In June, firsttuesday asked readers whether rent control provides more housing for low-income households, and respondents came back with a resounding no — 70% (no) to 30% (yes).

The practice of rent control — meant to prevent certain rental housing from becoming unaffordable for long-term tenants — is well-established in many California cities, including:

  • Berkeley;
  • Beverly Hills;
  • Campbell;
  • East Palo Alto;
  • Fremont;
  • Hayward;
  • Los Angeles;
  • Los Gatos;
  • Oakland;
  • Palm Springs;
  • San Francisco;
  • San Jose;
  • Santa Monica;
  • Thousand Oaks; and
  • West Hollywood.

While rent control laws differ depending on the city, ordinances are typically set according to statewide guidelines, and most include some level of tenant eviction protections in addition to limiting or freezing any increase in rent.

Here in California, the past decade has seen rents increase faster than incomes. Thus, rent control laws which ensure tenants won’t be forced out of gentrifying neighborhoods may seem like necessary, sometimes lifesaving measures.

However, although rent control laws seem helpful on their face, in practice they often create more problems than they solve.

For one thing, rent control provides landlords little incentive to properly maintain and improve rental property — after all, they can’t charge more rent to pay for improvements or attract higher-paying tenants with more amenities.

On top of this, landlords are actually incentivized to push tenants out, since as a result of Costa Hawkins — a 1995 law that removed vacancy controls for rental units — landlords may reset rent to the market rate when a tenant vacates the property. This creates an adversarial relationship between landlords and tenants, while diminishing the rewards of building rental property due to lower property values.

Even if the system worked as planned, it keeps costs down only for long-term tenants — not for prospective renters or tenants inhabiting newer units.

Related article:

California’s rent control problem

A better way forward

Even though rent control can be beneficial for some renters, it does nothing to combat the larger California housing crisis currently in full swing. Think of rent control as a band-aid solution for a gaping wound. The larger issue is a lack of low-income housing, and rent control laws are not effective measures to provide housing for low-income households in California.

Unsurprisingly, the simplest way to provide more low-income housing is to build more low-income housing.

However, this seemingly no-brainer solution has historically hit a number of significant roadblocks.

Although local governments and legislators have encouraged the construction of more low-income housing through builder incentives and re-zoning to allow denser building near jobs and public transit, these efforts often come up against vocal not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) advocates.

More recently, attempts to fight the housing shortage with more construction of multi-family units have been derailed by builders made wary by 2020’s catastrophic job losses and tightened lines of credit.

Efforts to increase the availability of low-income housing will meet with resistance for the foreseeable future. But in the long term, it’s the real solution to a problem rent control laws merely paper over.