Rent Control in the New Lochner Era
Manheim, Karl, UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy
CONTENTS I. Introduction II. Recent Developments III. The Takings Clause A. Fifth Amendment "Property" 1. Background Principles 2. Fractional Property B. Possessory Takings 1. General Rule 2. Rent Control C. Regulatory Takings 1. Economic Impact 2. Substantially Advancing Prong D. Unconstitutional Conditions 1. Discretionary Benefits and Relinquished Rights 2. Exactions 3. Individual Adjudicative Discretionary Actions E. Temporary vs Permanent Takings 1. Doctrinal Origins 2. Regulatory Delay IV. Due Process Clause A. The Theory of "Confiscation" 1. Modern Standard for Confiscation 2. Particular Problems in Confiscation B. Preference for Takings Analysis V. Conclusion
Housing is one of the necessities of life. (1) It also comprises a large share of most Americans' disposable income. Unlike other consumables, competition in supply and demand does not result in effective market restrictions on price. First, there is a limited supply of housing. The limit is both natural (there is a finite amount of land) and artificial (zoning restrictions limit housing supply). Second, consumers of rental housing do not have the same market power as do consumers of other goods. This is principally because substituting one product or brand for another, say at lease renewal time, exacts a high transaction cost--the considerable expense and inconvenience of relocating. Since rental housing is not fungible, each landlord is a demi-monopolist. (2) This is not meant as a pejorative, only to describe the owner's market power.
The absence of a free market in rental housing (at least in an idealized sense) often leads to exploitation by housing providers. This is especially true in times of economic stress, when the nation's resources are devoted to more pressing needs (e.g., wartime), or during periods of high inflation and real estate speculation. It is during these times that government policy makers often consider restrictions on rent increases and other forms of tenant protection. (3)
Of course, there are other means to overcome market inefficiencies in housing. Tax and cash subsidies can encourage housing production or assist with rent payments. Zoning incentives can do likewise. But federal and state governments are not as concerned with housing as they once were; the issue is currently perceived as one of local concern. As a result, municipalities are left holding the bag, so to speak, with a dwindling arsenal of regulatory means available to them in addressing housing shortages. Rent control is one of those still-remaining means.
Rent controls were first enacted in the United States during World War I. Since then, the Supreme Court has considered the constitutionality of rent control at least a dozen times, upholding the challenged law on every occasion save one. (4) It is somewhat remarkable that even during periods of extraordinary judicial protection of property rights, rent control laws have nonetheless survived. This was true in the Lochner era, (5) as well as during the modern resurgence of property rights activism, at least at the Supreme Court.
Despite long-standing judicial acceptance of rent regulation, the attack on rent control has been unrelenting. For some reason, rent control triggers greater emotional and ideological opposition than do most other forms of economic regulation. Virtually every constitutional theory has been tried. Most challenges are based on the takings and due process clauses, but the contracts clause (6) and even the first (7) and thirteenth amendments (8) and equal protection (9) have made their way into the opinions. Creative statutory claims have also been mounted, such as the argument that rent control is an illegal form of price fixing. …