Rent control has long been a poster child for the law of unintended consequences. Yes, it holds down rents for one group of tenants, but it tends to raise them for the rest. It gives landlords an incentive to skimp on building maintenance. It discourages mobility, reducing housing availability. By far the most damaging of all, rent control pushes existing housing out of the rental market while making it harder to build the new housing that California so badly needs.
The flaws surrounding rent control are no secret, a major reason why it largely went into reverse after its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s (San Francisco being an obvious exception).
Prop. 10, on November’s ballot, is intended to usher in a new era of rent control across California. But Prop. 10 addresses none of rent control’s underlying flaws; indeed, it adds complications of its own.
Prop. 10 embraces the “local control” that underpins California’s housing shortage: More than 500 cities and counties each could adopt virtually any form of rent control they liked, with few standards or limits. It could, for example, be extended to single-family homes. “Vacancy control” could freeze old rents even for a new tenant.
That’s where Prop. 10’s biggest danger comes into focus. If future returns on residential construction are tightly constricted, but costs are not, thousands of units of new housing would become financially infeasible. They wouldn’t receive loans or investment, so they won’t get built. (Wall Street analysts, paid to get forecasts right, have already started marking down stocks of California homebuilders, citing risks that rent control will roll back production.)
Make no mistake: Rents rising at the rate they have in recent years are an urgent and serious issue. Rising rents impose a severe financial hardship on millions. They contribute to displacement and gentrification while they depress the quality of life for those forced to live long distances from jobs.
If Prop. 10 was a stopgap to provide breathing room while we undertake the only real solution to the housing crisis — a massive, sustained building effort — we’d support it. Likewise, if its costs as well as its benefits were broadly shared, it would be worthy of consideration.
Prop. 10 is neither. It’s not intended as a complement to housebuilding at scale, but as an alternative to it. It’s an illusory opportunity to deny the causes of our underlying reality, to kick the can down the road and hand the bill to someone else. Vote no.