Perhaps no issue illustrates the challenges of public policy and public discourse more clearly than rent control. On one side are activists with (let’s be charitable) the “just do something” mentality that believes society must use government to directly help people having troubles. On the other side is a broad consensus among economists across the political spectrum who warn that rent control limits the construction of rentals for anybody but the wealthy and places a ceiling on how much landlords can spend maintaining and improving units for everybody else.
So, those who want intelligent policy that will actually lead to an improvement of living conditions have to match their ability to spread economic lessons among a general public with little time for and interest in public policy debates against the ability of the activists to find and promote sympathetic stories of people whose circumstances pull at the heart strings, usually with the advantage of journalists who only present the stories, not the lessons. Few people are (like me) going to say anything against such an emotional set-up unless those with a financial interest in the issue (landlords) add some monetary incentive to the scale, in which case the activists will deploy ad hominem attacks insisting that a speaker’s pay means his or her arguments can be ignored.
And so, in Rhode Island, the only thing most voters will hear about rent control will come through one-sided reports like Christine Dunn’s in the Providence Journal:
Meeting Wednesday morning at the home of an elderly couple facing eviction, about 20 activists from DARE (Direct Action for Rights and Equality) announced the start of an effort to put a rent-control initiative on the Providence ballot this fall. …
Butch, 78, and Madonna Trottier, 76, live on the first floor of 40 Grove St. Butch Trottier said that their son, Steven, who is in his 40s and is disabled, lives on the second floor. Christopher Samih-Rotondo, an organizer from DARE, said the third-floor tenant has already been evicted.
As I say again and again, price is just a measure of value. In this case, the value of rentals in general is much higher than the Trottiers are paying, and the value is greatest to students attending nearby colleges.
Dunn tucks the real problem into the tail end of the family’s narrative: “Butch Trottier said the family has not been able to find a residence they can afford.” Rent control will make this problem worse, by reducing incentive for people to invest in the creation and maintenance of lower-end housing. The way to address these problems is by looking at the underlying causes, not by using the force of government to deny economic reality and force people to behave as activists with no immediate skin in the game want them to behave.