The purpose of rent control is to make rental units cheaper for tenants than they would otherwise be. Unlike agricultural price controls, rent control in the United States has been largely a local phenomenon, although there were national rent controls in effect during World War II. Currently, about 200 cities and counties have some type of rent control provisions, and about 10% of rental units in the United States are now subject to price controls. New York City's rent control program, which began in 1943, is among the oldest in the country. Many other cities in the United States adopted some form of rent control in the 1970s. Rent controls have been pervasive in Europe since World War I, and many large cities in poorer countries have also adopted rent controls.
Rent controls in different cities differ in terms of their flexibility. Some cities allow rent increases for specified reasons, such as to make improvements in apartments or to allow rents to keep pace with price increases elsewhere in the economy. Often, rental housing constructed after the imposition of the rent control ordinances is exempted. Apartments that are vacated may also be decontrolled. For simplicity, the model presented here assumes that apartment rents are controlled at a price that does not change.
Figure 4.8 Effect of a Price Ceiling on the Market for Apartments
A price ceiling on apartment rents that is set below the equilibrium rent creates a shortage of apartments equal to (A2 − A1) apartments.
Figure 4.8 "Effect of a Price Ceiling on the Market for Apartments" shows the market for rental apartments. Notice that the demand and supply curves are drawn to look like all the other demand and supply curves you have encountered so far in this text: the demand curve is downward-sloping and the supply curve is upward-sloping.
The demand curve shows that a higher price (rent) reduces the quantity of apartments demanded. For example, with higher rents, more young people will choose to live at home with their parents. With lower rents, more will choose to live in apartments. Higher rents may encourage more apartment sharing; lower rents would induce more people to live alone.
The supply curve is drawn to show that as rent increases, property owners will be encouraged to offer more apartments to rent. Even though an aerial photograph of a city would show apartments to be fixed at a point in time, owners of those properties will decide how many to rent depending on the amount of rent they anticipate. Higher rents may also induce some homeowners to rent out apartment space. In addition, renting out apartments implies a certain level of service to renters, so that low rents may lead some property owners to keep some apartments vacant.
Rent control is an example of a price ceiling, a maximum allowable price. With a price ceiling, the government forbids a price above the maximum. A price ceiling that is set below the equilibrium price creates a shortage that will persist.
Suppose the government sets the price of an apartment at PC in Figure 4.8 "Effect of a Price Ceiling on the Market for Apartments". Notice that PC is below the equilibrium price of PE. At PC, we read over to the supply curve to find that sellers are willing to offer A1 apartments. Reading over to the demand curve, we find that consumers would like to rent A2 apartments at the price ceiling of PC. Because PC is below the equilibrium price, there is a shortage of apartments equal to (A2 - A1). (Notice that if the price ceiling were set above the equilibrium price it would have no effect on the market since the law would not prohibit the price from settling at an equilibrium price that is lower than the price ceiling).
Figure 4.9 The Unintended Consequences of Rent Control
Controlling apartment rents at PC creates a shortage of (A2 − A1) apartments. For A1 apartments, consumers are willing and able to pay PB, which leads to various "backdoor" payments to apartment owners.
If rent control creates a shortage of apartments, why do some citizens nonetheless clamor for rent control and why do governments often give in to the demands? The reason generally given for rent control is to keep apartments affordable for low- and middle-income tenants.
But the reduced quantity of apartments supplied must be rationed in some way, since, at the price ceiling, the quantity demanded would exceed the quantity supplied. Current occupants may be reluctant to leave their dwellings because finding other apartments will be difficult. As apartments do become available, there will be a line of potential renters waiting to fill them, any of whom is willing to pay the controlled price of PC or more. In fact, reading up to the demand curve in Figure 4.9 "The Unintended Consequences of Rent Control" from A1 apartments, the quantity available at PC, you can see that for A1 apartments, there are potential renters willing and able to pay PB. This often leads to various "backdoor" payments to apartment owners, such as large security deposits, payments for things renters may not want (such as furniture), so-called "key" payments ("The monthly rent is $500 and the key price is $3,000"), or simple bribes.
In the end, rent controls and other price ceilings often end up hurting some of the people they are intended to help. Many people will have trouble finding apartments to rent. Ironically, some of those who do find apartments may actually end up paying more than they would have paid in the absence of rent control. And many of the people that the rent controls do help (primarily current occupants, regardless of their income, and those lucky enough to find apartments) are not those they are intended to help (the poor). There are also costs in government administration and enforcement.
Because New York City has the longest history of rent controls of any city in the United States, its program has been widely studied. There is general agreement that the rent control program has reduced tenant mobility, led to a substantial gap between
rents on controlled and uncontrolled units, and favored long-term residents at the expense of newcomers to the city.
A more direct means of helping poor tenants, one that would avoid interfering with the functioning of the market, would be to subsidize their incomes. As with price floors, interfering with the market mechanism may solve one problem, but it creates many others at the same time.