Identifying the worst government policy would be a challenge. Would it be minimum wage laws, which deprive low-skilled workers of a chance for employment and upward mobility? Would it be class-warfare tax rates that generate large amounts of economic damage compared to potential (if any) revenue?
Those are tempting choices, but there’s a strong case that nothing is as foolish as rent control.
California politicians are very susceptible to bad ideas.
True to form, as reported by the New York Times, they actually want to impose statewide rent control.
California lawmakers approved a statewide rent cap on Wednesday covering millions of tenants, the biggest step yet in a surge of initiatives to address an affordable-housing crunch nationwide. The bill limits annual rent increases to 5 percent after inflation and offers new barriers to eviction… a momentous political swing. For a quarter-century, California law has sharply curbed the ability of localities to impose rent control. Now, the state itself has taken that step. …Economists from both the left and the right have a well-established aversion to rent control, arguing that such policies ignore the message of rising prices, which is to build more housing. Studies in San Francisco and elsewhere show that price caps often prompt landlords to abandon the rental business by converting their units to owner-occupied homes. And since rent controls typically have no income threshold, they have been faulted for benefiting high-income tenants.
I’m glad the article included the evidence from economists, especially since the headline is grossly inaccurate. If we care about evidence, it’s far more accurate to say that rent control will exacerbate the state’s housing problems.
Which is why the Wall Street Journal opined that this type of intervention is especially destructive.
California already boasts the highest housing costs in the country, and even liberals have come around to acknowledging that not enough homes are built to meet demand. The state has added about half as many housing units as needed to accommodate population growth, and more than half of Californians spend 30% of their income on rent.Blame a thousand regulatory burdens. Local governments limit what housing developers can build and where. They layer on permitting fees, and then there are the state’s high labor costs and expensive green-energy mandates and restrictions that opponents can exploit to block projects for years. …The upshot is that an “affordable” housing unit in California costs $332,000 to build and nearly $600,000 in San Francisco, according to state budget figures. Developers can’t turn a profit on low- and middle-income homes… And now Democrats want to constrain housing prices by fiat. Mr. Newsom and Democratic legislators are pushing a law to limit annual rent increases across the state to 5% plus inflation. …Building permits in the first seven months this year have fallen 17% compared to 2018 despite an increase in state subsidies. …California’s progressive regulatory complex is contributing to this housing slowdown by driving businesses and people from the state. More than 700,000 residents have left since 2010.
By the way, the politicians in Albany already made the same mistake.
And, as you might expect, the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page had the correct response.
Law by law, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Democrats are chipping away at the policies that made New York City livable after decades of decline… Democrats this week are ramming through rent-control bills that…effectively dictates rents for one million or so rent-regulated apartments and restricts landlords’ ability to evict tenants who don’t pay. …Once a tenant moves out—which doesn’t happen often since folks can pass on the entitlement to friends and relatives—landlords would be required to offer the unit to another tenant at restricted rates. …Nor could they raise rates by more than 2% annually to pay for improvements or evict a nonpaying tenant who “cannot find a similar suitable dwelling in the same neighborhood.” Since landlords would have less incentive to make fixes, more apartments will deteriorate and come to resemble New York City’s squalid public housing. …One result will be less housing investment… Progressives are vindicating CEO Jeff Bezos ’s decision to pull Amazon’s second headquarters out of New York. Don’t be surprised if other businesses follow.
You won’t be surprised to learn that politicians in other nations sometimes make the same mistake.
The U.K.-based Guardian wrote about how rent control has backfired in Sweden.
Half a million are on the waiting list for rent-controlled flats in Stockholm, meaning a two-tier system, bribes and a thriving parallel market… the system is experiencing acute pressures. Building of rental homes almost dried up after a financial crisis in the early 1990s, and there is a dire shortage of properties. Demand is such that it is almost impossible to get a direct contract. With nearly half of all Stockholmers – about 500,000 people – in the queue, it can take 20 or 30 years to get to the top of the pile. …The result is a thriving rental property black market, with bribes of as much as 100,000 kronor per room to obtain a direct contract, McCormac says. Many people sublet space in their rental apartments. …“Rent controls were supposed to enable people to live in central locations, but now it is having the opposite effect,” McCormac says. “People without social connections will have a very hard time finding a flat,” says Kleberg.
And Germany is making the same mistake – even though it should have learned from the mistakes under Hitler’s national socialism and East Germany’s communism.
…the kinds of ideas traditionally associated with planned economies are gaining more and more support all over Germany. …Substantial numbers of people have moved to Germany’s major cities…the supply of housing has failed to keep pace with these significant developments, and this is largely because construction approval processes are so long-winded and the latest environmental regulations have made building prohibitively expensive. …In Germany’s capital, Berlin, …it now takes 12 years to draft and approve a zoning plan, which in many cases is a prerequisite for the development of new dwellings. …An initiative in Berlin calling for the expropriation of private real estate companies has collected three times as many signatures as it needed to initiate a petition for a referendum. …Kevin Kühnert, chairman of the youth organization of the center-left SPD…has gone as far as calling for a complete ban on private property owners renting out their apartments. …Berlin’s Senate approved the main components of a rent freeze in the German capital. …Advocates of such central economic planning react sensitively when they are reminded that it has already been tried… An earlier rent freeze was approved in Germany on April 20, 1936, as a gift from the National Socialist Party to the citizens of Germany on Adolf Hitler’s 47th birthday. The National Socialists’ rent cap was adopted into the GDR’s socialist law by Price Regulation No. 415 of May 6, 1955, and it remained in force until the collapse of the GDR in 1989.
