One needn’t read very much about public policy before coming across some statement to the effect that “bad economics makes good politics.” This statement is clearly untrue when good politics is defined as furthering mutually beneficial arrangements, as good economics is central to that task. But the statement is often true when good politics is defined as attracting 50%-plus-one votes on some issue or candidate, which is a much different standard, leaving plenty of room for government-imposed harms to be imposed on citizens.
Few issues reflect this divergence between “good” politics and bad economics more clearly than rent control. One of the most universally accepted propositions among economists is that rent control produces a host of adverse social consequences with its large involuntary redistribution of wealth and suppression of market prices as communicators of information and incentives. Despite that, it has been adopted as policy in many places and times — and now is a good time to revisit these issues, as efforts are currently underway in several states (including California, Oregon, Washington, and Illinois) to repeal existing statewide restrictions on rent control.
How Rent Control Destroys Value
Rent control takes a large portion of the value of residential properties from landlords. It does so by removing owners’ rights to accept offers willingly made by potential renters. And the value of the rights involved are large. For example, after Toronto imposed rent control in 1975, affected building values fell by 40% over five years, and a decade ago, such losses were estimated at $120 million annually in Santa Monica. A law like rent control, which can take half or more of each apartment’s value from the landlord, harms them just as much taking away half of their apartments, even though the latter is recognized as theft. Those stripped property values are given to current tenants, whose resulting bonanzas are shown by the fact that those under strict rent control almost never leave.
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