Rent control is the only way to provide tenants with the stability our communities need right now — not thirty years from now, after construction of massive amounts of new housing that may or may not ever be built.
By Stephen Barton (originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel)
Communities in the Bay Area need to protect tenants from rising rents and unfair evictions. The average rent in the Bay Area is double the average rent in the rest of the United States, creating a massive transfer of income from tenants to real estate investors.
In the past five years,according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bay Area cost of living for everything except rent went up only 6 percent, but rents increased by 32 percent.
These rising rents have displaced tens of thousands of Bay Area residents from their homes. As Professor Matthew Desmond found while researching his recent book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” when tenants are forced to choose between spending nearly all of their income in rent or moving away from their jobs, relatives and communities to find housing they can afford, it generates enormous stress that can be devastating to their physical and mental health.
We know that stable communities are safer and healthier communities. Rent control is the only way to provide tenants with the stability our communities need right now — not thirty years from now, after construction of massive amounts of new housing that may or may not ever be built.
Opponents of rent control admit that it helps tenants to stay in the community longer, but argue that “reduced mobility” is a bad thing, when really, it’s the whole point. Families need stability to do well at work and in school and maintain connections with relatives and friends. Some economists find it more “efficient” to kick retired people and working families out of their rented homes so that higher-paid newcomers can move in. That’s not the kind of community most of us want to live in.
One of the hidden assumptions of standard economic analysis is that it values people based only on how much money they make rather than on what they mean to their community or what they deserve as human beings.
Rents in the Bay Area are far higher than what is actually necessary to profitably operate and maintain rental housing — double the national average. Low income families in the Bay Area often live in substandard housing while paying rents that would get them into new apartments with exercise rooms and swimming pools in other parts of the U.S. That’s because in our tight market they have no bargaining power and will often be evicted just for complaining. With rent control and “just cause” eviction protections, tenants can get repairs made when they are needed.
Under rent control, the landlord receives regular annual rent increases to keep up with inflation. They select new tenants and maintain the property as usual — they just can’t take advantage of our broken market to push people out of their rented homes to get extra profits.
Much of the rent that Bay Area tenants pay is really just an admission charge for the privilege of living here. As the real estate industry is fond of saying, the three most important determinants of real estate values are “location, location and location”. And what makes our location so valuable? The creative culture that our diverse population generates, and the successful industries that grow from that creative culture; our beautiful natural setting; and our government services such as schools, transportation, parks and public safety.
In the end, it’s Bay Area residents past and present who made this a great place to live, homeowners and renters alike. Our current laws allow real estate investors to extract higher rents and higher profits from the value we all created. With rent control and just-cause eviction protections, the tenants who help make this a great place to live won’t get pushed out of their homes.
That seems fair to me.
Stephen Barton is the former housing director for the City of Berkeley, where his work on housing affordability won national and regional awards from the American Planning Association.