Categories: Nato Green

Scraping the bottom of the barrel to argue against rent control

In November, California votes on Proposition 10. Opponents have deployed arguments so bizarre they don’t pass the straight face test for anyone not already tripping balls on molly.

Prop 10 would repeal Costa-Hawkins, the 1995 law that limits rent control. Costa-Hawkins prevents rent control on buildings built after 1995, or 1979 in San Francisco, which is why demolishing rent-controlled housing to build new housing is so contentious. It prohibits vacancy control—limiting how much rents can rise between tenants—which is why landlords have incentives to oust long-term tenants. It also prohibits rent control for condos and single-family homes, which is why evicting renters and converting apartments into condos is such an epidemic in San Francisco. New cities can pass rent control with these limitations, and are doing so at an accelerating pace. Prop 10 would remove these limits on the kind of rent control local governments can enact.

In a state that’s almost majority renters, you might think it uncontroversial that most renters cannot afford sudden drastic rent hikes, and there’s no reason other than greed for a landlord earning a tidy profit to impose such a rent hike. You might think that, but you’d be wrong.

In America, anything that’s not the most profit possible counts as a loss. That’s just accounting.

But these arguments against it…

“Rent control will stop housing construction.”

Rent control makes real estate less lucrative, so it would eat into potential developer profits and reduce future construction. But we curtail profits in many ways, like taxes, building codes, safety regulations, and construction worker labor standards. If developers could use slave labor to build five thousand ghost ships in a heap, they would. We limit private gain for social good frequently. So people who say that rent control would “kill” new construction are admitting they think helping California’s disproportionately non-white and non-rich tenant population to stabilize communities isn’t a worthy goal.

“Reform, don’t repeal, Costa-Hawkins.”

Tenant advocates should have negotiated a compromise on rent control rather than blanket Costa-Hawkins repeal. Except tenant advocates have no one to negotiate with. Last year Assemblyman Chiu introduced AB 1506 where compromise could have occurred, but the realtors killed it in committee. A statewide deal would be lovely, but business lobbies aren’t ready to compromise until a scarier version is threatening them.

“Wealthy NIMBY communities will react to repealing Costa-Hawkins by enacting a strict rent control regime to prevent apartment buildings.”

The argument is only plausible if you haven’t witnessed the power of the real estate lobby in action. Realtors and Wall Street landlords keep a vice grip on the Democratic Party. Passing Prop 10 would be a setback for them, not a final rout. They’ll still be around, delivering for their investors. Atherton doesn’t need rent control to keep people out.

“Weird anecdotes about wealthy tenants.”

According to the communists at the Census, the median household income of $47k for renters in California is about half that of homeowners. Less than 20% of renters in California make over six figures. So, sure, maybe there is one busboy with rent control who is now a multimillionaire surgeon who earns more than his landlord. But that hypothetical example that no one has ever actually encountered is not a good reason to keep the rest of California’s six million renting households miserable.

“What about the mom and pop landlords?”

Us mom and pop landlords, single parent landlords, mom and mom landlords, pop and pop landlords, childless landlords, and nonbinary landlords, just can’t make unlimited money under rent control. If we’re losing money, we can petition the local rent board.

With all California housing either unaffordable or on fire, the current system is untenable. The fight for rent control isn’t going away. Even if Prop 10 loses, every county and townwhere it performs well will see local rent control campaigns launched almost immediately.

What’s happening now is just picking the battlefields.

Nato Green is a writer and comedian. See him Monday for Riffer’s Delight at the Alamo Drafthouse, where he and Natasha Muse will be heckling FLASHDANCE.

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