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New Roofs or Old Ceilings?

Under Corbyn, Labour announced its bid to combat high rents through old-style rent ceilings. If we look back across history we see these have had many unintended consequences. Often we have found the introduction and continuance of rent controls have done more harm than good. So should Labour continue to embrace such a policy?

We know rent legislation cannot cure housing shortages. Rather, regulations such as rent ceilings merely mitigate the effects by giving comfort to sitting tenants – at the expense of prospective tenants. All too often we see false views on rent control spill over from popular misconceptions into apparently learned debates. It is for this reason why Labour must resign rent ceilings to housing history and focus on the real problems at hand.

History shows Rent Controls are Bad

In Britain we have recognised the damage done by rent controls as far back as The Rent Act in 1957. Where at the time we witnessed expensive properties freed from such regulations. Why? Because old-style rent ceilings foster dilapidation of housing stock, encourage immobility, and distort land-use patterns. It simply makes housing worse.

Originally the introduction of rent ceilings sought to protect tenants from rent rises caused by war-time shortages. Often caused by bombing. Yet many places have seen them retained and enforced ever since. Their perception as a temporary measure were often short lived, almost always becoming destructively permanent.

Late Swedish socialist economist Assar Lindbeck once said “rent controls appears to be the most efficient technique presently know to destroy a city – except for bombing”

An unsurprising statement when the average waiting time for a rent-controlled unit in Sweden is 11 years. In Sweden keeping rents low for a small section of renters sees tenants hold onto property they no longer wish to live in. Rent regulation incentivises lucky rent regulated tenants to sublet in the black market, often for a significant profit. One would argue this is hardly a socialist panacea.

Price Signals Allow Markets to Respond

Back in 1906 an earthquake hit San Francisco. Subsequent fires destroyed thousands of acres of buildings in the heart of the city. It resulted in 225,000 people becoming homeless. The city of 400,000 lost more than half its housing in three days. Yet market driven construction of new homes put roofs over many earthquake victims heads. In effect developers were able to respond to market demand through rising price signals.

Nevertheless, each remaining household still had to shelter 40% more people than it did before the quake. So what do you think the first local paper observed following the earthquake – a huge housing shortage surely? No, in fact the first San Francisco chronicle following the earthquake made no mention of housing shortage at all.

The market had responded and there was over three times more homes available to rent than advertised for sale. Just goes to show what can be achieved by the market without rent controls having distorting effects on new supply.

Rent Controls Deter New Construction

Contrast this to 1946, where the San Francisco population had increased from 635,000 by 200,000. All over a six-year period. By comparison, the number of dwellings had only increased by a fifth. While in 1906 the city had to shelter 40% more people than before the earthquake, by 1946 the city only had to accommodate around 10-12% more than before the war. This did not stop the Governor at the time going on record to describe the housing shortage “as the most critical problem facing California”. But what was so different?

In 1906 higher rents could signal to the market to build new construction. However, by 1946 imposing rent ceilings made this method of stimulating supply for rental homes illegal. The result? 730 houses listed for sale for every 10 homes listed for rent. The absence of a ceiling on selling homes, in conjunction with a ceiling on rents, had considerably distorting effects. It meant that prices were to rise as a large and increasing demand encountered a relatively fixed supply.

This meant many landlords ended up selling at inflated market prices, rather than renting to tenants with a price ceiling. Rentals effectively become almost impossible to find. At least at legal rent levels. Rich people with money still found plenty of homes to buy. Ceilings on rent provide the rich an advantage to satisfy their housing needs. Restrictions on rent only make this condition worse. We must also recognise that during this time incomes in San Francisco had doubled in comparison to levels before the war. This allowed people to pay more in rent even though legally they did not have to, exacerbating the proliferation of the black market.

Rent Controls Reduce Mobility and Increase Unemployment

Research by Joseph Schumpeter on unemployment recognises the correlation between lack of labour mobility and structural unemployment. In turn, rent controls artificially create more pressures on cities, notably because inhibiting rent increases puts a brake on the natural drift out to towns. We know more people leave London for the rest of the UK, than move from other places in the country to the capital. This is primarily due to relative affordability.

Studies from San Francisco by Stanford University shows rent control limits renters’ mobility by 20% and lowers displacement, which comes at the expense of a reduction in rental housing supply by 15%. Rent controls lead to a less mobile workforce, more structural unemployment, and less supply. No doubt hampering the economy and increasing state borrowing unnecessarily.

