Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Rent regulations

Thinking about the construction boom and the Rent Guidelines Board rent hike, I went back to a piece I did for Met Council refuting the claim that rent regulations artificially raise market rate rents. The key insights were two: 1) in New York, newly constructed apartments are not required to be regulated, so regulation doesn't add to the tight housing market (in fact, rent regs are one of the few incentives to construct in NYC); 2) deregulation doesn't flood the market with new apartments since evicted tenants don't leave the local pool of renters, and wherever they go they tighten the housing market there, displacing lower-income renters. 

Looking back, I'd want to explain explicitly why it is that displacement always shifts downward, and not just a musical chairs of apartments among renters. Deregulation eviction implies that the tenant can no longer meet the high market-rate rent. In a tight housing market, if they go to a lower-income neighborhood, they will find an apartment by displacing someone who was renting at a lower rate. The displaced renter does the same in the next lower-income neighborhood and so on.

[Update: on second thought I think I was right in the original, not as in the paragraph immediately above. Obviously deregulation evictions out of prime locations also allow high renters to move upward -- upward displacement. That displacement doesn't ease market rates: the evicted have created a tighter market down the line. On the other hand, if new upscale renters are entering the market from outside the pool, they would increase downward displacement pressure.]

Some of those deregulation-evicted tenants can pay higher rents than they'd been paying under regulation, just not quite as high as the market rent where they'd been. No one will seek a cheaper apartment -- if there was something cheaper suitable to them they'd have decamped long before deregulation. But some will seek apartments somewhat more expensive than what they'd been paying under regulation. So the only change in the economic equilibrium is the added funds available for rent among the deregulated. 

At the end of the day, deregulation increases the aggregate funds available for rents taken from whatever else the regulated tenants had been spending on in the economy. All of that increase goes to the landlords. Deregulation is just a pointless shift from the non real estate economy to landlords and a downward spiral of displacement, while more upscale renters flow into the city to raise the luxury rates. With more funds flowing into the real estate market, developers construct to meet those upscale renters, who then recreate the commercial economy in their own image, buying upscale items. 

So rent regulation is just a restriction on upscale real estate speculation and upscale commerce. It doesn't raise market rate rents, but actually dampens them. And it's good for non upscale commerce.

So here's the article. The point about the rent pool seems to have grown legs -- I've heard it repeated by lawyers as well New Yorkers on the street. 

Why Rent Regulations Don't Raise Market Rents 

June 2011

"If rent decontrol would mean a fairer, less insane market, then it is a just cause," the libertarian-conservative Cato Institute argues.

In every debate over rent regulations, someone—often an angry tenant paying outrageous rent—argues that regulations are responsible for pushing market-rate rents way up. If those regulated rents were brought into the free market, the market would level down, allowing a fair rent for all.

This argument has had wide currency among conservatives in their effort to undermine rent regulation and promote developers and landlords, the market suppliers in the real-estate industry. It appeals directly to people who, bitter over their heavy rent burden, welcome a convenient scapegoat: their own neighbors. And the authority, the landlord, is conveniently exculpated.
This argument is false. It is based on these premises:
1) Rent regulation discourages housing construction, restricting housing availability;
2) landlords make up their losses on regulated rents by gouging market-rate renters; and
3) deregulation would level the playing field, lowering high rents

Its conclusions have been demonstrated to be empirically, factually untrue. It is time to put this claim to rest.

Let's start with the basics. Not only conservative think tanks like the Cato Institute, but the consensus of economists, even the liberal Paul Krugman, accuse rent regulation of discouraging new housing construction. Without new apartment units, the supply can't keep up with demand, and fierce competition for the few remaining units pushes market rates up.

Their observations are true where rents for new construction are regulated. But in New York, it isn't.

New construction is exempt from rent regulation in New York. Building new affordable housing is entirely voluntary in New York, and developers only provide it where the city gives them special incentives, such as allowing construction beyond the zoning restrictions or giving tax breaks. In fact, rent regulation encourages new construction, as the Citizens Budget Commission has pointed out, since new units can garner far higher rents than older regulated units. If landlords can't cash in on regulated units, the only other means to make money is to build new, unregulated units. Rent regulation is an incentive for construction.

The difficulty of building in the city has many causes—the cost of land and construction, restrictive zoning laws, building codes, permits and bids, and, not least, the private and political graft involved. Nevertheless, New York continues to see housing construction. Even during the recession year of 2008, the city issued 33,911 permits for new housing, the greatest number since 1972. In a city of obstacles to construction, rent regulation is one of the few encouragements to build.

The second premise contends that if landlords can't raise regulated rents, they will raise rents on unregulated units to make up for the lost revenue. Unfortunately for the landlords, the free market doesn't work that way.
Market rates depend on renters' willingness to pay, not on owners' costs or losses. Rents can't rise above what renters are willing and able to pay, and the nature of the profit motive ensures that market-rate rents will rise exactly to that level of renter willingness, regardless of what other renters are paying.
In a city where construction lags behind demand, it may be legitimate to ask whether deregulation would free up apartments and ease the market down—the third false premise. Quite aside from the consequences of displacing individuals or even whole communities, the answer is a surprising no.

