Rent control

The New York Times Posts Pro-Rent-Control Cringe

The traditional case for rent control isn't made any more convincing by a Democratic Socialists of America dance number.

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Rent control is not a good idea. Today we learned it's not a funny one, either.

This morning, The New York Times released a short documentary starring self-described video journalist, comedian, and democratic socialist activist Jeff Seal attempting to make the comedic case for a controversial "good cause eviction" bill currently under consideration in the New York Legislature.

The bill, sponsored by socialist state Sen. Julia Salazar (D, WF–New York City), would require landlords to renew lease agreements with their current tenants, and prevent them evicting renters except for a few enumerated instances of "good cause."

Should the bill pass, tenants could only be removed for things like engaging in criminal behavior on the property, creating nuisances, violating substantive provisions of their lease, damaging their unit, or not paying their rent. That latter provision comes with a major asterisk, however.

Salazar's bill would still protect tenants from eviction for non-payment of rent if their rent rose by the lesser of 3 percent or 150 percent of inflation. Should that happen, they'd have the right to argue in eviction proceedings that said rent increase wasn't "reasonable." Landlords would be required to prove their rent increase was in fact reasonable.

This functionally makes the bill rent control by another means. Though Salazar has protested that description, it's hard to see what else to call it.

(No one is arguing, for instance, that a near-identical policy in St. Paul, Minnesota, which caps rent increases at 3 percent but allows landlords to apply for exemptions, is not rent control.)

Landlord groups have therefore levied all the standard criticisms of rent control at Salazar's bill. They argue that the policy disincentives developers from building new housing, and encourages landlords of existing units to either take properties off the rental market or spend less money maintaining them.

"Strict regulations lead to reduced quality and lower quantity of rental housing," Joseph Condon, general counsel for landlord group the Community Housing Improvement Program, told RealDeal earlier this week. "There's no example throughout history showing otherwise."

These arguments, and the research supporting them, gets short shrift in Seal's mini-documentary. Instead, he spends 12 minutes (it feels longer) alternating between his two roles as funny man and newsman, while not doing a particularly good job at either.

The opening minutes has Seal, dressed up as a School House Rock! bill, singing about Salazar's eviction legislation. We then transition to his interviews with one set of tenants being evicted so that their landlords can "gut, renovate, and fill the building with new, higher-paying tenants," and another who says she lives with broken appliances and fixtures out of fear that her landlord will evict her if she demands repairs.

Whether it's a good thing that markets provide property owners with reasons to improve their buildings goes unexplored. The documentary also fails to explain how limiting the amount landlords can make from their properties would lead them to spend more money on them.

But before the viewer has too much time to dwell on these questions, Seal is back in his School House Rock! costume asking Salazar herself hard-hitting questions about her bill, including "why is the landlord lobby so dead set against it?" and "Basically, you need as many New Yorkers as possible to know about it?"

He's then off performing dance numbers about good cause evictions for bewildered subway riders, and listing details of the bill during a game of charades to raise awareness about the legislation.

The video does contain a truncated back-and-forth between Seal and good cause eviction critic Sherwin Belkin, a real estate lawyer, but it's not particularly substantive. Seal says that tenants who pay their rent shouldn't have their rent increase faster than inflation, while Belkin counters that that's just what happens in a capitalist system.

The video then closes with Seal urging people to support the bill and even to contact specific members of the state legislature who are still on the fence about it.

That last segment cements the video as not just cringe but cringe activism.

Perhaps that's permissible given that the video is clearly labeled as a work of 'opinion.' It's nevertheless notable that the Times' straight news coverage of Salazar's good cause eviction bill—which might present readers with a little more substantive criticism of it—has been pretty skimpy. It's gotten a passing reference in one article so far this year.

Seal isn't wrong to highlight that housing costs in New York, and particularly New York City, are incredibly high and add a lot of uncertainty to the lives of lower-income renters.

Nevertheless, his video spends no time at all exploring the role of government-imposed limits on new housing supply or how those constraints affect housing supply and prices. If he'd dug a little deeper, he might've learned that prior to the pandemic, New York City was adding jobs at an impressive rate while the city itself and its New York suburbs were not building close to enough housing to accommodate these new workers.

Experts blame that discrepancy on low- and non-residential zoning, parking requirements, and other policies that limit the construction of housing in areas where people want to live. New Jersey—which has far fewer restrictions on supply and a more modest good cause eviction policy with no rent cap—is responsible for building the bulk of the region's new housing. Consequently, it's a much more affordable place to live as well.

Seal wants New York to adopt more a stringent version of New Jersey's eviction protections. Copying its more relaxed rules on new development would be the better option, and one supported by empirical research that shows building more housing will lead to lower housing prices. Renters with means have the option of moving into newly constructed buildings instead of outbidding lower-income tenants for an insufficient number of existing (and, yes, often dated) units.

That lowers the chances that the tenants profiled in Seal's video will face the kinds of unaffordable rent increases that would force them out of their long-time homes. Landlords, forced to compete with new supply, would also have to fight harder to retain existing tenants by keeping their units in a better state of repair.

One doesn't need a subway dance number to get this idea across.