Perverse Sentimentalism Part 2: Rent Control Effort On the Move

I wrote about how the Seattle Weekly reported the story of a candidate for the City Council of Issaquah being “priced out” of his own community; a candidate and a city council that believes that building more housing makes it more expensive. The story of rent control is essentially the same, a movement that supports a policy that will result in greater housing scarcity in the face of rising demand. Proponents of rent control argue, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that rent control will somehow help poor people. Like the Issaquah Councilman it sort of makes sense since, for him, since new housing units on the market weren’t priced for him, therefore new housing just makes all housing more expensive. For angry rent control advocates, rent control does two things: punishes land lords and ends price increases by fiat. But just like Issaquah’s moratorium will make things worse for housing prices, rent control might feel good, but it will hurt the very people it intends to help.

The Stranger has given up any pretense of reporting about the issue of rent control. It’s recent post on a weird protest at what it calls a “landlord convention” reads matter a factly. There wasn’t any response or comment by anyone in the housing world except a reference to Carl Haglund being at the convention where there was a protest. Even my debate with Councilmember is airbrushed (I’m referred to as a “developer lobbyist”) cited parenthetically as if the debate was had and won.

What’s weird is that The Stranger doesn’t even bother to name the actual event, the TRENDS Rental Housing Management Conference and Trade Show, hardly a “landlord convention.” The event is more like a trade show with people marketing to building managers and others in the property management business. Attendees at the conference are from all over the state and might own a property or work for a company that sells shower curtains, not exactly a diabolical group.

Instead, the post just makes the political case for rent control.

Outside, advocates and elected officials spoke in support of repealing the statewide ban on rent control and increasing protections for renters.

“This is a racial justice issue. This is a gender justice issue,” said newly elected Seattle City Council member Teresa Mosqueda. “The majority of us who are renters are women and people of color.”

What’s interesting about this is that The Stranger is and will likely be the drumbeat in the months ahead, “reporting” the discussion in Olympia and at City Hall about rent control like a party organ, giving a blow by blow of how the effort to get rent control is going. The debate about the merits of rent control is over, the question now is whether the legislature will pass something to allow the City Council to act.

This matters because those most likely aggrieved about their monthly rent in Seattle live in the most densely apartmented area in Seattle, Capitol Hill. It’s this audience that would benefit the most from a discussion about what would ensue if rent control was passed: continued higher prices, less housing production, people being stuck in rent controlled apartments, black markets in housing, and deferred maintenance. Just last month, Stanford University published just the latest of hundreds of studies attributing price increases and “gentrification” to the rent control policy. Here’s part of the study’s conclusion:

In sum, we find that impacted landlords reduced the supply the available rental housing by 15 percent. Consistent with this evidence, we find that there was a 20 percent decline in the number of renters living in impacted buildings, relative to 1990-1994 levels, and a 30 percent decline in the number of renters living in units protected by rent control.

As I’ve said before, Councilmember Sawant and rent control advocates cheer this conclusion. Why? Because it yet again proves to them the problem is greed and that capitalism doesn’t work. When property owners act in ways to protect themselves economically because of bad policy, those rational actions are considered evidence that the controls aren’t strong enough. “Of course rent control isn’t working in San Francisco,” they’ll say, “because the controls aren’t strong enough.” The goal: state control of all housing.

The economic chaos created by rent control oddly serves the advocates claims because all housing issues are attributable not to economics or policy but greed, period. And the only way to eliminate greed is through government control. Like the Issaquah City Council banning housing to make prices go down, rent control ensures that the intended outcome of the intervention — lower prices — won’t happen. And because of the stubborn conceptual framework around the housing discussion, the only answer is more of the same medicine. It will be up to everyone who really cares about solving housing challenges to push back on all this.

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