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Rent Control

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The usual discussion among people interested in cities is that rent control doesn’t work. I don’t know the literature enough to have a strong opinion on the matter. But I thought Jake Blumgart’s piece an interesting defense of the practice:

But a comprehensive review of literature by New York housing lawyer Timothy Collins found that the received wisdom regarding rent regulations is overly simplistic—partially because hard ceilings on rents are often imagined, while the reality is more often (as in New York’s case) a more measured approach meant to discourage landlords from dramatically raising rents and displacing tenants.

Collins argues that New York’s two largest building booms took place during times of strict rent controls: the 1920s and the post-war period between 1947 and 1965. (He is not arguing that the regulations provoked the building, just that they didn’t restrain it in the same way strict zoning codes did in the mid-1960s.)

“New York’s moderate rent regulations have had few, if any, of the negative side effects so confidently predicted by industry advocates,” Collins writes. “More important, rent regulations have been the single greatest source of affordable housing for middle‐ and low‐income households. I should note that many of these findings came as a surprise to me. When I first joined the Rent Guidelines Board staff in 1987, I believed that rent regulations in New York City probably did have some long‐term harmful effects. I was proven wrong.”

Outside the city, one economist found that housing construction in New Jersey fell by 52 percent in cities that enacted rent control regulations in the early 1970s—but fell 88 percent in those that didn’t. The policy also did not affect the landlords’ desire to keep their properties in good condition. One study from 1988 found that “there is no basis for economists’ strongly-held belief that rent control leads to worse maintenance.”

Again, I don’t know. Citing “one study from 1988” does not inspire a ton of confidence. But at least it’s an argument worth having and perhaps reconsidering or at least reevaluating the consensus that rent control is always a terrible idea and that it is a major factor in restricting the building of new housing in cities where it exists.

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