What are rent controls, and who do they benefit?

A housing protest in London, 2015. Image: Getty.

New York, San Francisco and Stockholm have them. And now some Londoners are calling for them to curb rising rents. But what are rent controls and how do they work?

Rent controls can come in many flavours but they are all a form of price ceiling to cap the level of rent that landlords can charge. Generally, price ceilings lead to underproduction and black markets. Producers, where possible, switch their efforts to alternative goods that fetch better prices. Shortages and illegal trading of the regulated goods often follow.

Housing is a durable good, however, and most renters do not live in new homes. So it is tempting to think of the rental stock as rather fixed and therefore largely immune to the normal pernicious effects that price controls have on supply.

To some extent, this is true – in the short run. But over the long run, it is generally not. Shortages in quantity and quality will eventually occur, though their manner and degree depends very much on the particulars of the rent control policy. The particulars also determine who wins and who loses.

Different types

Rent controls must grant renters greater security over their tenancy and also regulate the rents that they pay. Both are necessary, as otherwise landlords could force tenants to leave in spite of any security by raising their rents prohibitively.

Typically, the rents are controlled by a local rent board which decides on an annual basis how much a tenant’s rent may permissibly be increased. Almost always, these increases are lower than the growth rate of unregulated, market rents in the area. This keeps rents, for existing tenants at least, “affordable”.

It would be arduous (and boring) to create a taxonomy of all rent controls. But rent control is one of the few policies in economics where there is little disagreement over their unintended consequences – the effects are readily observable in the many markets where rent control has been enacted.

A key issue is whether rents are regulated for existing tenants only – or for new tenants as well. In San Francisco, rents are unregulated for new tenants, but incumbents have the right to renew at a regulated increase in rents. In New York City or Stockholm, apartments themselves are regulated; rents are more or less determined by a board and are (more or less) independent of the length of current tenancy.

This difference in approach is reflected in the market. In San Francisco, rents for new tenants are very high, in part because landlords know that they may not be able to increase them later. In NYC and Stockholm, rents for regulated apartments are quite low. And in NYC only a fraction of the rental stock falls under rent control. Many rentals are completely unregulated.

Finders keepers

Both approaches heavily disincentivise renters from relocating. In San Francisco, for example, a tenant who has been living in their apartment for years would likely have to pay a substantially higher rent should they move to a different apartment and begin a new lease.

In Stockholm and New York City, rent controls have had unintended knock-on effects on the market as a whole. For different reasons, in both cities there is a shortage of rent controlled apartments. In Stockholm, apartments are rationed by the government. Waiting lists for apartments are long. In New York, landlords have greater autonomy over who they rent a controlled apartment to: it is “finders-keepers”, and the finding is very tough.

Disrepair

Shortages are not always immediately apparent. Suppose a city, London, were to impose controls on all rentals. At first, there wouldn’t be much of a change in the rental stock; perhaps a slight reduction in the number of buy-to-lets.

Over time, though, the rental stock would decrease. From the beginning, regulated rentals will be under-maintained. Because landlords are poorly compensated for any improvements under rent control, they lack the incentive to upgrade or even perhaps make repairs. In fact, disrepair may help them get rid of an incumbent tenant – an attractive option under San Francisco-style controls.

There are also knock-on effects for the owner-occupied housing market, which is not regulated. If rent is capped, the buy-to-let market would likely cool down. Owner-occupiers, because of the value they get from living in their home, would be willing to pay more than prospective landlords. Rental homes, where and when possible, would be sold into owner-occupancy as a result.

NYC has long rent control waiting lists. Image: Scott Davies/Flickr/creative commons.

In NYC and Stockholm, where much of the regulated rental stock is in multi-storey buildings owned by a single legal entity, conversion to owner-occupancy is relatively rare. In London, however, where much of the rental stock is individually owned, homes would move rather easily into the owner-occupied sector. This may be good for renters who are willing and able to buy a similar home, as house prices will generally be lower. But it will be much tougher for those not ready to buy.


Fewer options

The consequences of rent control are not as simple as, “Renters win, landlords lose”. This is sort of true, initially. But would-be landlords – investors who have not yet bought – lose nothing. They can move their money to alternative investments if the return on being a landlord is not high enough.

Meanwhile, future renters lose. Investors have many choices over assets to invest in, but renters have fewer options; they either rent or own. For many renters, switching to owning is not possible or would be financially difficult. And so they will end up bearing the costs of the price ceiling.

