The False Argument Against Rent Control

By C.R. Mills

Facing massive rent increases, tenants throughout Sacramento want and need respite from the brutal housing market. They’re being forced out of their homes and out of the city, leaving behind broken social bonds and holes in the communities they belonged to. Rent control offers an affordable public policy solution to their woes.

Yet in the coming months, Sacramentans will hear some version of the same argument over and over: we can’t implement or strengthen rent control, because then developers wouldn’t build new housing. Decreased incomes for landlords caused by rent control, the argument goes, would be such a financial disincentive, builders would simply throw up their hands and give up on the prospect of making any money constructing new residences. Mayor Darrell Steinberg, multiple City Council members, and the California Apartment Association (CAA), a well-funded landlord lobbyist group, already consistently make this argument whenever asked to comment on rent control.

So it’s important for residents to know: this most common argument against rent control is also the most cynical.

For starters, landlords would be able to set initial rents of new housing units at whatever amount they’d like. Once a tenant moved in, that rent could only increase by a certain amount per year - but this amount would be tied to inflation, and high enough to ensure the landlord would make a reasonable return on their investment. This reveals arguments against rent control aren’t about whether or not landlords and developers would make money. Instead, they’re about landlords being unwilling to sacrifice maximum profits for the benefit of the very community in which they’re doing business.

More insidiously, the argument rests on the false assumption that when it comes to housing in Sacramento, people must accept that they are at the mercy of the private sector. Rent-control opponents argue that in order to have affordable housing, we must do everything in our power to accommodate developers and their desire to maximize their profits.

We’ve rejected this type of thinking in all other sectors that impact our lives. If we applied these assumptions to schools, for example, we would be living in a city where education was not free, but cost whatever private educators wanted to charge. We would pay tolls to cross every privately-funded bridge across the Sacramento and American Rivers, because we begged developers to construct them. We would allow the private sector to charge whatever they wanted for the water we drink and the electricity we consume to ensure maximum profitability. And we’d cease to regulate air quality to ensure large incomes for those industries emitting toxins into our atmosphere.

Housing isn’t just real estate, a commodity to be bought and sold. Housing is people’s homes. Yet when faced with a simple choice about whether to regulate housing in a way that ensures residents can stay in these homes, our politicians turn their backs on the people they represent. Why?

No need to look too far. The CAA spent more than $33,000 in the last three years alone on the campaigns of various City Council members, including Larry Carr, Eric Guerra, Angelique Ashby, Steven Hansen and Rick Jennings. They also have already dropped thousands into Mayor Steinberg’s 2020 re-election campaign.

Don’t believe those that tell you rent control wouldn’t help Sacramento’s residents. Rent control is a simple tool that would help people stay in their homes and wouldn’t prevent new development. It should be implemented and strengthened before more citizens are forced out of the city they love.