The Joint Housing Committee of the Massachusetts Legislature recently held a virtual hearing on House Bill H.1378, a proposal to grant cities and towns the right to establish rent control. As a person who lived in a rent control apartment, then owned rent-controlled apartments, and now owns unregulated apartments, I have broad experience of the issue. This series explores the potential, and pitfalls, of rent-control as a mechanism to address our housing supply and affordability crisis.
Can Rent Control Help to Address our Housing Crisis?
Social assistance programs transfer resources from one group in society to another. Our reasoning for these transfers falls into two basic camps. First: all humans are entitled to basic food, shelter, and healthcare (thus: food stamps and Medicaid). Second: we attempt to balance opportunity and access in an inherently inequitable society (thus: higher education Pell Grants and set-asides for minority businesses). Ultimately, every social program debate can be reduced to whether something ought to be taken from Peter to benefit Paul. Since I believe everyone is entitled to the basic requirements of life, and that we should attempt to balance the inequities of our world, I support both approaches.
There are also two fundamental ways in which resources are redistributed. They’re either ‘targeted’ by need (again, food stamps and Medicaid) or ‘universal,’ equally distributed across the entire population (the recent Economic Impact Payments). Both forms of redistribution are valid, though each achieves different purposes.
To assess whether rent control is a worthwhile social program, let’s consider whether it helps fulfill a basic human need and/or balances inequities of our society; and whether it’s ‘targeted’ or ‘universal.’ The studies and statistics I reference are from, “Rent Control: What Does the Research Tell us about the Effectiveness of Local Action,” a white paper published by the Urban Institute (January 2019) and “America’s Rental Housing 2020,” by the Joint Center for Housing Studies.