Tag: rent control

San Francisco’s Self-Inflicted Housing Problem

Housing is expensive and hard to find in beautiful San Francisco. In today’s New York Times, one would-be housing provider explains why. Scott James writes:

[A]fter renting out a one-bedroom apartment in my home for several years, I will never do it again. San Francisco’s anti-landlord housing laws and political climate make it untenable….

[A] complex legal structure has been created to make evictions for just cause extraordinarily difficult.

At first many of these rules governed only apartment complexes and larger properties with many units. But in 1994 the city applied the regulations to homes if they included just one rental on the property. In other cities, including New York City, such small-time landlords have far more rights over their own homes.

As he goes on to describe his experience with the last tenant in his downstairs apartment—a story featuring a sledgehammer, a flooded apartment, and a plugged-in appliance in an overflowing sink—I was reminded of the 1990 movie Pacific Heights, not coincidentally set in San Francisco.

It’s a thriller that is almost a documentary on the horrors of landlord-tenant law—and that is confirmed by today’s story. A young couple buys a big house in San Francisco and rents an apartment to a young man. He never pays them, and they can’t get him out, and then things get really scary. The lawyer lectures the couple—and the audience—on how “of course you’re right, but you’ll never win.” When I saw it, I just knew this happened to someone—maybe the screenwriter or someone he knew. Sure enough, when Cato published William Tucker’s book Rent Control, Zoning, and Affordable Housing, and I asked Pacific Heights director John Schlesinger for a jacket blurb, he readily agreed to say, “If you thought Pacific Heights was fiction, you need to read this book”; and he told me that the screenwriter had a relative who had gone through a tenant nightmare.

Want to instantly create 10,600 rental units in San Francisco? Reform landlord-tenant law so that small landlords come back to the market. In the meantime, watch Pacific Heights.

Can the Government Destroy Propety Values ‘Temporarily’ Without Compensation?

This blogpost was co-authored by Trevor Burrus.

A seemingly complicated legal case that has caught Cato’s attention, CCA Associates v. United States, boils down to a simple constitutional question: If the government reneges on a contract and forces a property owner to rent apartments at below-market rates for longer than originally agreed, does it constitute a taking under the Fifth Amendment (which would require the government to pay just compensation)?

In 1961, Congress amended the National Housing Act to create incentives for private builders to supply housing to low- and moderate-income families. Builders were given below-market mortgages backed by the federal government and, in return, the owners agreed to certain restrictions from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the most relevant being limitations on raising rent. Owners were also given the right to pre-pay the 40-year mortgage after 20 years, however, freeing them at that time from their rent-control obligations.

In 1990, as one 20-year period came to a close, Congress took away the owners’ right to pre-pay their mortgages. In 1996, however, Congress returned the property owners’ right to pre-pay. Therefore, between 1991 (when the original 20-year period would have lapsed) and 1996, the property owners were forced to rent at below-market rates.

CCA Associates is one of many similarly situated property owners who are suing the federal government for its clear act of duplicity. CCA Associates’ case, among many others, has been bouncing back and forth between the Court of Federal Claims and the Federal Circuit for many years.

One of the key questions is how to determine the degree to which the government’s actions economically affected CCA Associates’ property. One view is that there was substantial economic impact during the five-year period between when Congress eliminated and then restored the pre-pay right – CCA Associates lost approximately 81% of the property’s possible value during those five years. Another view looks at the impact during the five-year period as fraction of the entire life of the property, not just the diminished value during the five-year period. Under this calculation, CCA Associates only lost 18% of the total value of the property.

The Federal Circuit adopted the latter formula and held that 18% is not a substantial enough economic impact to constitute a Fifth Amendment taking. Cato has joined the National Federation of Independent Business, the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, and Professor Steven Eagle of George Mason University Law School on an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to take CCA Associates’ case.

We argue that adopting the Federal Circuit’s answer to the so-called “denominator question” – that is, whether the denominator in the “economic impact” fraction should be the entire life of the property or the shorter (here five-year) period during which the government temporarily took the owners’ right to rent at the market price – could preclude all possible claims that the government committed a “temporary taking.” By choosing a big-enough denominator, courts can always characterize an economic impact as being below the constitutional threshold.

We also argue that, in applying the Supreme Court’s factors in the famous 1978 Penn Central case (which set up the analytical framework for regulatory takings), the Federal Circuit incorrectly treated the factors as a magic formula and ignored other relevant factors. Finally, we point out how courts are obviously confused about the proper standards to apply in these cases, thus creating a perfect time for the Supreme Court’s guidance.

The Court will decide this fall whether to hear CCA Associates v. United States.

Rent Control Violates Property Rights and Due Process

This blogpost was coauthored by Cato legal associate Trevor Burrus, who also worked on the brief discussed below.

Rent control is literally a textbook example of bad economic policy. Economics textbooks often use it as an example of how price ceilings create shortages, poor quality goods, and under-the-table dealings. A 1992 survey revealed that 93 percent of economists believe that rent control laws reduce both the quality and quantity of housing.

