As Coloradans grapple with untenable rents, state lawmakers are serving up one of several possible solutions: A repeal of the statewide ban on rent control.
The new bill has quickly become controversial. Rent control has been outlawed in Colorado since 1981, marking a stark shift in housing policy discussions. For some, this makes the conversation a nonstarter. Then again, 1981 is the same year that Sony first released the 3½-inch floppy disk, proving that just because something was once relevant doesn’t mean it still is.
It also means that economic research based on decades-old policies should probably be taken with a large grain of salt.
But before I dive into why the rent control ban should be repealed, I’d like to first acknowledge my critics. Rest assured, if you’re preparing to email me links to the 2018 research by Professor Rebecca Diamond, or to suggest that I haven’t understood Economics 101, you can relax. I’m already keenly aware of both arguments. The problem is that, in part, they fall flat.
Take, for example, the 2018 study mentioned above. For several years now, critics have served it up as a prime example of why rent control has failed. In some ways it’s true. While the findings revealed that many renters were helped immensely, it also found that landlords and developers sought loopholes that resulted in less desirable impacts over time.
These included some tenants being prematurely evicted or bought out, more high-end construction and an overall 5% reduction in housing stock over the 16-year period of analysis. Ultimately, the savings gained by some tenants increased the costs for others, creating winners and losers in the rental market.
Obviously, this is not ideal.
But contrary to what critics suggest, the takeaway is not as simple as claiming a failed policy. Context and methodology matters, and both are sorely lacking in this discussion.
While the study publishing date is 2018, the methodology is not based on modern policy. Rather, the study leverages, as do most studies on rent control, a historical analysis, in this case of a 1994 rent control policy enacted in San Francisco with outcomes ending in 2010. The study also fails to take into adequate context other policies that would impact the success of a rent control measure, such as zoning laws, housing subsidies and eviction laws.
Accordingly, the mixed findings are less of an argument against all rent control, and more of a lesson in the pitfalls to avoid when seeking rent stabilization.
In this light, discussions of rent control are neither a “deal with the Devil” nor a denial of economic reality. If anything, it’s very much the opposite in that raising the topic of rent control is clearly a dire acknowledgment of Colorado’s current economic reality. I’d even go so far as to hazard a guess that each of the columnists writing against rent control are fortunate enough to own their own homes, and therefore are out of touch with the economic reality for renters in their own right.
As a renter of nearly 20 years, I know the struggles tenants face firsthand. Not once in the years that I’ve rented here have I paid the recommended 30% or less of one’s annual income in housing costs. This includes efforts to reduce costs of living via roommates and attempts to buy a home before getting shut out of the market completely.
Unfortunately, none of these efforts have proved enough, and that was prior to events such as the global pandemic and the Marshall fire. Case in point: Discussions of rent control are first and foremost a reflection of extreme renter frustration and wealth inequity: We just can’t take the economic pain anymore.
That said, I’m not going to pretend that rent control is a perfect solution, or even the right solution on its own. Clearly it’s not, and given the choice, I’d have much rather enacted policies that prevented the vast economic inequities that led to the housing crisis in the first place. But until scientists solve time travel, that option is gone. Deep economic inequity is already here, and unless we do something about it quickly it will only get worse before it gets better. Continuing to wait for the market to slowly sort itself out is not a reasonable option.
This is why kicking the discussion of rent control to local governments makes sense. Any Coloradan should easily recognize the vast difference between housing issues on the West Slope and the Front Range. From research, it’s clear that any possible rent control success is directly tied to local policy factors as much as it is tied to state policy. For some municipalities, this means rent control might make sense. For others, it could be a disaster.
And that’s all the new bill would do, let local residents decide. So why not give all Coloradans an extra tool in their tool box? If it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t have to be used. It really is as simple as that.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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