I received an email from a reader over the weekend saying that my comments around rent control have been too critical, and that they are not doing proper justice to the challenges that renters face in today’s cities. I thought this was a fair comment and so I’d like to respond to it publicly on the blog.
But before I get into that, it’s worth saying that housing issues are incredibly complex. And I am certainly not professing to have all of the answers. In fact, part of the reason I write this blog is so that I can think critically about these topics and hear what other people have to say.
It is obvious that wages have not kept pace with home prices in many cities around the world. This is a problem. And so we can all agree that we need more economic opportunities, we need more housing, and we need more attainable housing. The question is how best to go about this.
Mechanisms like rent control and inclusionary zoning might seem like obvious solutions. Just cap rents and force developers to build affordable housing. Problem solved at no cost to anyone, right? It’s not that simple. Every intervention creates distortions in the market.
To give just one example, studies suggest that rent controls end up creating a misallocation of housing. Because if you are living in a rent controlled home and your rent is well below market, you are now heavily incentivized never to move. Even if you have an empty nest with 5 bedrooms, why would you?
Of course, there are other possible repercussions. Residential contracts are typically gross leases (though some utilities might be sub-metered and paid for by the tenant). This is in contrast to commercial leases where net leases are common and most, if not all, of the operating costs are passed through to the tenant.
Why this matters is that if your rents are capped but your utility costs, taxes, and other operating expenses are continuing to rise, you may run into a situation as a landlord where you can no longer afford to upkeep your building. And you’re certainly not going to invest in any new improvements if this is your situation.
Rent controls could also impact the supply of new housing by making it no longer feasible to build. This is similar to what we have seen with policies like inclusionary zoning. Just last month San Francisco went on the record saying that it’s going to rethink its inclusionary zoning policies because of a view that it is now choking off new housing supply.
And so herein lies one of our great housing challenges. We want more housing and we want more affordable housing. But depending on how we approach the latter, it could hurt the former, which ends up creating a viscous cycle.
Building new rental housing is very challenging in Toronto (and elsewhere). Typically the way the process goes for a developer is that you start by preparing a detailed development pro forma. This pro forma will then tell you that your new rental development is infeasible. And so you go back, convert it to a condominium development, and then it magically becomes feasible.
I am exaggerating, but only slightly. The point is that there are lots of developers out there who would love to build more rental housing — they just can’t make the math worth.
My goal with this post was to explain where I have been coming from with some of my past comments. I also used the opportunity to link to a number of my related posts. But I haven’t really put forward any possible solutions. I plan to do that in a follow-up post, and I think I’m going to call it “the definitive but crazy guide to creating more affordable housing.”
So if any of you have any crazy ideas, please send them over.