After 2017’s City Council races in Minneapolis and Ginger Jentzen’s strong showing, rent control has re-entered the housing discourse in the Twin Cities again, despite the fact that it is preempted at the state level. It’s my belief that the preemption and much of the opposition to rent control is based in a certain inflexibility of thought when it comes to the tools available to help Minnesota make its way through our housing crisis.
That basis of opposition seems appropriate considering the greatest weakness of rent control is the inflexibility that comes with it. In New York style rent control, renters in controlled units don’t want to move out, even as their personal situation changes. Landlords become reluctant to put money into controlled units where the rent doesn’t increase with investment. Apply these two factors across a wide spectrum and you can petrify a housing market. That’s where the conversation stops usually, understandably so. It’s a bleak image, but it fails to recognize the bleak reality and immediacy of a market that is failing people right now.
Rent control is so often spoken about in market terms. How will it affect The Market? How will The Market react? It’s a myopic train of thought. Rent control by definition does not care about the market, it is designed to disconnect people from the market. Rent control is a form of decommodification. It’s designed to treat a person’s housing as something unaffected by the hustle of other people trying to make money. You do not start a blaze with a fire extinguisher.
Rent control is not a market solution, it is not a replacement for a strong push for increased supply. Increasing supply is, in the best case scenario, a medium to long term solution, and with the Twin Cities’ population growing each year, supply not only needs to satisfy growth, but also exceed it to relieve the pressure on existing residents. So yes, obviously, more supply, as long as we’re operating within capitalist constraints, supply-side economics is how to keep the housing environment healthy. Rent control is for the here and now. It’s for the people who are a part of this community, but have detached from the larger market in a professional sense. The elderly, the disabled, the disenfranchised all require protection or we will lose essential parts of our communities as those people are displaced by rising rents.
The question we should be asking is: what kind of protection can we offer people without dealing damaging results to others? That means New York style rent freezes are probably out of the question, as they’re the embodiment of housing environment petrification. As long as we’re dealing with market forces, the market would have a conniption over that. What rent control could look like is a throttle on rent increases. As an example, if we’re looking at elder protection, tie that throttle to something like social security payments. Another way to incorporate rent control into a housing environment that’s dealing with market forces is to use an old Republican trick: throw working people a bone in the form of rent control but make it temporary. Tie rent control’s existence to vacancy rates, then people get the immediate protection they need and they get to keep it until decision makers and the market can get their act together and put, and keep, housing in a healthy place for everyone.
As long as state level preemption exists discussions on rent control are going to be an exercise in blowing hot air, but if we’re going to discussing theoreticals anyway I think it’s short sighted to limit our toolkit by saying no to any form of rent control.