Of course, rent control need not lead to scarcity if the government is willing to step in and subsidise construction. But then it becomes the public purse that bears the costs of rent regulation.

There are times and places where rent control may nevertheless be good policy. It may be warranted in war time, particularly if other parts of the economy, such as housing construction, are being simultaneously regulated. In fact, both NYC and London had rent controls during World War II. But this may lead to those renters that enjoy the controls during the war becoming a vocal constituency for maintaining the policy, with the long-term unintended consequences this brings.

The Conversation

Jonathan Halket, Lecturer in Economics, University of Essex.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A Century after radical leftists were elected to its city hall, Vienna’s social democratic base is slipping away

Karl Marx Hof. Image: Kagan Kaya.

Karl Marx-Hof, a kilometre-long municipal apartment block in Vienna’s wealthy 19th district, was first named after the father of the communist movement by Austria’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in 1927. Its imposing structure borrows from an eclectic mix of modernist, Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassical and baroque architectural styles. In the mould of early soviet experiments, the building, nicknamed The Palace of the Proletariat, housed shared childcare services, gardens and washrooms.

The building is Vienna’s most prominent physical reminder of a period known as Red Vienna, when left-wing radicals found themselves at the helm of the Hapsburg’s former imperial capital during the aftermath of the First World War. 

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1918, the SDAP won the fledgeling republic’s first elections held under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious programme of social and economic reform. Leading intellectual lights of the party sought to unite the two great strands of the 20th-century labour movement, reconciling parliamentary socialism and revolutionary communism under their new current of non-Bolshevik “Austro-Marxism”. Karl Marx-Hof epitomised their radical ambitions. “When we are no longer here”, Mayor Karl Seitz told an assembled crowd of workers at the building’s opening in 1930, “these bricks will speak for us.”

When I visited Karl Marx-Hof on a sunny day in June, Monica and George, two of its residents, were walking their two Chihuahuas around the estate’s leafy, quiet courtyards. “We moved here last year,” Monica tells me. “It’s really nice because you’ve got a lot of green space in the middle of the city.”

The young couple are the beneficiaries of a generous system of public housing provision. Vienna has a relative abundance of high-quality municipal flats compared with most large capitals. “We weren’t waiting long for the flat – moving in here was really fast”, Monica says. Currently, 60 per cent of Vienna’s residents live in either municipally owned, subsidised housing, or in social homes run by not-for-profit cooperatives. The remaining portion of private homes is subject to strict rent controls and regulations.

The social democrats and their less radical successors have remained the dominant party in Vienna since the city’s first election, save for an 11-year hiatus of fascist dictatorship from 1934, followed by Anschluss and Nazi occupation from 1938. The city remains a red statelet in an otherwise conservative country. Indeed, Austria is now more associated with the far right than the radical left. But even Vienna is no longer immune to the trend of waning support for centre-left parties that has gripped European countries since 2008, and cracks are beginning to appear in its social democratic project.

Two exhibitions in the city – one in the former communal wash house of Karl Marx-Hof, the other in the grand Wien Museum MUSA – note the achievements of Red Vienna’s experiment in local socialism: the introduction of pensions and unemployment support; the establishment of a nascent public healthcare system; the opening of kindergartens, schools run on Montessori principles, public baths, open-air swimming pools, libraries, parks, leisure facilities, arts centres; and, of course, a programme of mass council house building, all paid for by a system of progressive income taxation coupled with duties on luxury goods, including servants, champagne, private cars and riding horses.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the SDAP did not expropriate or nationalise factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact. In many ways, its policies palliated the worst effects of early 20th century industrial capitalism like slum housing, mass unemployment and extreme poverty. Red Vienna laid the ground for the modern European welfare state, inspiring other social democratic governments across the continent to implement similar policies after the Second World War. 


“Back then the social democrats were good,” Monica tells me, attempting to calm her excitable dogs by pulling on their leads. Does she intend to vote for the social democrats in the upcoming national elections in September? “We vote for the blue ones,” she answers. Monica and George will cast their vote for the Freheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO), the Freedom Party, an organisation founded after the Second World War by a former Nazi minister of agriculture and high-ranking SS officer. “It’s because of all the refugees and all the violence that’s going on here,” she claims. “Shootings are more frequent in Vienna.”

Austria has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, almost half that of England and Wales, and Vienna itself is known for its relative safety compared to other European capitals. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Austria over the last four years. Many have made the city their home, but most have transited towards Germany, at Angela Merkel’s invitation. The mass movement of people from across the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe has ruptured the country’s social-democratic pact. In 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on victory in the presidential election, receiving 46 per cent of the vote.

