted by rent control, or were at risk of being regulated in the future. Thus, almost no new stock of middle and lower class housing is built. Instead, developers may only build “luxury” buildings that are often not regulated.

Thus, affordable housing stock will decrease as older buildings become uninhabitable (or are burned to the ground for insurance money) and no new stock is created. Over a long time, the effects the shortage is devastating.

Gentrification and Class Conflict

As mentioned above, landlords may choose unsavory methods to choose their tenants, since price is not permitted to be the deciding factor. Often, landlords will discriminate against persons of certain ethnicities or religions. This type of discrimination can often be widespread through an area causing tensions between religious or ethnic groups, and in the long-run drive out certain types of people from those areas.

The shortage of affordable housing, and development of only luxury housing a huge gap in the income of a city’s residents. Over time, luxury developments will be confined to certain areas less blighted by rent control, causing segregation and rapid gentrification.

As housing in cities have become less plentiful under rent control and market-rents vary drastically with regulated rents, the incentive grows for landlords to deregulate apartments to market-rates. These tactics have become aggressive as the incentive is extraordinary. A recent NY Times article describe the tension between tenants and management at Stuyvesant Town and Cooper Village in New York:

More than a year after buying Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan for a record-breaking $5.4 billion, Tishman Speyer Properties has accused hundreds of rent-stabilized tenants of living somewhere other than their apartments, a tactic that residents and their lawyers say is part of an aggressive attempt to drive out low-rent tenants to make way for high-rent ones.
…about 800 rent-stabilized leases have been denied renewal because the landlord believed the tenants had a primary residence elsewhere, according to the company. More than 4 in 10 of those cases were later dropped, while 3 in 10 ended with tenants giving up their apartments.

Another example of class conflict caused by rent control is an apartment building owner in Manhattan who’s rent controlled tenants tried to prevent his family from living in their own building.  Neighbors escalated the class warfare with protests and threats against the lives of the family that only desired to live in the building they owned.  How much of this sense of entitlement to another person’s private property would be acceptable without the explicit endorsement of rent control by the city, and many of it’s leaders.

Conclusion

Rent control is not just a conventional price control, setting the price at which willing renters and landlords are permitted to do business.  It is a coercive act that gives landlords no legal option, but to rent to a tenant, even against his will and often at a financial loss.  Rent control adds a non-voluntary burden to landlords which deepens over time because landlords have no option, but to rent to a tenant at below market rates.

Not only does rent control cause huge distortions in the housing market, but the burdens fall disproportionately on the poor and underprivileged people it’s enactment was intended to benefit. Although particular people are able to live with the comfort of low rent payments, even those renters will see their living conditions deteriorate as landlords neglect repairs and maintenance. As the situation gets worse, middle class residents are able to move away, leaving behind the poorest residents who have become reliant on the reduced rent.

In effect, rent control grants property rights to renters that originally belonged to the original property owners, while retaining the owner’s obligations. Rent control becomes a redistribution of wealth to existing tenants and away from apartment owners, market-rate apartment renters, newcomers to an area, and renters who’s needs change over time. Nonetheless, over time the quality of life decreases for all residents of a city where rent control is imposed.  Essentially, if housing affordability is the objective, strapping additional burden upon providers of housing will only make matters worse.

In conclusion, controls on supply can do as much damage to affordability as controls on price. Eliminating rent control needs to go hand-in-hand with loosening exclusionary zoning and density restrictions in order to allow the market to perform as it should. A truly free-market incentivizes investment in quality affordable housing for all residents by allowing individual decisions to determine living patterns and location preferences based on quality, availability and affordability.

For more reading on rent control, see the section on Rent Control in the Articles and Academic Papers page at Market Urbanism.

My Article at FreePo on the Resurrection of Rent Control

The Orange County Register’s new site, Freedom Politics just posted an article I wrote for them on rent control

Here’s a snippet:

In these days of economists constantly debating the right way to revive the economy, it seems like there is no way to find consensus among economists.  Economists don’t spend much time debating the issues they agree on, and to them, rent control is about as dead an issue as the earth revolving around the sun.  In 1992, 93% of American and Canadian economists surveyed agreed with the statement “A ceiling on rents reduces the quantity and quality of housing available.”  Opposition to rent control among economists spans the political spectrum from Milton Friedman and Walter Block to leftist Nobel Laureates Gunnar Myrdal and Paul Krugman.  In fact, it was the socialist Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck who famously said, “In many cases rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city—except for bombing it."

