Rent Control Is Fashionable Again. It’s Still a Bad Idea.

“Another housing development in St. Paul, Minnesota, is on hold after losing its financing partner this week.

On Monday, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that developer Alatus had a previously-committed equity partner renege on its commitment to invest $23 million in a proposed 304-unit project in the city’s Frogtown neighborhood. Two other investors who had proposed preliminary financing terms for the project—in which half the units would be rented out at below-market rates—have also walked away.

The reason? St. Paul’s newly-passed rent control ordinance, which Alatus’ principals say is making their once-eager investors skittish about doing business in the city.”

“It’s a near-universal consensus—held in common by progressive policy wonks, radical free marketeers, and the three most recent presidential administrations—that America’s highest-cost cities are so unaffordable because government zoning regulations prevent enough new housing from being built.

So why are a growing number of politicians, wonks, and pundits suddenly embracing a policy that’s been long maligned for further reducing the supply of housing?

The argument from rent control proponents boils down to the need to create short-term stability for renters. That will then, hopefully, give cities some breathing room to get to work on fixing their pressing supply issues.”

“That study looked at a 1994 San Francisco ballot initiative that expanded preexisting rent controls to cover four-unit apartment buildings constructed prior to 1980, but which exempts four-unit apartments built after 1980.

That created something of a natural experiment on the effects of rent control.

The Stanford study concluded that tenants living in the older, rent-controlled buildings were 10–20 percent more likely to stay at their same address than people living in newer, unregulated buildings. The study also concluded that the expansion of rent control caused a 15 percent decline in the availability of rental housing among affected units.

In short, there’s a clear tradeoff in rent control policies between creating stability for existing tenants and preserving and expanding rental housing supply for new tenants. The goal of politicians, according to some, should be to strike the right balance between the two.”

“We actually have a good, real example of what this balance striking in the real world looks like: San Francisco.

The rent stabilization ordinance that’s been in place in San Francisco since 1979, and which the Stanford study examined, has all the features Demsas would want in a well-designed rent control policy: post-1979 construction is exempt from price controls, landlords can raise rents by the lesser of 60 percent of yearly inflation or 7 percent, and there’s vacancy decontrol.

Some 40 percent of San Francisco’s housing stock is covered by these rules. Another 9 percent is deed-restricted affordable housing, meaning that rents can’t generally consume more than 30 percent of tenants’ pretax earnings.

That leaves only 16 percent of housing stock in the city where rents follow the ebb and flow of market forces. (That was at least the case prior to January 2020, when California’s statewide rent control law went into effect.)

The result is, again, San Francisco; a synonym for housing dysfunction and unaffordability. That obviously makes it a place that’s antagonistically expensive to newcomers. Copious amounts of rent control also haven’t stopped it from ranking first among American cities in some measurements for gentrification and displacement, either.”

“Rent control is always going to disincentivize housing construction, regardless of how tight or loose the zoning code is. Repealing zoning restrictions will allow for more housing. It will also make the supply-killing effects of rent control all the more apparent and relevant.”

“Rent control also could disincentivize renters—who should be natural proponents of new housing construction—from supporting zoning reforms.

If government price controls are keeping your rent stable, you have much less of an incentive to support new market-rate construction. At best, it would just be doing more of the same. At worst, it would be adding more construction noise, more traffic, and, God forbid, more shadows.

Indeed, rent-controlled tenants have an incentive to oppose any rezoning on the grounds that it might make their own rental unit a candidate for redevelopment. They’re at risk of losing the below-market rents they’re currently being charged.”

“if rent control isn’t the answer to short-term housing affordability issues and displacement, what is? I’d argue it’s zoning reform, and, failing that, federalism.

New housing units, even if they’re really expensive housing units, act almost immediately to lower the costs of rent for everyone. That addresses both affordability and displacement in the short-term thanks to the magic of the “moving chain.”

When a new “luxury” apartment comes online (and basically all new construction is high-cost “luxury” housing), it’s often filled by a high-income person who moves from his previous, older apartment building in the city. His now-vacant home is then snapped up by a middle-income person who leaves behind an even older unit that a third, lower-income person can now move into.

