NYC Rent Deregulation

Wired New York, via No Data Source, has a running discussion on rent controls in New York. Briefly: New York’s rent controls are distorting the market. Single widows hold on to three bedroom apartments, causing artificial shortages. Apartments allowed to float must subsidize the rent-controlled units, creating exhorbitant rents. The example of Cambridge, Massachusetts is held up as an example of the healing power of the marketplace. An MIT study cited in almost every piece concludes that after deregulation, housing investment increased 20%.

The Cambridge model is presumably the best-case scenario. New York would lift all controls at once, and allow the market to sort itself out. Investment in new housing would increase 20%, with a commensurate increase in available units, driving down the price of apartments. Retired widowers would no longer knock around in three bedroom apartments. Everyone has presumably won: the construction industry is happy with the new investment, landlords now have the flexibility to respond to market pressures, and tenants benefit from new, cheaper apartments.

Floating the 1 million rent-controlled units would certainly eliminate distortions in the market, but is this really what we want? Markets are excellent for delivering the best price-point to the widest possible audience, but terrible at instituting social policy.

There are other forces at work, however, which complicate the rosy scenario. At the heart of this deregulation-induced revitalization is the increase in supply. This means more people. Many more people, which is exactly what New York doesn’t need.

This assumes, of course, that the 20% increase in housing investment is devoted to new construction, which is unlikely. It is far more likely, that new investment would be devoted to upgrades. New construction is messy and complicated. It is far easier and more lucurative to add hardwood floors, bay windows, and dishwashers to dilapidated apartments, and charge a higher rent for a tidy and newly unregulated profit. This does nothing to relieve the housing shortage, which is the presumed goal of deregulation.

Lo and behold, this is exactly what the MIT study claims will happen: deregulation creates better apartments, but does not increase their availability. Better, more expensive apartments come at the cost of driving out lower-income tenants, creating homogenously affluent neighborhoods.

Deregulation, it seems, works nicely for the construction industry and landlords, but works to the detriment of lower-income tenants. Under the current system, these tenants are subsidized by more affluent residents and an unpleasant market inefficiency. Faced with a choice between this, and a Manhattan reserved for old- and new-money New York Brahmins, we would gladly accept the former.