Viewpoints

Joe Mathews: Rent control isn’t the solution to California’s housing shortage

A contractor moves roofing material on a home under construction in San Ramon in January. Joe Mathews says rent control isn’t going to solve California’s housing shortage.
A contractor moves roofing material on a home under construction in San Ramon in January. Joe Mathews says rent control isn’t going to solve California’s housing shortage. Bloomberg

Rent control won’t solve California’s housing problems. But 2016 threatens to become the Year of Rent Control, as cities, many in the Bay Area, seek to enact or strengthen laws that limit how much landlords may raise rents.

In San Jose, multiple proposals to tighten rent controls are being debated in the City Council; some could go to the ballot. A ballot initiative to cap rent increases was just filed in Oakland. In San Diego, a tenants’ movement wants to establish new rent controls.

The attention to rent control is understandable – and unhelpful. Rent control is a policy that, as libraries full of research demonstrate, doesn’t accomplish its avowed purpose to make more affordable housing available.

As the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office showed in a 2015 report, the heart of our housing shortage is that Californians have long failed to build anywhere close to enough new housing to accommodate the number of people who live here. In this decade, just one new housing unit has been approved for every five new Californians.

The reasons are many and related: community resistance, environmental regulation, a lack of fiscal incentives for local governments and high costs of land and construction. Given all those barriers, today’s debate over rent control seems beside the point.

If rent control lowers prices and produces stability for tenants, as its supporters claim, why are cities with rent control – among them Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, San Francisco, Santa Monica and West Hollywood – so expensive?

On the other side of the question, opponents of rent control sound ridiculous when they warn that it discourages new construction, especially since state law exempts new buildings. Almost all California cities don’t have rent control and still have housing shortages.

The real import of the rent control debate is as a reminder of California’s civic disease: Our tendency to embrace complicated formulas (rent control laws often have multi-step formulas to figure out how much a rent should be) as ways to dodge the hard work of democratically solving tough problems.

It’s instructive that rent control’s history is deeply intertwined with the ultimate dodgy California formula, Proposition 13, the constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1978. One of its false promises was that saving property owners money on their taxes would reduce rents. So when rents soared after the amendment passed, liberal cities began to install rent control ordinances that, like Prop. 13, didn’t lead to lower rents.

And just as Prop. 13 keeps taxes lower the longer you stay in your home, rent control grants special privileges to the older and more stable among us, regardless of actual financial need. That is the maddening tragedy of 21st-century California: A place that once defined the new is now organized to favor the old and the established.

California has more than its share of poor people who need more stable lives. The best approach would be not formulas but robust support – including transportation, health care, child care and cash – for poor people wherever they can find opportunity. And, of course, more housing.

In a state devoted to anti-tax formulas that don’t keep taxes low and education guarantees that don’t guarantee enough money for schools, it’s no surprise that rent control laws are getting attention. But let’s not pretend that rent control is anything other than another way of pretending to address our housing problems.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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