Follow this “moving chain” back far enough, and soon enough you see that each new unit of luxury housing is freeing up lots of housing in the lowest-cost, lowest-income neighborhoods in the city. That presumably puts downward pressure on prices and displacement.”

“An August 2021 paper from Finnish researchers looking at moving chains in Helsinki found that for every 100 new market-rate apartments built in the city center, “29 units get created through vacancy in bottom-quintile income zip codes and 60 units in bottom-half income zip codes” within two years.”

“Research by economist Evan Mast on the effects of luxury apartment construction in 12 American cities has also found that new, pricey units open up more housing options for middle- and lower-income neighborhoods.”

“relying on rent control to keep that renter in the same home comes at the expense of new housing supply, which in turn raises rents for everyone else in the city and prevents others from moving there entirely.”

I changed my mind on rent control

“all of these policies share a problem if enacted as the exclusive solution to rising rents. As economists often stress, rent control fails to address the core issue of why housing is so expensive to begin with: lack of supply. In particular, states and cities have a bevy of rules and regulations regarding what kind and size of new homes can be built that overwhelmingly make it illegal or unprofitable to build small single-family homes, multi-family homes, and dense neighborhoods.”

“Rent control should be understood as a remedy for displacement, rather than a solution to the spiraling cost of housing. It’s best as a measure that can help keep current tenants from being displaced from their neighborhoods”

“It’s become abundantly clear that even if states do begin to build more homes, it will take years if not decades to rebalance supply and make housing more affordable, and in the meantime millions of families will continue to suffer. Economists are right to be worried about the ways rent control could worsen the housing crisis, but rent control can work.”

“A well-designed rent control policy exists in tandem with eliminating exclusionary zoning laws, reducing the cost of housing construction, and providing universal vouchers to help low-income tenants afford their rent.”

“To encourage people to still build more homes, it is important to exempt future construction from rent control and to allow landlords to increase rents annually by a moderate sum tied to inflation. Policymakers also want to make sure there are incentives to keep existing rental stock well-maintained; one way to do so is by allowing for vacancy decontrol so that when a tenant moves out, a landlord can upgrade the unit and charge a higher rent to the next tenant.”

“When it comes to worries that rent control policies might increase evictions (both formal and informal) as landlords are motivated by profit to convert to condos or force their tenants to vacate so they can renovate, the answer is that, similarly to all types of abuses of power in the market, there needs to be more oversight. A few policies that cities and states should enact are:

Just cause eviction statutes, which would require the landlord to justify kicking a tenant out of the property. The government can define what a reasonable justification is, including but not limited to failure to pay rent, desire to add another tenant to the renter’s lease, violation of lease terms, illegal activity, etc.

Right to counsel to ensure that tenants are not just getting steamrolled in these types of hearings. Numerous studies have pointed to the fact that the vast majority of tenants are going unrepresented by counsel.

A rental registry to keep track of tenants and landlords. One of the biggest factors leading to informal evictions is that the power imbalance between very low-income tenants and landlords leads the former to simply comply when told to leave their home, even if they have the right to stay. By creating a rental registry, landlords will know that their lease terms are being monitored by local officials and that they will be easily caught if they informally or illegally evict tenants in order to get around rent control laws.”

“Skeptics will correctly note that implementing all these ideas would increase the costs of renting out properties, which might push some landlords toward condo conversions or away from developing new units. That’s why it’s important to simultaneously make it cheaper and easier to build and renovate housing. As almost all urban economists have noted, the primary constraint on housing supply in America’s cities and suburbs is the regulatory morass that drives up the cost of developing and producing new homes and makes it nearly impossible for a landlord to extract multiple rents from a single lot by building multi-family housing.”

Black and Hispanic renters experience discrimination in almost every major American city

“In a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers found rampant racial discrimination in American rental markets — specifically, that property managers are less likely to respond to prospective Black and Hispanic tenants when they inquire about open listings.

Using a software bot, the economists sent inquiries from fake renters to 8,476 property managers in the 50 largest US metropolitan housing markets. The bot assigned names to fictitious renters that would indicate whether the race of the inquirer was white, Black, or Hispanic.

The bot found that names perceived to be white got a response 5.6 percentage points more than Black-sounding names, and 2.8 percentage points more than Hispanic-sounding names.”

