Renters love rent control, but Seattle doesn’t need it
The topic of rent control bubbles to the surface whenever housing costs spike as they are in Seattle, but the policy is better left out of the conversation on keeping housing affordable.
Times editorial columnist
My first apartment in San Francisco was a charmer: Victorian architecture, molded ceilings, great location, bay windows in the front and, the best part, my landlord didn’t raise the $2,700-per-month rent the entire six years I lived there.
I didn’t know my unit was rent-controlled until a roommate mentioned it around 2012, year five of my tenure. My landlord, an aging Irish immigrant named Paul, never mentioned it, nor did my lease.
The building survived two catastrophic earthquakes in 1906 and 1989, so it fit the bill. According to San Francisco’s laws, apartments built before 1979 were subject to rent control.
As a tenant, I benefitted from rent control, but as a new resident in Seattle, I hope my new city steers clear of the policy and finds more effective ways to influence housing costs. Rent control, by the way, is banned by Washington state law, but the idea comes up whenever housing costs start to balloon.
Apartment rents have gone up at an impressive clip in Seattle — a 32 percent increase during the past four years according to research firm RealFacts — and are likely to keep rising as job and population growth continue.
Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant wants to institute rent control in Seattle as a way to curb rent hikes that displace renters. Jess Spear, who is running for state House Position 2 in Washington’s 43rd Legislative District, wants to change state law to allow it.
Only a few American cities have rent-control policies, and many studies have found that the costs far outweigh the benefits.
Rent control does keep rents from skyrocketing in the short term, but has long-term effects of encouraging people to stay in apartments for decades and dissuades landlords from upgrading or investing in their properties.
It also spurs a two-tiered apartment market in which some people pay rents far below the average, making rent-controlled buildings less valuable and they appreciate more slowly in value than unregulated buildings.
If you’re a renter, you might not care about your landlord’s property value. But, when you create a market with two property types, landlords paying more for properties will charge more and landlords on the low end will charge less — and that leaves a gap in the middle.
When tenants do move out of rent-controlled units, landlords often raise rents to the market rate. That sets up an incentive for landlords to turn over their units or not rent them at all if it’s easier to keep them vacant.
Another problem with rent control is that it helps only a select few who are lucky enough to land in the right unit regardless of their income status.
If Seattle’s goal is to maintain a balance of income levels, then policies should be aimed at accommodating renters based on their income level versus putting restrictions on particular units or, as Spear advocates, on all housing units.
Keeping some units at artificially low rents doesn’t ensure a broader mix of residents nor does it provide protections for vulnerable renter populations: families, the elderly and the poor.
There are better ways to help those populations. Among them: building more subsidized housing, providing rent subsidies to tenants or encouraging nonprofit landlords to buy up existing homes and keep the rents low. In San Francisco, an affordable-housing trust fund turned to crowdsourcing to raise money to buy “naturally affordable” properties and control rents.
My former San Francisco landlord could have raised my rent in small increments during my time as his tenant.
Owning the five-unit building seemed like just as much of a hobby as a source of income. He owned the building outright and was quick to fix everything from leaky sinks to blown-out light bulbs even though he was past 80 years old.
I enjoyed an unusually fortunate situation, but I also had three roommates. Eventually I moved out to live with fewer people and to find easier street parking elsewhere.
Sometimes landing a great apartment depends on chance, but a city’s housing policy should not provide protections to renters based on luck.
Blanca Torres' column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is email@example.com