Rent control has been in force in a number of major American cities for many decades. The best-known example is New York, which still retains rent controls from the temporary price controls imposed during World War II. But this policy, meant to assist poorer residents, harms far more citizens than it helps, benefits the better-off, and limits the freedom of all citizens.

A look at the classified ads in rent-controlled cities reveals that very few moderately priced rental units are actually available. Most advertised units are priced well above the actual median rent. Yet in cities without controls, moderately priced units are universally available.

In many cities, policymakers understand that controls drive out residents and businesses. Thus, many exempt significant portions of housing from controls, creating shadow markets. As controls hold down rents for some units, costs for all other rental housing skyrockets. And tenants in rent-controlled units fear moving to more desirable neighborhoods since the only units available for rent are very high-priced.

But the trend in recent years has been toward removal of rent control. The repeal of controls in Massachusetts, for example, did not lead to the widespread evictions and hardships that some predicted. The lesson for the rest of the country is that rent control is policy that never was justified and certainly should be scrapped.

The Rush to Rent Control

During the 1970s, it appeared that rent control might be the wave of the future. Boston and several of its surrounding suburbs imposed rent control during the inflationary years of 1969 to 1971. President Richard Nixon imposed wage and price controls in 1971 on the entire country, freezing all rents in the process. Many cities retained rent controls, eventually making them permanent, after wage and price controls expired. Washington, D.C. still retains regulations from this period, as do about 125 municipalities in New Jersey, including Newark, Jersey City, and Elizabeth.

During the Proposition 13 anti-tax campaign in 1978, activist Howard Jarvis promised California tenants that their rents would be reduced if the proposed state constitutional amendment lowered property taxes. Yet in the midst of an inflationary period, this reduction failed to materialize, frustrating many tenants. Berkeley and Santa Monica, two smaller cities with radical political cultures, led California in imposing very strict rent control ordinances. Political activists Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, who lived in Santa Monica, then toured the state urging other cities to follow suit. Ten cities – including San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Jose, West Hollywood, and East Palo Alto, eventually adopted rent regulation, putting more than half the state’s tenant population under rent control ordinances. One major California city, San Diego, bucked the trend, rejecting rent control by a 2-to-1 vote in a 1985 referendum.

By the mid-1980s, more than 200 separate municipalities nationwide, encompassing about 20 percent of the nation’s population, were living under rent control. However, this proved to be the high tide of the movement. As inflationary pressures eased, the agitation for rent control subsided. Some cities have remained strangely immune from the rent control temptation. Chicago, with one of the largest proportions of renters of any American city, has never seriously entertained proposals for rent control. Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, and other eastern cities outside the Boston-New York-Washington axis have never experimented with this policy. In the major cities of the South and Southwest – Atlanta, New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, and Phoenix – rent control is simply not an issue. During the 1980s, a reaction set in among southern, western, and rural states. Some 31 states as diverse as Idaho, Florida, Texas, and Vermont adopted laws and constitutional amendments forbidding rent control.

Once in place, however, rent control usually proves extremely difficult to undo. London and Paris still have rent controls that started as temporary measures during World War I. “Nelson’s Third Law,” the contention by the late economist Arthur Nelson that the worse a government regulation is, the harder it is to get rid of it, seems to apply here.

Whatever distortions a regulation creates, some people will adjust to it and actually profit. These people then become a tightly focused interest group that fights tenaciously to retain the regulation. When this interest group is a tenant population that forms a near-majority of a municipality, the chances that rent control can be abolished through local political efforts are extremely small.

[Editor’s Note:  This is the first of a 10-part series. Stay tuned next month.]  

William Tucker is the author of The Excluded Americans: Homelessness and Housing Policies – (Regnery), and Zoning, Rent Control, and Affordable Housing – (Cato). Reprinted with permission of The Cato Institute, a public policy research organization — a think tank – dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace. Its scholars and analysts conduct independent, nonpartisan research on a wide range of policy issues. For more information, visit www.cato.org.