“You might be familiar with résumé studies where researchers will send in identical résumés with just one thing changed, such as a 2003 study by economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan that showed résumés with names perceived as Black received 50 percent fewer callbacks than those with white-sounding names.”

San Francisco Considers Not One but Two Bills Legalizing ‘Missing Middle’ Housing Citywide. Both Have Flaws.

“In what might seem like a Christmas miracle come early, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is considering not one, but two, bills that would legalize lower density “missing middle” housing across the city.

Competing proposals introduced by Supervisors Gordon Mar and Rafael Mandelson would both allow the construction of four-unit homes (or fourplexes) on all residentially zoned land citywide. Combined with state-level reforms from earlier this year that make it easier to divide residential plots in half, both bills could theoretically allow up to eight primary residences where only one was permitted before.”

“Unfortunately, the two proposals also include micromanaging regulations that would lead to less missing middle housing being built than a more hands-off free-market approach would produce.

Mar’s bill would permit up to four units of housing on all current Residential House zones, which currently allow between one and three homes. That sounds like a pretty sweeping reform. But there’s a catch.

Mar’s bill would require the new units to be rented out or sold at rates that are affordable to someone making 100 percent of “area median income.” The San Francisco Chronicle, which first reported on the bill, notes that the current area median income in the city is $106,550 for a couple or $133,200 for a family of four.

Affordable monthly rent for a family making that amount of money would shake out to be $2,664, according to a press release from Mar’s office—$2,000 less than pre-pandemic market-rate rents for a typical two-bedroom apartment.”

“Consider what happened in Austin, Texas. In 2019, the city technically abolished single-family-only zoning when it created the Affordability Unlocked program, which allows developers to build larger projects with more units and fewer parking spaces in exchange for making the new homes affordable to lower-income people. Specifically, it allows the construction of up to eight units of housing in single-family-zoned areas. But to build those extra units, a developer would have to make as much as 75 percent of the new units affordable to people earning below area median income, include a certain number of two-bedroom units, and adopt a host of tenant protections.

As a result, few Affordability Unlocked projects have been built in single-family zones. Those that have required substantial subsidies from the city government.”

“Mandelman’s fourplex legalization bill looks like laissez faire in comparison. It allows the construction of fourplexes citywide, without any of the affordability requirements in Mar’s bill.

Nevertheless, it would require newly legal fourplexes to be built at densities no larger than what the city’s current zoning allows for three-unit homes. (Mar’s proposal has the same density restrictions.) According to Hamilton, that means Mandelman’s bill is more suited for permitting triplexes than the fourplexes it technically allows.”

Democrats have no plan to fight housing inflation

“Over the course of the pandemic, home prices have skyrocketed; the underlying issue is simply that there are not enough homes for the people who need them (in particular in the places where people need to live for their jobs). This supply crisis is forcing a growing number of people to bid on a small number of available homes, thus increasing prices.
But not all “housing investments” are created equal. Generally, there are two ways you can attack an affordability crisis: 1) You work to make the item itself less expensive (supply-side policies), or 2) You give people more money to be able to afford the item (demand-side policies).

Both have their place in policymaking. But if you pursue demand-side policies when you are facing a massive supply shortage, you end up increasing prices, not decreasing them. And the nation is facing an estimated 3.8 million unit shortage.”

“The major constraint on building housing in the places where people are demanding it the most is zoning laws. These laws restrict what kinds of homes can be built and where, and regulate the size of homes to the point that smaller or “starter” homes are becoming incredibly scarce. For instance, a law mandating that lots of land be no less than 4,000 square feet means that starter homes (smaller than 1,400 square feet) are illegal. The history behind these laws is complicated, but essentially they are a way for some homeowners to block change in their communities, and in their original form were a tool of segregationists.

Beyond even small, single-family homes, it is illegal in most of the United States to build duplexes or small apartment buildings that could bring down the cost of housing. The White House has repeatedly acknowledged this problem, but in the Build Back Better bill, Democrats have metaphorically thrown up their hands, abrogating responsibility for the driving force behind skyrocketing home prices.

