Thomas Sowell

A RECENTLY published housing study says: "San Francisco is one of the densest large cities in the U.S." That is true in both senses of the word "dense."

Nowhere are San Franciscans more dense than when talking about housing -- especially that perennial will o' the wisp, "affordable housing." Tight rent control laws in San Francisco are supposed to help the poor. But the recent housing study shows that 26 percent of the households living in rent-controlled apartments have incomes of $100,000 or more.

At the other end of the economic scale, people who might be expected to have budget problems are leaving the city. Although San Francisco's total population is growing, the number of children in the city has declined absolutely. More than three-quarters of the households in rent-controlled apartments have no children at all. The black population of San Francisco has also declined -- by 23 percent -- in just one decade.

Nearly half the working population still remaining in the city are in professional or managerial occupations. It is tough to live in San Francisco if you have jobs paying ordinary salaries.

Rent control laws are supposed to keep down rents. But rents today are more than five times what they were in 1979, when such laws were passed in San Francisco. The average apartment rent in the city today is $2,100 a month. Even for a studio apartment, the average rent is $1,500 a month.

In short, the goals of rent control and its actual consequences are at opposite poles. Nor is this peculiar to San Francisco. Studies show that rents are usually higher and homelessness is greater in cities with rent control. How can this be? Partly it is because the only housing that repays the cost of building under rent control is usually luxury housing, which is often exempt.

When renting apartments becomes a losing proposition, that drastically reduces the prospects of anyone's building new rental housing, either to replace the housing that is wearing out or to accommodate a growing population. Three quarters of the rent-controlled housing in San Francisco was built before 1950. Again, this is not peculiar to San Francisco. Nothing brings private building to a halt like rent control. Housing shortages have followed rent control in cities across the United States, as well as in Europe, Asia and Australia.

Thomas Sowell

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

Creators Syndicate