Now let’s review some economic research.
Three Stanford professors researched the issue, looking specifically as San Francisco’s local rent control rules.
Using a 1994 law change, we exploit quasi-experimental variation in the assignment of rent control in San Francisco to study its impacts on tenants and landlords. Leveraging new data tracking individuals’ migration, we find rent control limits renters’ mobility by 20% and lowers displacement from San Francisco. Landlords treated by rent control reduce rental housing supplies by 15% by selling to owner-occupants and redeveloping buildings. Thus, while rent control prevents displacement of incumbent renters in the short run, the lost rental housing supply likely drove up market rents in the long run, ultimately undermining the goals of the law. …In the long run, landlords’ substitution toward owner-occupied and newly constructed rental housing not only lowered the supply of rental housing in the city, but also shifted the city’s housing supply towards less affordable types of housing that likely cater to the tastes of higher income individuals. Ultimately, these endogenous shifts in the housing supply likely drove up citywide rents, damaging housing affordability for future renters…it appears rent control has actually contributed to the gentrification of San Francisco, the exact opposite of the policy’s intended goal. …rent control has contributed to widening income inequality of the city.
To be fair, rent control is just one of several bad policies that mess up the city’s housing market.
Now let’s shift to the other side of the country.
Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe shared evidence from a disastrous experiment in Massachusetts.
…a handful of Democratic lawmakers want to bring the horror of rent control… This isn’t happening only in Massachusetts. …Oregon’s governor just signed a statewide rent-control law and efforts to overturn rent-control bans are underway in Illinois, Colorado, and Washington state. …the folly of rent control is so well-established that to deny it requires, as Hillary Clinton might say, a willing suspension of disbelief. Massachusetts and most other states have banned rent control because the harm it causes far outweighs any benefit it confers. When politicians impose a ceiling on rent, the results are invariable: housing shortages, depressed real estate values, increased decay, less new construction. …The longer rent control persists, and the more harshly it is enforced, the worse the problem grows. …in New York City, where strict rent controls date back to World War II, the annual rate at which apartments turn over is less than half the national average, while the share of tenants who haven’t moved in more than 20 years is more than double the national average. …Acknowledging the damage caused by rent control is neither a right- nor left-wing issue. …the communist foreign minister of Vietnam…made…the…point in 1989: “The Americans couldn’t destroy Hanoi,” Nguyen Co Thach remarked, “but we have destroyed our city by very low rents.” …When Massachusetts voters struck down rent control in 1994, it was in the teeth of preposterous fearmongering by hardline tenant activists… What happened in reality was that tens of thousands of apartments were decontrolled with no ill effects… When tenants were analyzed by occupation, it was high-earning professionals and managers who predominated among the beneficiaries of rent control; semi-skilled and unskilled workers lagged far behind. Rent control always ends up benefiting the young, strong, and well-to-do at the expense of the old, weak, and poor.
Meanwhile, Meghan McArdle opined in the Washington Post about the perverse economic consequences of rent control.
…there are a few questions where there’s near unanimity, and rent control is one of them. Pretty much every economist agrees that rent controls are bad. …the policy appears to be making a comeback. …City governments may have to relearn why their predecessors pruned back rent-control policies. Rent control is supposed to protect poor, deserving tenants from the depredations of greedy landlords. And it does, up to a point. …The problem is that rent control doesn’t do anything about the reason that rents are rising, which is that there are more people who want to live in desirable areas than there are homes for them to live in. Housing follows the same basic laws of economics as other goods that consumers need… rent control also reduces the incentive to supply rental housing. …an actual solution to skyrocketing rents: Build more housing, so that the rent controls won’t be necessary… To do that, cities would need to ease the costly land-use regulations that make it so difficult for developers to fill the unmet demand. …Alas, that’s not going to happen… Declining housing stock is just one of the many potential costs of rent controls; others include a deteriorating housing stock as landlords stop investing in their properties, and higher rents. Yes, higher, because rent control creates a two-tier housing market. There are cheap, price-stabilized apartments that rarely turn over, because why would you give up such a great deal? Then there are the uncontrolled apartments, which everyone else in the city has to fight over, bidding up the price. …the people getting the biggest benefit are white, affluent Manhattanites.
By the way, you hopefully have noticed a pattern.
Rich people generally get the biggest benefits under rent control.
Let’s close with a look at how economists from across the philosophical spectrum view rent control
Incidentally, there’s an obvious reason why politicians persist in pushing bad policy. In the case of rent control, it’s because tenants outnumber landlords.
So even if politicians understand that the policy will backfire, their desire to get votes will trump common sense. Especially if they assume they can blame “greedy landlords” for the inevitable housing shortages and then push for government housing subsidies as an ostensible solution.
Another example of Mitchell’s Law.