Santa Ana, a city in Orange County, CA near where I live, is considering implementing rent control. This is disturbing news to me, because basic economics principles and past failed efforts to control rent in other cities convince me that this effort, if implemented, will not only fail to solve the problem of expensive rent, but will make the problem worse.
A policy’s outcome is much more important than its intention, so we should never implement a policy just because the people who proposed it had good intentions. Of course we all want affordable rent, so the question is, how do we achieve that? If we want to make rent affordable, we have to look at the root cause: why is rent not affordable in Santa Ana right now? What led to this?
Rent control is like putting a bandage on a wound, it treats the symptom, not the root cause. That’s right, high rent is merely a symptom of some other poorly-instituted policy or restriction that cause a shortage in the number of housing units available per capita, so that’s what we ought to target if we wished to actually make a difference. There also exist other factors here that we cannot control, like the great California weather, which makes this a very ideal place for people to live in. We can’t change that, and as a result rent will always take up a higher percentage of people’s income here than it would in other places. With that said, we can still optimize the policies to make housing more affordable, if not cheap.
When rent is artificially kept low in certain units below what the market is willing to pay, that leads to a smaller amount of funds available in the economy which would have been invested in more housing. That in turn causes a lack of housing and an overall rise in housing costs. It also incentivizes wasteful use of land. That’s because if market forces naturally raise the cost of housing, people who can’t afford it have one of two options. Either they will find a roommate (which alleviates the economy of the need for one extra room, which is a win), or they will move into a smaller, more affordable space, also a win for the person and the system, because the person can continue to live, and it creates an opening for someone else in the economy, helping to maintain the cost of housing slightly lower. And that’s exactly what is supposed to happen when a city has a housing shortage, short of building more units. But if that cost is artificially kept low through rent control, they will stay in that space instead just because they can. While that might be great for the person who was lucky enough to get that rent-controlled space, that leads to less space available for the rest of the population, leading to a higher overall housing cost, based on the principle of supply and demand. And no, we cannot enforce rent control in every single unit, because the only way to make that happen is through subsidies. Nobody will invest in building or managing housing units in which they are only allowed to charge a fraction of the market rate for rent, because that means a loss of money for the investor unless their work is subsidized by the government. But keep in mind that every single dollar spent in subsidy has to be funded through taxes either now or in the future, and that money comes directly from people. So the effect of rent control, if gone far enough to build new rent-controlled living spaces, is that we will have taken money away from people through taxation, and into the pockets of investors, developers, and property managers.
I am from Tokyo, a city that has become a mega-metropolis while still maintaining affordable housing for people of all income levels, and it did that primarily by not restricting land development. When you allow the free market forces to determine how much housing should be built to meet the demands of the the industries in the city and what ought to be its price, miraculously, housing stays affordable for everyone. Some of my American friends who are used to living in gigantic living spaces according to Tokyo standards may say to me, “But you can’t get the same quality of life in Tokyo for the same price. Sure housing may be affordable, but you’re living in a much smaller place for what you pay compared to California.” And that’s exactly right! That is indeed the optimal (and only) way to keep housing costs low for everyone in a city with growing industries. And guess what, that doesn’t diminish people’s quality of lives as much as forcing people to move to far away suburbs only so they can commute into the city for two hours in their gas-guzzling SUVs. So maybe California has something to learn from Tokyo. Because I live in Orange County now, this is an issue I care about deeply. I too want it to be a place where housing is affordable for all people, no matter their income. I ask that policy makers carefully consider the impact of their decisions. Please make decisions based on sound data and logic, and not just on emotions.