Thomas Sowell

The biggest myth is that rent control helps the poor. It helps those poor people who happen to have an apartment when rent control laws are passed -- but it also helps the affluent and even the rich who happen to be on the inside looking out. But, as the housing supply dries up, who gets left out?

The homeless people on the streets are certainly not the rich.

Studies in both Cambridge, Mass., and Berkeley, Calif., showed that "rent-controlled apartments were concentrated among highly educated professionals." In New York, people living in rent-controlled apartments have included the president of the New York Stock Exchange and even Hollywood stars who keep such apartments to use when they happen to be in town.

San Francisco's rent-control law, like those in other cities, was passed as a "temporary" measure to deal with some immediate crisis -- in this case, the runaway inflation of the late 1970s. A cynic once said that there is nothing more permanent than a temporary government policy. Rent control laws were also passed as "temporary" measures in London and Paris during the First World War -- and remained in force on past the Second World War.

Since there are always more tenants than landlords, and more people who don't understand economics than people who do, it is nearly impossible to get the voters in a community with rent control to vote it out. However, many state legislatures across the country have taken that decision out of local hands by passing laws forbidding cities and towns from having rent control. When rent control was gotten rid of this way in Massachusetts, new housing began to be built in formerly rent-controlled communities for the first time in decades.

It can be done. But it is unlikely to be done in San Francisco. Nor is the liberal state legislature likely to act.

There is in fact a measure on this year's ballot to tighten rent control in San Francisco some more.

Thomas Sowell

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

Creators Syndicate