Tel Aviv’s housing protest grows, and Saturday night tens of thousands of protesters descended on HaBima Square, demanding rent control. Although I have yet to see media heavyweights on the left echo those demands – instead, they view it in abstract terms of people power versus the state – they are clearly too important to ignore right now. There is already a response from the right and from (classical) liberals saying that it’s government’s fault and that the correct solution is deregulation of new construction.
However, since government intervention is ubiquitous in expensive cities, including several famous ones I have lived in, I’d like to talk about case studies of world cities. In most of the last ten and a half years, I lived in Singapore and New York. Both have extensive government regulation, despite the capitalist orientation of Singapore. However, this government involvement takes different forms, though some of consequences are similar.
In New York, there’s rent control, precisely what the Tel Aviv protesters are demanding. More precisely, there are two forms of rent regulation: rent control, and rent stabilization. Rent control is far stronger, requires the tenant to have continuously occupied the apartment since 1971, and only applies to 2% of rental units, mostly in Manhattan. Rent stabilization allows higher rents and merely limits the increase in rent every year to a few percent, and is far more common, applying to about half of rental units. Both figures come from the most recent housing survey, in 2008. There are also public housing programs, some for the poor and some for the middle class. In addition, the Inclusionary Housing Program encourages developers to set aside 20% of the units as affordable housing, by offering them a bonus in floor area ratio.
In Singapore, the main form of government involvement takes the form of subsidized public housing, called HDB estates after the housing development board. These are rented and sold to Singaporean citizens at a discount, and are home to 85% of Singaporeans. The mandatory savings accounts, which function similarly to social security programs except that people only get back what they paid in, with no redistribution of wealth, encourages home ownership by allowing people to use their accounts to buy housing. Thus home ownership is high, in contrast to the situation in other expensive cities, such as New York.
The important feature in both cases is that not everyone is eligible for reduced rent. In New York, rent stabilization disappears in certain cases if the tenant leaves (vacancy decontrol); in Singapore, HDB is not available to non-resident immigrants, who form 25% of the country’s population. This is also seen in other expensive cities, including Monaco, where the minority of residents who are citizens have access to highly subsidized public housing, and Hong Kong, where half the population receives housing subsidies.
The result is parallel markets. There’s an affordable market, and an unregulated market, which is much more expensive than it would be without government involvement since there is a restricted supply of market-rate housing. Effectively, in order to prevent mass homelessness, the government increases rent for unfavored groups – expats in Singapore, relative newcomers in New York – in order to reduce that of favored groups. Rich members of the unfavored groups, for example executive expats, can easily pay the higher rent. Poor members, for example recent immigrants from developing countries, pay the rent by living in overcrowded housing.
A more pernicious result, common in New York, is landlords’ recurrent attempts to move rental units from the controlled or stabilized market to the unregulated one; although rent control is rare, it is concentrated in desirable neighborhoods that once hosted many working-class artists, such as SoHo and the West Village. Since the path of least resistance is vacancy decontrol, landlords harass such tenants in any way possible.
Immigrants who speak little English are a favored target of harassment, since they often don’t know their rights, and since many of their neighborhoods, for examples Washington Heights and Alphabet City, are desirable for college students. In contrast, students are often a standard replacement, since they have more money due to parental support, and are transient and therefore don’t complain as much about maintenance. However, everyone who is stabilized or controlled can be at risk; many of the stories I have heard come out of the Village rather than Washington Heights. Community board members know countless instances of landlords who defer maintenance, install noisy or inefficient heating and refuse tenants’ suggestions for better options, turn off the electricity or the water at inopportune times, and even engage in outright fraud. An anti-gentrification activist from West Harlem told a Columbia student group of landlords who pretend not to have received rent checks from their tenants, and then use this as an excuse to evict them.
I do not know whether the same results exist in other expensive cities with extensive rent control, for example Paris; I would appreciate help from any reader who knows the situation there. However, I posit that at least some degree of the two above issues are universal to a regime in which part of the market is regulated and part is not.
Based on admittedly partial information, I’d recommend against rent control in Tel Aviv, and for other forms of reform, including some government intervention when necessary. The differences with other land-constrained cities, in which intervention is universal, can be summed as follows:
1. Tel Aviv, while dense, is not as land-constrained as Singapore, which is limited by national borders, or New York, which is limited by the available subway infrastructure; therefore, there’s less inherent market pressure on land prices.
2. Tel Aviv’s zoning code allows much less development, and can be reformed accordingly. The 1920s-era Geddes Plan, good for its time but now in need of change, mandates setbacks of 4 meters front and back and 3 meters of each side, roughly halving the buildable area of the 20*25 lots typical of the city, and limits height to 4 stories. In addition, the city makes dividing apartments into smaller units so difficult landlords have taken to doing it illegally
3. A big portion of the problem is low purchasing power among specific groups, namely students, who do not have access to free tuition as in many progressive European countries or loans as in the US. Thus it’s not just a housing problem, as already noted by some protesters.
In general, there’s a distinction between socialism and bureaucracy. Social-democratic programs can be delivered with remarkably little bureaucracy. The Soviet Union was both socialist and bureaucratic, but Scandinavia’s quality of government is much better, as seen in its stellar rankings on corruption indices. In contrast, many developing countries impose many hurdles on starting a business without appreciable socialism, for example India’s license raj. The difficulty of building affordable market-rate housing in many cities can be traced to bureaucracy in the form of an onerous permit process, a zoning code that requires so many variations that developers are at the mercy of politicians, and similar questions that boil down to political power.
The consequence is that the process of reform must target regulations that empower kvetching community board and city leaders to make landlords’ lives miserable. Good deregulation would make it easier to build and easier to build densely, and streamline the permit process. It would not try to inflict maximum damage on tenants. The reason I’d mistrust any deregulation coming out of the present government is that its recent record – for example, cutting funding to fire services in the years leading up to the Mount Carmel fire – is not one of trying to make government better, but of trying to make government so small and inefficient it can be drowned in a bathtub. It’s exactly this attempt to destroy public services and give handouts to politically connected entrepreneurs that people in Tel Aviv are really protesting.