Thomas Sowell

CONGRATULATIONS are in order for the San Francisco Weekly, for an informative article that introduces sanity into a subject where insanity is the norm -- namely, rent control in San Francisco. What has happened under stringent rent control laws in the city by the bay is what has happened in virtually every other city around the world where such laws have been passed. But it will still be news to rent control advocates, who seldom bother to get the facts.

According to the San Francisco Weekly, new construction of multifamily housing dropped by 32 percent within a decade after the city's rent control law was passed in 1979. Over the past 10 years, the number of rental units in the city has declined absolutely by 7,500. The vacancy rate is below one percent. Nor has rent control meant low rents. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is nearly $2,000 a month.

None of this is unique to San Francisco. A study of 16 cities by William Tucker of the Cato Institute showed "that the advertised rents of available apartments in rent-regulated cities are dramatically higher than they are in cities without rent control." In view of this, it is not surprising that he also found homelessness more prevalent in cities with rent control.

How can this be, when the whole purpose of rent control is to keep rents down? First of all, the purpose of any policy tells you absolutely nothing about what will actually happen under that policy. Too many disastrous laws get passed because those who pass them win political points for their good intentions and nobody bothers to check up later to see what actually happened.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has recently commissioned the first official study ever done of the effects of rent control in the city.

Imagine! The first rent control law was passed in 1979 and has been amended more than 50 times in the two decades since then -- usually tightening the controls -- but nobody in government has yet bothered to find out what the actual effect has been.

Politics is not about empirical realities, but about popular images. So long as the image of rent control is good, it wins votes at election time -- and that is what it is all about, as far as politicians are concerned.

Meanwhile, there is a whole movement of rent-control activists and tenants' rights advocates who say things like, "Housing is not a commodity." Mindless mantras like that make them look and feel like the morally anointed, and apparently that is good enough for them. Who needs facts when you have myths that serve your purposes?

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate