Freakonomics: Why Rent Control Doesn’t Work

There’s no doubt that man communities in the United States, including here in the Piedmont Triad, are dealing with housing affordability challenges. There’s also no doubt that elected officials in cities, counties and states are looking for possible solutions to the affordability problem. Unfortunately some of the solutions that, on the surface, seem to make sense can actually make the problem worse.

One of the solutions that many elected leaders consider is rent control. Just this year Oregon became the first state to enact a statewide rent control law. Some cities, like New York, have long had rent control laws and yet their residents still have some of the highest rents in the country. So what gives?

That can be a complex question to answer, but thankfully the folks at Freakonomics have produced a show that does a great job of explaining why rent control actually makes the affordability challenge worse, not better. It’s well worth a listen so here’s a link to either listen to the podcast or read a transcript:

Freakonomics: Why Rent Control Doesn’t Work

And here’s just a small excerpt from the show:

DIAMOND: When you pass rent control, the landlords of the property suddenly getting covered by rent control are losing so much money, they no longer really want to rent their apartments out at the prevailing new prices, so they decrease their supply of rental housing to the market. And if there’s less supply, that’s going to drive up prices. 

DUBNER: Okay, so, let me just make sure I have it pretty straight. You find evidence that rent control increases gentrification, one component of which is the displacement of low-income tenants. On the other hand, you also find evidence that low-income people, including minorities — at least those who are in rent-controlled units already — they’re likely to disproportionately benefit from rent control.

So, if I’m an affordable-housing advocate, I might say, “Oh, fine, fancy Stanford professor — who I’m sure has some kind of great income and/or housing subsidy and/or situation — I don’t care that some landlords are suffering. I don’t care that the policy is having some downstream effects that you don’t like. I need to make sure that low-income people aren’t going to get a rent increase of 50 percent overnight.” So, how do you respond to that argument?

DIAMOND: So, when you think about those initial tenants, that’s the best bet you’re going to get for the benefits of rent control to low-income tenants: the people that are already in the housing. But even though we find that those tenants are much more likely to stay in their apartment, when we look 10, 15 years later, the share of those 1994 residents that are still there is down to 10 percent or so. So 90 percent of them no longer live in that initial apartment.

And it’s that next low-income tenant that wants to live in the city, that low-income tenant is going to have a very hard time finding an affordable option, because now there’s going to be less rental housing, the prices that that low-income tenant are going to face when they want to initially move in are going to be higher than they would have been absent rent control.

DUBNER: I’m curious how generalizable you think your findings from San Francisco are for other cities.

DIAMOND: I would suspect that the actual quantitative loss of rental supply or benefits to the tenant will depend a little bit city to city, but I think the qualitative takeaway that landlords are savvy and are going to work hard to not lose money on their investments, I think is a very general point. 

PTAA Goes to Washington

On March 6 members of the Piedmont Triad Apartment Association visited Capitol Hill in Washington, DC as part of the National Apartment Association’s Lobby Day. While there, PTAA’s representatives met with Rep. Virginia Foxx, Rep. Ted Budd and Rep. Mark Walker to help advocate for NAA’s legislative priorities, which this year centered around housing affordability, including:

PTAA’s representatives were also able to join other apartment industry professionals from North Carolina for a photo opportunity with Sen. Richard Burr on the steps of the Capitol, and sit in on meetings with staff members from Sen. Tillis and Sen. Burr’s offices. Despite the frigid temperatures they had a very successful day advocating on behalf of the apartment industry.

New HUD Policy on REAC Inspections: 14 Days Notice

From an alert sent out by the National Apartment Association:

I’m writing to make you aware of a recent policy change by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that will drastically reduce the time frame required to provide notice of inspection to rental housing providers that operate HUD-assisted housing or subsidized property developments.

According to the new standard, HUD employees and contract inspectors will provide a notice to private property owners and operators who participate in HUD-assisted programs 14 calendar days prior to a property inspection through the Real Estate Assessment Center (REAC). If a property owner or operator refuses the REAC inspection, which is designed specifically for HUD-assisted housing or subsidized properties, a score of zero will be recorded. However, if the property is successfully inspected within 7 calendar days after the initial declined visit, the resulting score will be recorded.

While we understand owners and operators take great care to prepare for REAC inspections on an ongoing basis, HUD says this change will encourage program participants to maintain their properties year-round, instead of short-term fixes to pass a specific inspection. This new policy will take place 30 days after the posted notice.