The best way to have tackled this problem would have been to tie the dollars in the bipartisan infrastructure framework to zoning reform. Iowa law professor Greg Shill suggested tying existing highway dollars to zoning reform, quipping that “there’s no reason Iowans should be subsidizing a highway from Silicon Valley to SF when the Valley makes it illegal to build homes under $1M.”

Essentially, if California wants federal dollars to build highways or transit, it’s going to need to reform policies like parking minimums and minimum lot sizes to get it. Instead, states are being handed money from the federal government to construct transportation networks that exclude large swaths of the American public from using them.

The federal government has held highway funding hostage for other reasons in the past — notably was the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which “requires that States prohibit persons under 21 years of age from purchasing or publicly possessing alcoholic beverages as a condition of receiving State highway funds.” President Ronald Reagan also conditioned highway dollars on setting a national minimum speed limit; this was later repealed, which one study shows may have cost over 12,500 lives

If Democrats are serious about attacking housing inflation, they should put real money into incentivizing states to hold localities accountable. States are ultimately in control of local zoning policy “

Biden’s Build Back Better Plan Contains One Potentially Helpful Housing Program

“Homelessness is a major issue in the U.S., and is inherently intertwined with the cost of housing. In fact, in a recent poll, respondents from the 20 metro areas that experienced the largest population growth between 2010–2019 listed both the cost of housing and homelessness as their top two concerns, and by almost identical margins (86 and 87 percent, respectively). The average cost of rent has increased nearly 20 percent within the last year alone, and since 2001, in nearly every state, rents have risen at a faster rate than incomes.

But simply offering rental assistance without a simultaneous increase in the supply of housing would only serve to exacerbate the cost problem, as a larger amount of money would chase after the exact same amount of inventory. In fact, the U.S. is currently as many as 5 million houses short of meeting estimated demand.

Of the roughly $150 billion which the Build Back Better Act appropriates toward housing, more than half is put toward dubious use, via rental assistance programs. About a third of that portion, though, is specifically tailored toward the construction or rehabilitation of more affordable housing units to increase the overall supply, which could help drive down costs.”

“The Build Back Better Act does fund the establishment of a “competitive grant program,” the Unlocking Possibilities Program, to incentivize “streamlining regulatory requirements and shorten[ing] processes, [and] reform[ing] zoning codes.” As with any grant program, its efficacy will be dictated by its implementation, but with more than $4.26 billion appropriated, there is plenty of breathing room to potentially make a difference.

In an ideal scenario, of course, there would be as few zoning restrictions as possible, allowing developers to simply respond to the needs of the community without requiring the government’s stamp of approval. While public funding to incentivize a reduction or simplification of red tape is better than the status quo, it is still not a perfect solution.”

Developers Halt Projects, Mayor Demands Reform After St. Paul Voters Approve Radical Rent Control Ballot Initiative

“52 percent of voters approved Question 1, an ordinance that puts a hard annual 3 percent cap on rent increases. It makes no allowances for inflation or exemptions for vacant apartments and new construction that are typical in other rent control policies.

The new ordinance doesn’t go into effect until May 2022. Nevertheless, several real estate companies with large projects in the works have already announced that they’re pulling their permit applications.”

“In response to the developer freakout, freshly reelected Mayor Melvin Carter’s administration sent an email to the St. Paul City Council on Monday saying that while he supported “rent stabilization” as one necessary tool to make housing affordable, the new ordinance passed by voters could use some work.

“Allowing a reasonable return on investment is why virtually every other rent control ordinance in effect today exempts new construction,” reads the email. “The Mayor requests you consider an amendment to exempt new housing construction, which he will sign once it reaches his desk.”
That would make St. Paul’s new rent control policy more similar to those that exist in other states around the country.

Both California and Oregon, which passed statewide rent control ordinances in 2019, exempt buildings that are less than 15 years old from their price caps. New York’s long-standing rent stabilization law mostly applies to apartments built before 1974 or to newer units that received certain tax benefits.”

“Some economists have argued that even with exemptions for new construction, rent control policies still suppress the value of new buildings and thus deter some amount of new construction.”