As expected, therefore, New York City’s Rent Stabilization Law—the most (in)famous in the country—has led to precisely these effects: housing is scarce, apartment buildings are dilapidated because owners can’t charge enough to fix them, and housing costs have only increased (in part because costs are transferred to non-rent mechanisms such as “non-refundable deposits”). Yet the RSL persists, benefiting those grandfathered individuals who rent at lower rates but hurting the city as a whole.

Harmon v. Kimmel challenges New York’s law on the grounds that it is an arbitrary and unsupportable regulation amounting to an uncompensated taking that violates the Fifth Amendment.

Jim Harmon’s family owns and lives in a five-story brownstone in the Central Park West Historical District. The Harmons inherited the building—and along with it three rent-controlled tenants. Those tenants have occupied apartments in the building for a combined total of 91 years at a rate 59 percent below market. In their lawsuit, however, the Harmons face many unfriendly precedents that have given states free reign to regulate property, to the point that it is occupied on an essentially permanent basis while surviving Fifth Amendment scrutiny.

One way to challenge some of these laws is to argue they are so arbitrary and poorly justified that they violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. Because this is an especially difficult type of challenge to bring, Cato joined the Pacific Legal Foundation and the Small Property Owners of San Francisco Institute on a brief supporting the Harmons’ request that the Supreme Court review lower-court rulings against them. Although the Court has ruled that the Takings Clause does not permit challenges based on claims that the alleged taking fails to “substantially advance legitimate state interests,” the Due Process Clause is an independent textual provision.

We thus clarify the relationship between property rights and due process, arguing that a law which advances no legitimate governmental purpose can be challenged under the Due Process Clause. To hold otherwise would be to deny property owners any meaningful avenue for defending their property from onerous and irrational regulations.

Short-Sighted Rules for Affordable Housing

The state of Maryland wants more people to have affordable housing – at least if they’ve already got it. Concerned that the owners of mobile home parks might sell the land for other uses, “affordable housing advocates” succesfully lobbied Maryland legislators this year for

legislation that, they say, discourages owners of mobile-home parks from selling their properties. If the landowner does sell, it provides the homeowner with some protection.

Under the law, which was passed earlier this year, a mobile-home park owner who wants to sell and change land use must give written notification to the residents and provide displaced homeowners with a relocation plan and relocation assistance that equals 10 months’ worth of rent. The legislation applies to mobile parks with more than 38 sites.

Now the first thing to be said about this is that it is theft. That’s become so common in legislatures that we’ve become accustomed to it. But we shouldn’t lose sight of what happened here: Some people spent their own money to buy land. They rented that land to people with mobile homes, who knew that they were not buying the land, they were just renting a place to park their mobile homes. (The word “mobile” might be a tipoff that they’re made to move.) And then the government took away the owner’s right to change the use of his land. The owner could still sell it, of course, as long as he gives written notification of his plans, provides the renters with a “relocation plan,” and pays them 10 months’ rent to leave his land. That’s a huge burden; the government has simply appropriated much of the value of the owner’s land.

But there’s an obvious long-term consequence here, too, one that the Washington Post didn’t get to in its 1000-word story. What’s going to occur to a landowner as she reads this story? She’s going to think, if I allow anyone to park a mobile home on my property, I’ll be permanently harnessed to that tenant, like a medieval serf. So maybe I’d better not rent any space to a mobile home owner. But then she’s going to think a bit further: What about other kinds of affordable housing? If I build inexpensive apartments or bungalows, and rent them to people who need affordable housing, will the state of Maryland decide that I shouldn’t be allowed to change the use of the land or sell it? After all, wealthy Montgomery County, Maryland – which doesn’t have many mobile homes – does have a 20-page handbook of rules and restrictions for any owner who might want to convert an apartment building to condominiums, including the county’s right to buy the land and a guarantee of lifetime tenancies for low-income elderly tenants. William Tucker pointed out in a 1997 Cato paper how rent control laws usually had to be followed by condo conversion restrictions, as building owners tried to find some way to make a profit on their buildings. And then of course the whole series of attempts to “protect” affordable housing leads to housing shortages and sky-high rents.

If you want people to supply affordable housing, it’s probably a good idea not to pile taxes, restrictions, and threats of confiscation on the backs of those who do.

$288/Month for an Upper East Side Studio

“Rent Control Is a Vanishing New York Treasure,” proclaims the headline over a New York Times story. Like Josh Blackman, I think “treasure” isn’t the right word here: “anachronism”, “disgrace” and “abject policy calamity” are more like it.

P.S. The Times article sympathetically depicts a Gotham tenant who pays the legally dictated rent of $288 to live in one of the nation’s most desirable neighborhoods. You guessed it: he feels put upon in that situation, believes his landlord should be doing much more to spruce up the place, and has teamed up with Manhattan State Sen. Liz Krueger to pursue his fight.