In addition to the policy change, HUD will be hosting listening sessions across the United States to collect input from public and private HUD partners about a potential pilot program that will bring a new approach to inspections of HUD-assisted properties. NAA highly encourages owners and operators to participate in HUD’s listening sessions to ensure the industry’s voice is heard. 

The first round of listening sessions is scheduled for the following locations:

  • Philadelphia
  • Fort Worth
  • Atlanta
  • Detroit
  • Seattle

How Will Tariffs Affect Multifamily Development?

In a post on the BMO Harris Bank site, Managing Director and Head of US Commercial Real Estate Kim Liautaud looks at how tariffs could impact multifamily development:

In the multifamily market, project underwriting has tightened across the board because capital providers are concerned that the sector is late in the cycle, according to Chris McKee, head of development at CRG, the real estate development arm of Clayco. McKee explains that while trended rents used to attract equity providers, there’s now a reluctance to underwrite projects unless they’re at flat rents. Tariffs have only exacerbated that effect.

“We’re seeing contractors start to plan for increased costs,” McKee says. “Steel and aluminum companies know the tariff increases are coming, and they’re passing the costs along to general contractors. With flat rents and construction costs on the rise, spreads have been squeezed and multifamily projects became more difficult to underwrite. Tariffs have only added to that, and that trend will likely continue for the foreseeable future.”

McKee notes that trended rents still drive multifamily developments in certain markets where availability is tight, such as Seattle, Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania and Inland Empire in Southern California. Less constricted markets, however, require more caution. “You may get squeezed a little bit by those cost increases because you may not have the rent increases that you would get in some of the tighter submarkets,” McKee says…

When it comes to managing multifamily projects, McKee stresses focusing on fundamentals and relationships. “Look for the right opportunity in the right location,” he says. “If you have a long-standing relationship with an equity or debt provider, you can make a case for rent increases specific to a high-growth micro-market, such as Tampa or Fort Worth. It’s an advantage to have pre-existing relationships with equity lenders who trust and believe in you. So when you go to show them something, they know you’ll deliver.”

HUD Shifts Focus to Liberalization of Land Use Regs

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development recently announced that it is going to reverse some Obama-era policies related to integrating lower-income housing into wealthier neighborhoods and place more focus on promoting more affordable housing development overall.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, “HUD will begin holding stakeholder hearings on how to change the way it determines whether communities are enforcing the Fair Housing Act, which requires local governments to institute policies that help break down patterns of housing segregation. HUD stakeholders include nonprofit groups, academic researchers and private businesses.

But local officials in some communities said the process was costly and amounted to the federal government forcing them to put low-cost rental buildings in wealthier areas.”

So, instead of focusing its attention on the integration piece HUD will try to create incentives for local governments to liberalize land use policies and make it easier for developers to build more housing in general. From the WSJ article:

Policy makers have long puzzled over how to create incentives for cities and towns to build more housing. Local officials are often in a difficult political position because the loudest voices among their constituents tend to be those objecting to development. At the same time, federal and state governments have limited control over local zoning.

Mr. Carson (HUD Secretary Ben Carson) said the new rule would tie HUD grants, which many communities use to build roads, sewers, bridges and other infrastructure projects, to less restrictive zoning.

“I would incentivize people who really would like to get a nice juicy government grant” to take a look at their zoning codes, he said.

 

Regulations Account for Almost One Third of Apartment Development Costs

The National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) and National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) released the results of research that found that regulation imposed at various levels of government accounts for 32.1% of multifamily development costs. From an article in Multifamily Executive:

These regulatory costs include a broad range of fees, standards, and other requirements imposed at different stages of the development and construction process. According to the study, 7% of regulatory costs come from building-code changes over the past 10 years, 5.9% is attributable to development requirements (such as streets, sidewalks, parking, landscaping, and architectural design) that go beyond what the developer would ordinarily provide, and 4.2% of the costs come from nonrefundable fees charged when site work begins.

Over 90% of developers surveyed in the research typically incur hard costs of paying fees to local jurisdictions, both when applying for zoning approval and again when local jurisdictions authorize the construction of buildings. The typical projects of almost all the respondents (98%) were subject to costs at the zoning-approval stage, costing an average 4.1% of the total development costs.

They go on to note that these costs have a direct impact on housing affordability, which is an issue being addressed by almost every municipality in the country, including here in the Piedmont Triad:

“The current regulatory framework has limited the amount of housing that can be built and increased the cost of what is produced,” said NMHC president Doug Bibby in a statement. “At a time when states and localities are struggling to address housing affordability challenges, public and private stakeholders should work together to streamline regulations and take the steps necessary to expand housing in communities across the country.”