Rent deregulation, believe it or not, raises market-rate rents. The conservative Manhattan Institute, in its 2003 study of deregulation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, found that, following deregulation, landlords invested in improvements to attract the highest possible market-rate renters. The result of the 1994 deregulation in Massachusetts has been better-quality housing, but higher market rents across the board.

That shouldn't be surprising. A tight housing market implies that many renters can't find apartments in their preferred locations. That's the meaning of a housing crunch. Renters can't find the spaces they want, and the ones they have to live in become overpriced. But when vacancies appear, those renters are willing to pay exorbitant rents for the locations they prefer, and landlords will meet their willingness.

The market value depends on three general factors: demand, supply, and the aggregate available funds for rents. If regulated renters are paying less than their available rent funds (the excess of which presumably goes into the goods and services economy), when they are forced to pay more, it will increase the aggregate funds going to landlords as rents, since most of those renters are tied to the metropolitan area by work, family, or preference. If their rents are deregulated, these people will force rents up wherever they go in the metropolitan area.

That's a recipe for disaster. When renters can't afford their location as a result of deregulation, they move to lower-rent neighborhoods, where they create a tighter rent market, raising the rents there and even gentrifying the area. Some of the longtime renters in those neighborhoods will be priced out and move to even lower-income neighborhoods, tightening those locations in turn.

More affluent longtime renters will see their rent increases as an opportunity to move to a more desirable location. But wherever they go, landlords will raise their rents as high as they are willing to pay. If the market is tight and people are not leaving the metropolitan area, the market rates will remain high.

Market rates only go down if demand goes down—if people leave the city entirely or excess housing is built. But New York's population is increasing, not decreasing, and construction is costly and difficult. Deregulation here will not ease the market any more than it did in the Boston area.

It's not even certain that in a tight market like New York, landlords would invest widely in improvements, as they did in Boston and Cambridge. Unregulated renters have few rights, so if they complain to the city about lack of services or repairs, the landlord can retaliate by refusing to renew their lease when it expires. Regulated renters can compel repairs without that fear. So it is possible that deregulation in a tight market would result in lowered quality of housing and a degrading of services, as well as higher market rents. That's exactly what happened in New York when vacancy decontrol was imposed in 1971.

Regulated rents actually help to depress market rates. Renters who pay exorbitant rents may think it's unfair that regulated tenants pay so much less than they do, but the source of exorbitant rents is not regulation. It is landlords' profit motive and New Yorkers' desire to live here. We are the market that sustains high rents.

So what is the effect of deregulation? It provides a cheaper means of placing money into landlords' hands than construction does. The chief effect of deregulation is an increase in the aggregate funds available for rents. It doesn't ease the market, it won't improve the quality of housing in New York, and it won't create more housing. It will give more money to landlords, it will raise rents all over the city, and it will wreak havoc on communities as markets are tightened even in low-income neighborhoods, causing a spike in gentrification and displacement.

Rent regulation does create an unfairness—the lucky get to spend their money on the local economy, not just on rent, while their market-rate neighbors have to suffer. But forcing everyone to suffer doesn't solve the suffering of the overpriced. It just makes life worse for everyone. Two wrongs don't make a right. Deregulation is a lose-lose. 


Anonymous said...

If someone writes a blog but no one reads it, is it still a blog ?

joe said...

I was not familiar with the Cato-libertarian position on rent regulation apart from generalities about favoring market forces over government intervention. So I found your critique both enlightening and politically useful. Thanks for posting it to your blog.

rob said...

There is broad consensus among economists left and right that rent regulations are bad for the housing market, and this consensus is consistently tossed into the discussion of NYC regulation, where it doesn't apply -- new construction is not required to be regulated.

Even affordable housing advocates fail to appreciate the economic difference. Met Council and Tenants and Neighbors resist deregulation solely on the grounds that it will raise rents on stabilized renters. That argument feeds into a purely selfish us-vs-them entrenched battle between angry market-rate renters and protected renters, prioritizing one renter over another. And it feeds the "welfare queen" image of regulated renter. Rhetorically it's a losing battle.

Tenant advocates have never, so far as I know, taken on the economic argument against rent regulations. At most they'll argue that if landlords want deregulation, it must be bad for renters. That's not much of an analysis. Does a disservice to the ordinary renter who needs amunition against the angry market-rate tenants who blame their exorbitent rents on (their false perception of) the supply effects of rent regulations.

It's ironic because the argument against regulation simply doesn't apply to NYC, and yet the advocates have never bothered to look into it. Us-vs-them is an appropriate model for labor battles -- the forces are starkly distinguished not only by quantity (wealth) but by quality (ownership, class, privilege) -- but stabilized tenants and market-rate tenants are distinguished only by first-come-first-served, which has never appealed as justice but only as a last-ditch means of settling dispute.

Movements are most effective when they identify their allies and avoid alienating potential enemies. Regulation advocates so far have succeeded in alienating market-rate renters. It's unnecessary.