Rent Controls are Denigrated Across the Political Spectrum

Notwithstanding the above, rent control is considered the least contentious area of economics and  is widely denigrated by economists from around the world. The agreement cuts across the political spectrum, from Hayek and Friedman agreeing on the “right”, to architect of the Swedish Labour Part’s welfare state Gunnar Myrdal on the “left”. It has literally been no longer a debate within the profession for a considerable length of time.

Rent Stabilisation is Ineffective

Maureen Corcoran has reflected on Germany’s rent regulation through its local rent index, arguing regulation improves affordability and transparency. But we have seen since Germany has moved to stricter rent control, with a 5-year rent ceiling, finding new rental property has become increasingly difficult. Rent stabilisation typically has more flexibility and freedom around having an ability to change tenant than old style rent ceilings. For example, if you make repairs, you can increase rents. Labour has mooted such types of control in the past, but we know these too still do more harm than good.

In New York rent stabilisation has ‘luxury de-control’, akin to the 1957 Rent Act in the UK. If a rent gets to a particular level, then it can leave the rent stabilisation regime all together. Professor Ingrid Ellen of NYU argues that outside of Manhattan rent stabilisation does not have that big of an effect on the market. She argues apartments can often be as close as $200 a part in terms of median market rental levels, in comparison to rent stabilised rents. This suggests even modern versions of rent ceilings remain ineffective for the most part.

The Evidence is Overwhelming: Rent Ceilings are Bad

Developers essentially end up wanting to build less, which can’t be a good thing. The rules in New York meant you typically did not have rent stabilised levels on new lettings, which was one way the rules tried to avoid such an issue. But still, what you saw in post-war New York was the conversion of a lot of rental apartment blocks into condominiums for home ownership. Once again, resulting in a net loss of rental stock. Lower supply means higher prices.

Thankfully, recent studies continue to put the rent control question to bed. In August 2020 by Thao Le, Edward Coulson, and Lily Shen published ‘Tenant Rights, Eviction, and Rent Affordability’. The paper demonstrated that for every one-unit increase in the toughness of rent control, evictions are reduced by almost 9%. It found rental housing costs becomes 6% more expensive where tenants have more protection against landlords through regulation. While a higher Tenant-Right Index is also negatively associated with a decrease in housing supply and an increase in the homeless rate. When we put ideology before evidence, empirically we see rent controls lead to worse outcomes.

Gauche Caviar?

Hanchen Jiang, Luis Quintero, and Xi Yang recently released their paper ‘Does Rent Regulation Affect Tenant Unemployment? Evidence from New York City’. It found that often the beneficiaries are those who are more well off and such regulation denotes a significant transfer of wealth to those on higher incomes. Rent-stabilised tenants are empirically more likely to be unemployed than private market-rate tenants, particularly if you are white and highly skilled. To what extent this could ever be seen as a progressive outcome still remains to be seen.

If Labour is to continue to encourage the proliferation of rent-controlled property it should achieve this through the construction of new social housing. Not blanket market distorting rent regulation. Rent control is great if you get it. However, it merely comes at the price of greater inequality for future generations.

Rent ceilings offer no cure to the housing shortage, and in combination with a planning system currently disconnecting local housing supply from local demand, demand-side rent regulations merely create more problems than they solve.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Christopher Worrall</span></strong>
Christopher Worrall

Editor of Red Brick. He is currently an Investment Manager at Guild Living, a Non-Executive Director of Housing for Women, and is on the Labour Housing Group Executive Committee.

Chris also co-hosts and produces the PricedOut UK Podcast.

He writes in a personal capacity.

One reply on “New Roofs or Old Ceilings?”

There are a number of good points here. However I think any analysis needs to be directed at the UK housing market. The London mayor has invested a lot of political capital in rent controls even though he has no direct powers in this area. See his report here https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/mayor-demands-powers-to-bring-rents-down.

The numbers of private tenants makes it difficult to ignore the demand for rent controls.
The issue of the costs of housing benefit cannot be ignored. Rent controls will reduce these costs and free up resources to be spent on building more council housing. There are other costs borne by private tenants who are more likely to move due to the lack of security of tenure.
Rent controls and security of tenure will lead to less homelessness .This will reduce the costs of temporary accommodation. Rent controls will also reduce the reliance by private tenants on other means tested benefits such as tax credit.

I support the building of more social housing though I am sceptical about how long it would take to build enough social housing to influence rent levels in the private rented sector. Rent levels in central london are apparently falling due to the pandemic. Private tenants in london are now locked into fixed term controls and due to no security of tenure are trapped into paying above the going market rate.

I think the weight of opinion in progressive circles now supports rent controls for private tenants.

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