Toward a Fuller Understanding
of Rent Control
by Paul L. Niebanck
Rent control is a conundrum. On the surface, it appears straightforward enough: A problem (excessively high rents) is identified; a solution (public regulation) is applied. Behind the facade, however, is a set of ambiguities and contradictions that seem to defy clear analysis or reliable understanding. Just as one bit of evidence or insight is brought to bear on the subject, several others rear their heads to challenge or to qualify what at first seemed like a piece of helpful information.
The history of housing policy in the United States is full of such difficulties. Struggles to develop a federal role in housing production, to maintain a clear direction for urban renewal, to find a proper balance between income subsidies and housing subsidies, and to induce a cooperative relationship between the public and private sectors in local housing concerns have all been fraught with perceptual and analytical difficulties.
But rent control in the 1980s has peculiarities that make it especially difficult—and especially important—to understand. Rapid changes in the structure of the housing delivery system, combined with housing inflation and unprecedented household formation, have frustrated the homeownership aspirations of large numbers of middle-income persons. The withdrawal of federal subsidies, combined with the preemption of available housing opportunities by newly affluent consumers, have exacerbated the difficulties experienced by lower-income and minority households in satisfying their basic needs for security of tenure and for decent housing at affordable prices. Moreover, an increasingly mobile