Here’s a link to a more detailed summary of the research on NAHB’s website: http://www.nahbclassic.org/generic.aspx?genericContentID=262391

Urban Housing Crisis and Politics

In a piece for New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer, Jonathan Chait looks at how the urban housing crisis is challenging progressive political stances. The whole article, which is relatively short, is a worthwhile read, but here are a couple of excerpts that hit at the heart of the matter:

Housing is too expensive in many cities because there isn’t enough of it. There isn’t enough of it because zoning and other regulations prevent the construction of high-density housing.

and

Opponents of allowing more dense housing construction associate the solution with gentrification, but this gets the question backwards. Gentrification is the result of artificially constricted housing supply, which pushes the demand for new housing into poorer neighborhoods, where new entrants outbid existing renters.

You really should read the whole article.

NAA’s Approach to Finding Solutions to Housing Crunch Garners Attention

Over the past couple of years, the National Apartment Association has increasingly focused on conducting research that helps inform the organization’s approach to engaging governments at the federal, state and local level. That work has gained some positive attention in the real estate development world, as evidenced by this article in BuilderOnline.com:

Not for nothing, the National Multifamily Housing Council and National Apartment Association have recognized–via research the two organizations conducted with Hoyt Advisory Services–that developers will need to add 324,000 units annually for the next 12 years to make up for lost time and keep up with new household formation.

The NAA and NMHC have gone so far as to develop a Barriers to Apartment Construction Index, which scores 50 metro areas on a scale of difficulty posed by regulatory and space constraints. A score of 19.5 ranks as the most difficult market to add apartments, Honolulu.

It seems evident that multifamily developers have jumped a step ahead of their single-family for-sale siblings, both in investing in research that begins to build evidence around the scope of the shortfall and developing scenarios for getting beyond the current impasse, which is a lose-lose-lose proposition…

One way that it appears multifamily players seem to recognize as a solution–better on the whole than single-family players–involves a form of collaboration that’s been around for as long as people have been forming communities as a way to live and conduct business: public-private partnership.

Rent Controls Gaining Support in Cities Throughout the U.S.

The Wall Street Journal has an article about the rising popularity of rent controls as a tactic to address affordable housing issues in cities across the country. Of course, this is not popular with landlords, but it’s also important to note that it is a tactic that has been shown to be ineffective:

Economists generally have a dim view of rent control, which they say restricts supply and drives up rents for tenants who don’t live in regulated buildings.

A working paper released in January by Stanford University economists found that from 1995 to 2012 rent control in San Francisco helped residents in rent-controlled apartments, increasing the likelihood that they would stay at their address by nearly 20%.

But the study also found that rent control hurt the city overall by making landlords more likely to convert their apartments to other uses and deplete the housing stock, leading to a permanent citywide rent increase of 5%.

“Tenants benefited dramatically when they were covered by rent control,” said Rebecca Diamond, an assistant professor of economics at Stanford and one of the authors of the paper. “We don’t really share it as a society.”

In other words, rent control only helps those who live in rent-controlled buildings. For everyone else, it actually drives up the cost of housing, so in the end, it results in less affordable housing, not more.

Charlotte Looking at New Approach for Addressing Housing Affordability

Charlotte is considering a new approach to addressing housing affordability issues in the city, and it involves old(er) apartments. From The Charlotte Observer:

The city of Charlotte has a new strategy for low-income housing: Rather than focusing on building new apartment complexes, city officials want to invest in apartment complexes from the 1960s and ’70s and use deed restrictions to keep rents affordable…

The city’s Housing Trust Fund is usually replenished with $15 million every two years. Last year, City Manager Marcus Jones added $6 million to that fund over five years.

That money usually goes to nonprofit developers like the Housing Partnership, which also seek state tax credits to make their projects financially viable. Trust fund dollars have normally funded new housing units.

But the city has found it’s extremely difficult to bring affordable housing to prosperous parts of the city, where residents could have access to high-performing schools. One problem is the high cost of land. Another is opposition from neighbors, which has derailed some proposals in the past.

When the city subsidizes new construction, it often spends $25,000 per unit. An older complex could be renovated for about $8,000 per unit in city assistance. In exchange for the subsidy, the city could use a deed restriction to keep rents affordable for 30 years.

It’s an interesting approach, one that could also work in other cities that have a stock of older, more affordable units to preserve while Class-A properties continue to sprout up elsewhere.