“Lots of people say they’re just racists,” Monica continues, visibly uncomfortable with the idea that people would attribute malice or prejudice to voters like herself. But she hastens to add that her views, and those of her partner George, aren’t necessarily typical of Vienna’s affluent 19th district. “There are very rich people here, so they vote for the party who protects their interests… You’ll see a lot of big houses, so I think the OVP, the People’s Party, would do well.”

The OVP is the more traditional centre-right party of Austrian politics, and wins the most seats in the 19th district. Yet the city’s voting patterns are diverse. This is partly a result of the policies of successive social democratic administrations placing the integration of social classes and income levels at the heart of their municipal agenda. Subsidised housing can be found alongside wealthy private apartments in the city centre designed by Renzo Piano, and at the foot of the city’s vineyards near up-market wine taverns. Kurt Puchinger, chair of wohnfonds_wien, the city’s land and housing fund, tells me that the council “do not want to have a situation where you can identify the social status of a person by their home address.”

Despite the SDAP’s century-long efforts to promote social cohesion, recent years have seen the rise the FPO’s vote share at the expense of the left. Favoriten is a more solidly working class area of Vienna in the 10th district. There, according to Monica, “most vote for the Freedom Party because they are for stopping migration.” She pauses to consider her words. “Not stopping. Trying to find a way to filter them and control them. Every country has a problem like this.”

Monica’s feeling for the electoral preferences of each of the various Viennese districts proves accurate. After the war, Favoriten elected communists as their local representatives. The district's loyalties quickly switched to the social democrats, and until 2005 the party could comfortably expect to receive over half the votes there, consistently getting more than double the votes of both the far-right Freedom Party and the centre-right People’s Party. But in the most recent 2015 election, the Freedom Party won 24 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, only two points and one seat behind the social democrats. In Austria nationally, the People’s Party, headed by a 32-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, with Patrick Bateman overtones, has formed a government with the Freedom Party – but their coalition collapsed ignominiously in May.

Neither Austria as a whole, nor Favoriten in particular, are outliers. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally polls well in the Communist Party’s former “ceinture rouge” outside Paris. In Britain, Labour’s post-industrial heartlands are turning towards the Brexit Party, while blue collar workers in America’s rust belt have backed Donald Trump. And in Vienna, neither the impressive legacy of the SDAP nor the continually high standard of living (the city was rated as the world’s most liveable for the 10th time in 2018 by Mercer, the consultancy giant) is enough to stem the tide of right-wing populism.

Until he was unseated as leader following a corruption scandal in May, Heinz-Christian Strache positioned the FPO as the party of the working class, a guarantor of Austrian identity, and the protector of a generous welfare system now threatened by an influx of migrants. “We believe in our youth,” ran one of his slogans, “the [social democrats] in immigration.”

Sofia is a masseuse who has lived in Karl Marx-Hof for 19 years with her partner and his son. “People are angry with the social democrats now because of refugees,” she told me. “They should change this... They should say ‘we are on the left but we can’t accept everybody here.’” The view that the party have abandoned their traditional voters is widespread, but Sofia isn’t fond of the alternatives. “The FPO – the Nazis – you can’t vote for the Nazis… anyone who votes FPO isn’t my friend… But I won’t vote for the People’s Party because they do everything for rich people, not normal people.”

Sofia reserves her strongest criticism for the youthful Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become head of another People’s Party-led coalition after elections in September. “I’m scared of him,” she says. “I think he’s a psychopath. I think he’s not a normal person.”

Like many Viennese, Sofia admires the legacy of Red Vienna: “The socialists did a lot of really good things. We are the only city in the world that has so much state housing. And they brought in pensions, health insurance, a lot of things.” But she’s not sure they will get her vote in 2019. In an era of polarisation and anti-establishment rhetoric, the most fertile yet unoccupied political ground seems to be for a radical, redistributive economic programme, coupled with a more conservative vision of shared responsibilities and values, national sovereignty, and sociocultural issues.

“Even in the working class areas of the city,” sighs Kurt Puchinger, the city’s housing fund chair, “less people are voting social democrat. And this is a pity.” 100 years since the old radical Social Democratic Workers’ Party was first elected by a restive, war-weary working class, the working class remains restive, but while the SDAP’s flagship Karl Marx-Hof still stands, the bricks no longer seem to be speaking for them.