Los Angeles, home to one of the least affordable housing markets in North America, is now proposing to expand rent control to "fix" its housing problem.
As with all price control schemes, rent control will serve only to make housing affordable to a small sliver of the population while rendering housing more inaccessible to most.
Specifically, city activists hope that a new bill in the state legislature, AB1506, will allow local governments, Los Angeles included, to expand the number of units covered by rent control laws while also restricting the extent to which landlords can raise rents.
Currently, partial rent control is already in place in Los Angeles and landlords there are limited in how much they can raise rents on current residents. However, according to LA Weekly, landlords are free to raise rents to market levels for a unit once that unit turns over to new residents.
This creates a situation of perverse incentives that do a disservice to both renters and landlords. Under normal circumstances, landlords want to minimize turnover among renters because it is costly to advertise and fill units, and it's costly to prepare units for new renters. (Turnover is also costly and inconvenient for renters.)
By limiting rent growth for ongoing renters, however, this creates an incentive for landlords to break leases with residents — even residents who the landlords may like — just so the landlords can increase rents for new incoming renters in order to cover their costs of building maintenance and improvements. The only upside to this current regime is that at least this partial loophole still allows for some profit to be made, and thus allows for owners to produce and improve housing some of the time.
But, if this loophole is closed, as the "affordable housing" activists hope to do, we can look forward to even fewer housing units being built, current units falling into disrepair, and even less availability of housing for residents.
Why Entrepreneurs Bring Products to Market
The reason fewer units will be built under a regime of harsher rent control, is because entrepreneurs (i.e., producers) only bring goods and services to market if they can be produced at a cost below the market price.
Contrary to the myth perpetuated by many anti-capitalists, market prices — in this case, rents — are not determined by the cost of producing a good or service. Nor are prices determined by the whims of producers based on how greedy they are or how much profit they'd like to make.
In fact, producers are at the mercy of the renters who — in the absence of price controls — determine the price level at which entrepreneurs must produce housing before they can expect to make any profit.
However, when governments dictate that rent levels must be below what would have been market prices — and also below the level at which new units can be produced and maintained — then producers of housing will look elsewhere.
Henry Hazlitt explains many of the distortions and bizarre incentives that emerge from price control measures:
"The effects of rent control become worse the longer the rent control continues. New housing is not built because there is no incentive to build it. With the increase in building costs (commonly as a result of inflation), the old level of rents will not yield a profit. If, as often happens, the government finally recognizes this and exempts new housing from rent control, there is still not an incentive to as much new building as if older buildings were also free of rent control. Depending on the extent of money depreciation since old rents were legally frozen, rents for new housing might be ten or twenty times as high as rent in equivalent space in the old. (This actually happened in France after World War II, for example.) Under such conditions existing tenants in old buildings are indisposed to move, no matter how much their families grow or their existing accommodations deteriorate."
"Rent control ... encourages wasteful use of space. It discriminates in favor of those who already occupy houses or apartments in a particular city or region at the expense of those who find themselves on the outside. Permitting rents to rise to the free market level allows all tenants or would-be tenants equal opportunity to bid for space."
Not surprisingly, when we look into the current rent-control regime in Los Angeles, we find that newer housing is exempt, just as Hazlitt might have predicted. Unfortunately, housing activists now seek to eliminate even this exemption, and once these expanded rent controls are imposed, those on the outside won't be able to bid for space in either new or old housing.
Newcomers will be locked out of all rent-controlled units — on which the current residents hold a death grip — and they can't bid on the units that were never built because rent control made new housing production unprofitable. Thus, as rent control expands, the universe of available units shrinks smaller and smaller. Renters might flee to single-family rental homes where rent increases might still be allowed, or they might have to move to neighboring jurisdictions that might not have rent controls in place.
In both cases, the effect is to reduce affordability and choice. By pushing new renters toward single-family homes this makes single-family homes relatively more profitable than multifamily dwellings, thus reducing density, and robbing both owners and renters of the benefits of economies of scale that come with higher-density housing. Also, those renters who would prefer the amenities of multifamily communities are prevented from accessing them. Meanwhile, by forcing multi-family production into neighboring jurisdictions, this increases commute times for renters while forcing them into areas they would have preferred not to live in the first place.
But, then again, for many local governments — and the residents who support them — fewer multifamily units, lower densities, and fewer residents in general, are all to the good. After all, local government routinely prohibit developers from developing more housing through zoning laws, regulation of new construction, parking requirements, and limitations on density.
And these local ordinances, of course, are the real cause of Los Angeles's housing crisis. Housing isn't expensive in Los Angeles because landlords are greedy monsters who try to exploit their residents. Housing is expensive because a large number of renters are competing for a relatively small number of housing units.
And why are there so few housing units? Because the local governments usually drive up the cost of housing. As this report from UC Berkeley concluded:
"In California, local governments have substantial control over the quantity and type of housing that can be built. Through the local zoning code, cities decide how much housing can theoretically be built, whether it can be built by right or requires significant public review, whether the developer needs to perform a costly environmental review, fees that a developer must pay, parking and retail required on site, and the design of the building, among other regulations. And these factors can be significant – a 2002 study by economists from Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania found strict zoning controls to be the most likely cause of high housing costs in California."
Contrary to what housing activists seem to think, declaring that rents shall be lower will not magically make more housing appear. Put simply, the problem of too little housing — assuming demand remains the same — can be solved with only one strategy: producing more housing.
Rent control certainly won't solve that problem, and if housing advocates need to find a reason why so little housing is being built, they likely will need to look no further than the city council.