Rent control: New name, same aim

April 12, 2022:- Rent control has a new moniker: It now identifies as “rent stabilization.” You know when a policy is unpopular when its advocates give it a new name. Even today, when face-masking, mind-closing, and line-toeing are all the rage among the bien pensant, a policy with the word “control” right there in the title just doesn’t sit well, I guess.

But the reason for the policy’s unpopularity is not the name but the aim. And what is the aim of rent stabilization (née rent control)? An article in Jacobin explains. It has the headline “New York Needs Universal Rent Control Now,” and a sub-headline that tells you why: “Rent control can build tenant power and undermine the logic of speculative neighborhood investments.”

The phrase “undermine the logic of speculative neighborhood investments” is a reasonably to-the-point way of expressing the idea “abolish private property.” You can count on a forthright explanation from a magazine named after the movement that was responsible for the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution.

Lest readers doubt that the editor responsible for writing the headlines and sub-headlines at Jacobin got it wrong, here is a quote from the article itself:

By discouraging speculation and lowering the value of investment properties, it lays the groundwork for an expansion of alternative housing models, like social housing and community land trusts. 

Discouraging speculation? That speaks for itself, as does “lowering the value of investment properties.” Similarly, the expansion of social housing (in plain English, government housing) and community land trusts (in plain English, government housing) means the contraction of something else, i.e. privately owned housing.

Why is this expressly Statist, anti-market policy of rent stabilization (née rent control) back on the political agenda in Massachusetts and elsewhere? In short, because the politics of the people who write for Jacobin are the politics of the people who are setting the agenda for the Democratic Party in Massachusetts, namely the supporters of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

DSA stalwart State Representative Mike Connolly of Cambridge has a bill, H. 1378, that includes an option for towns and cities to enact rent control. The Joint Committee on Housing is scheduled to vote on it next month.

Myself, I believe that affordable good-quality housing is more likely to emerge through markets than through policies such as rent control. That is a belief that some committed socialists share, and it is exactly why they want rent control. From the perspective of a dedicated revolutionary, if rent control reduces the amount of affordable housing, thereby exacerbating the situation, fomenting discontent, and stimulating revolutionary conditions, so much the better.

From the standpoint of the true socialist, in the long run no housing reforms are safe without a wholesale socialist transformation of society.

But reasonable people who wish to address the need for more affordable housing (and are not revolutionary socialists or even gradualist socialists) may find the arguments for and against rent control evenly poised. They may be on the fence about it.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose rent control (click here for a few) but here’s one that the fence-sitters might — just might — think about:

Rent control artificially reduces housing units’ value, forcing housing providers to offer their properties at below-market rates. This dramatically reduces developers’ incentive to construct new units, as the artificially deflated rental market offers a lower return on investment. In cities that implement rent control, new construction decreases dramatically, producing substantial declines in the availability of rental housing.

That’s a quote from an op-ed by Drew Hamrick, senior vice president of government affairs and general counsel for the Colorado Apartment Association, writing in Colorado Politics. The bill Mr. Hamrick opposes would impose rent control on Colorado’s mobile-home parks.

Yes, it’s not just Massachusetts. Even in Colorado — longtime home of Hunter S. Thompson, birthplace of Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, and where it is illegal to lend your vacuum cleaner to your neighbor — questionable ideas sometimes find their way onto the agenda.

To be fair, the socialists have a response to people like Drew Hamrick. To the claim that rent control reduces the amount of new rental housing, they say “oh no it doesn’t.” For an article in Jacobin countering the pro-private property argument with data, click here. For arguments from the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute in favor of private ownership and against rent control, also with data, click here.

Please do me a favor and read the arguments for and against rent control.

As a former socialist whose mind changed after much experience, reading, and reflection, I am grateful for the liberty to read works that express ideas that differ from my own. Of course, that very liberty depends entirely on another liberty: the liberty to own and sell property. If one entity (the State) controls your ability to make the money with which you can buy food, shelter, and whatever else you need and desire, your ability to criticize that entity will be very constrained. Without that liberty to criticize through writing and speech, dissent sounds like this. And that, fundamentally, is why rent control is a bad policy.