The article is part of a series called “Undead Ideas” and I’m told the article is supposed to feature a humorously hideous illustration of a zombie Richard Nixon, which is the reason for the Nixon joke.  I will share the illustration once it is public.    

Could President Obama resurrect an undead Richard Nixon to implement nationwide rent control in the face of the impending stimflation?  There’s a 93% chance his economic advisors wouldn’t let him do such a thing.  However, Nixon’s undead corpse has been spotted mumbling "I am now a Keynesian" in places like California and New York City where bad ideas never seem to die.

I actually thought of the word “stimflation” on my own, but I checked and learned I wasn’t the first to think of it.  The domain stimflation.com had just been reserved last week…

Here’s a composite, I found:

—–

Wendell Cox also made a contribution to the “Undead Ideas” series with a very good article about housing.  I thought I might, but I don’t have any significant disagreements with Cox’s article.  I was very glad not to see him singling out “Smart Growth” as a culprit, and appropriately blaming land use restrictions in general:

Demand for housing, driven by low interest rates and a growing economy, combined with supply restrictions—such as zoning laws, high permitting costs and “not in my backyard” regulations—to contribute to rapid price appreciation.

and he quoted a great point by Glaeser:

If some aid to expensive states is made conditional on permitting more construction, then pricey places will face incentives to permit more units and promote affordability. Those incentives will encourage restrictive cities and towns to look beyond their borders, and to make America more affordable by permitting more construction in the high-price housing markets that are undersupplied and unaffordable even to the middle class.

NY Rent Control Revival

In an act of pure legislative idiocy in the face of overwhelming consensus among economists against rent control, the New York State Assembly started the ball rolling to strengthen rent regulation. NY Times:

The Democratic-led Assembly passed a broad package of legislation designed to restrain increases on rent-regulated apartments statewide. The legislation would essentially return to regulation tens of thousands of units that were converted to market rate in recent years.

In addition, the legislation would reduce to 10 percent, from 20 percent, the amount that a landlord can increase the rent after an apartment becomes vacant; limit the owner’s ability to recover a rent-regulated apartment for personal use; and increase fines for landlords who are found to have harassed their tenants as a way of evicting them.

The legislation would also repeal the Urstadt Laws’ provision that in 1971 effectively took away most of New York City’s authority to regulate rents and transferred it to the state. Opponents of the legislation are concerned that the New York City Council, known for its pro-tenant leanings, would enact laws that are unfavorable to landlords.

Expect some amazingly ignorant quotes from legislators while this is debated:

Linda B. Rosenthal, an assemblywoman who represents the Upper West Side, said that unless rent-regulation laws were changed, middle class people were at risk of being driven out of the city.

Actually, rent control drives out the middle class, making housing only affordable to the rich and beneficiaries of subsidies and rent controls. New housing will be nearly impossible for middle class tenants to find. Plus, for those who favor one particular class of people over others, rent control increases class tensions

“Pretty soon we’re going to end up with a city of the very poor and the very rich,” Ms. Rosenthal said. “Our social fabric will have been torn apart. And that is not what we want in the city of New York.”

Well, she’s right about that, but Rosenthal is co-culprit. Let’s take a collection for her to enroll in a basic Microeconomics course. She can even take it at The New School, for all I care.

There is hope. Democrats have a slim 32-30 majority in the Assembly, so I wouldn’t expect any series regulations to pass without a fight.

Assembly Speaker Silver declared 2009, “The Year of The Tenant”. Market rents in New York are falling quickly due to the financial mess, but I don’t think that’s what he means.

As Harvard Economist Ed Glaeser so eloquently puts it, “Rent control is bad, bad, bad.”

Could NY Democrats Revive Rent Control?

New York State’s Assembly is now in Democratic control.  On many legislators wish list is to end the vacancy decontrol provisions that allow landlords to remove a unit from rent control if a tenant moves out and the unit rents for more than $2,000 per month.  (for those of you not in New York, apartments over $2,000 per month is actually almost all apartments in Manhattan and desirable locations of Brooklyn & Queens)

Crains – Change in state Senate control could hurt landlords

“Roadblocks to considering such legislation have been removed,” says Ms. Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side. “This will be at the top of many people’s agenda come January.”

Of course, this is going to scare the crap out of landlords and renters of market-rate units.

“With all of the current uncertainty, why would you throw another obstacle in the way of even more investment in housing in the city,” asks Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York. Mr. Spinola is also confident that Senate Democrats will not act quickly on housing laws.

“They’re going to have enough trouble dealing with fiscal problems,” Mr. Spinola says.

Maybe our wise legislators will take the time to learn about the microeconomics of rent control