“The 3 percent cap on annual rent increases is itself pretty strict. California and Oregon permit annual rent increases of 5 and 7 percent respectively. Allowable increases at rent-stabilized apartments in New York are typically much lower, and are often in the 1 to 2 percent range.
Both California and Oregon also allow landlords to factor inflation into rent increases. St. Paul’s ordinance makes no allowance for inflation, meaning that if prices rise more than 3 percent, landlords will effectively be required to lower the real rents that they charge. St. Paul’s ordinance also does not allow landlords to raise rents beyond that 3 percent cap for vacant units.

All of this could well encourage landlords to just get out of the rental market altogether and sell their properties to owner-occupiers. Rising home values in St. Paul, where prices have increased 12 percent in the last year, only make this option more attractive for landlords.

This is what happened in San Francisco where an expansion of preexisting rent controls led to a 15 percent reduction in the supply of rental housing, according to one 2018 study. That study found that incumbent tenants benefited handsomely from the limits on rent increases but that their windfall came “at the great expense of welfare losses from future inhabitants.”

Even if the city’s new ordinance is amended to exempt new construction, St. Paul renters, current and future, can expect a similar result.”

Congress isn’t going to save the housing market

“More than 580,000 Americans are homeless. The median sale price for a home has just surpassed $400,000. Homeownership is on the decline.

This, by all accounts, is a national emergency — and one House Democrats had proposed $330 billion to tackle as part of their Build Back Better plan. This package was both a once-in-a-generation investment and also barely enough to scratch the surface. Now, even those proposed investments are being cut down as part of negotiations over the final package.”

“some in Congress were willing to make substantial investments, very few were willing to tackle the fundamental problem that was making homes so expensive in the first place: lack of supply.

Yes, it’s easier to try to help people afford something expensive than to try and make it less expensive to begin with. But many of the policies that try to subsidize housing can actually make it more expensive. “What you really need if you want to lower those new home prices, is you need to build more homes — and there’s not that much of that in this bill,” says Paul Williams, a fellow at the Jain Family Institute.”

Vacant Homes Aren’t Making Cities Expensive

“The idea behind these vacancy taxes is two-fold. First, the financial penalty would incentivize the owners of empty homes—supposedly real estate speculators holding out for higher rents—to put their properties on the market. Second, the revenue from the tax could then be spent on affordable housing programs.”

“Yet a new report published on vacant properties in San Diego—one of the cities that is now considering a vacancy tax—suggests that any levy on empty units would do little to raise revenue or boost housing supply.
That report, published by the city’s Housing Commission (SDHC), used utility records to determine how many units in the city were left vacant for six months or more. (The study considered a unit unoccupied if its utility usage fell three standard deviations below a 60-month average.)

The SDHC obtained gas and electric records for 468,352 individual units from 2014 to 2019. During those five years, between 1,500 and 3,700 units were vacant for six months or more, giving the city a long-term vacancy rate of between .32 percent and .79 percent.

When examining water records, the SDHC study found 2,183 out of 252,324 units were potentially vacant for six months or more—a vacancy rate of .85 percent.

Contrary to what some politicians think, there isn’t a mass of hoarded homes that would be pushed onto the market by a vacancy tax.”

Berliners Endorse Creative New Housing Affordability Plan: Steal Buildings From Private Owners

“Tenants in newly seized units obviously benefit from the lower rents that would come from government ownership. Everyone else would be worse off, as they’d be forced to compete for a smaller share of private units.

This is in effect what happened with Berlin’s brief experiment with a law that froze rents at apartments built before 2014. Rents did indeed stop rising in regulated units, benefiting the tenants who lived in them. But prices shot up dramatically for unregulated units. (In April 2021 Germany’s constitutional court struck down Berlin’s rent control.)

The number of regulated units on the rental market also collapsed, while new listings for unregulated units weren’t enough to pick up the slack.

The rent control represented “a windfall to one group of tenants: those, whether rich or poor, who are already ensconced in regulated apartments,” wrote Bloomberg columnist Andreas Kluth in March. “Simultaneously, they hurt all other groups—especially young people and those coming from other cities—by all but shutting them out of the market.”

There is robust evidence that new housing, even expensive new housing, makes cities more affordable for everyone. Berlin’s leaders should consider ways to boost housing production so the city can continue to grow and thrive, instead of just redistributing existing units to benefit a minority of incumbent renters.”