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Acton Commentary

Sen. Bernie Sanders tweets blueprint for a housing crisis

This week Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders, I-VT tweeted the following reaction to a story from The Economist describing rising American rent payments:

Sanders is certainly right that we face a housing crisis. Prices for housing have continued to rise with the decline in housing stock relative to population. In his book, Shut Out, Kevin Erdmann makes a convincing case that:

The United States suffers from a shortage of well-placed homes. This was true even at the peak of the housing boom in 2005. Using a broad array of evidence on housing inflation, income, migration, homeownership trends, and international comparisons, Shut Out demonstrates that high home prices have been largely caused by the constrained housing supply in a handful of magnet cities leading the new economy.

Senator Sanders’ call for national rent control does nothing about this underlying shortage but rather exacerbates it. Rent control is a price control, fixing a maximum price that landlords can charge tenants. To have any effect, rent controls must be set below the prevailing market rent. Any nationally set control such as that recommended by Sanders would have large effects in pricey housing markets like New York or San Francisco but none in less dynamic housing markets like Albion or Saginaw, Michigan.

Senator Sanders’ call for national rent control does nothing about this underlying shortage but rather exacerbates it.

And just what would those large effects be? The quantity of housing demanded will necessarily exceed the supply, exacerbating the acute housing shortage of well-placed homes. Incentives for landlords to improve or maintain properties would weaken in the face of excess demand and lead to the neglect of current housing stock. New construction, already frustrated by regulation and zoning at current market rates, would decline even further. This is a fact almost universally acknowledged by economists:

In a 1990 poll of 464 economists published in the May 1992 issue of the American Economic Review, 93 percent of U.S. respondents agreed, either completely or with provisos, that “a ceiling on rents reduces the quantity and quality of housing available.” ;Similarly, another study reported that more than 95 percent of the Canadian economists polled agreed with the statement.

New York State’s nearly seventy-year-long experiment with rent control has not prevented New York City from becoming the third most expensive city in which to rent a two-bedroom apartment. The state of Oregon’s new statewide rent control policy promises to cap rent hikes at seven percent plus inflation annually. (This came to 10.3 percent in 2019.) At 2019 rates, that would mean a maximum possible increase of 63 percent over five years. That is two percent greater than the rise in rent payments over a 66-year period which Sanders rightfully bemoans as a crisis!

In a recent New York Times interview Senator Sanders lamented the death of press releases and their replacement by tweet:

And I’ll tell you what I do worry about. I do worry about having to communicate in short sentences. I was just told by my staff the other day, the press releases, which I grew up on in politics, are now obsolete.

He explains that his campaign has abandoned them because the mainstream media no longer pays attention to them, having become fixated on social media:

You don’t read them anymore because you get so many of them. The only thing that you will respond to is a tweet, especially if it’s new. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I heard that just from my campaign staff yesterday. We don’t send out any more press releases. It’s too long, too many paragraphs. So I think that’s not a good thing.

Senator Sanders himself knows that tweets are not the venue for constructive discussions of public policy, yet still he tweets. Even press releases and more fleshed out policy proposals often ignore the realities of how they become legislation, how legislation becomes law, and how laws effect dynamic market processes. These are the things seen, which are often less important than those unseen.

So, what is the solution? We need fewer barriers to building well-placed homes. This involves adopting more flexible zoning. Oregon’s banning of single family zoning and California’s SB 50, allowing single-family homes to be replaced by apartment buildings, are excellent examples of this approach. Sometimes economics can be counterintuitive, but the best solution to a housing crisis is pretty straightforward: Build more homes.

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Daniel J. Hugger is librarian and research associate at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He studied history at Hillsdale College and earned a State of Michigan teaching certificate at Calvin College, where he completed a thesis on the role of the imagination in the writings of St. Ignatius of Loyola. For his work in history at Calvin he was nominated for a Lilly Fellowship. He has taught history, English, and economics at public schools in the Grand Rapids area and has lectured on Lord Acton.