A recent newspaper article described the high apartment rental costs faced by tenants in many American cities, sometimes reaching 50% of their income. There is little doubt that high rental costs cause people to forego other necessary spending on items that, at the time, such as health care, do not have the same urgency as shelter. Despite the large number of vacant homes the rental market remains very difficult. Understanding the reasons behind the high rental costs may provide suggestions for alleviating the problems.
The imbalance of supply and demand is common to all markets but the causes are probably not the same. When there is greater demand for rental units than there are units available for rent, under normal economic circumstances, rents will rise until a strong resistance level is reached. Conversely, when there is a surplus of units available for rent, rents will decline. The solution to rising rents lies in increasing the supply. Thus, it is worthwhile visiting the root causes of supply shortages.
The collapse of the mortgage markets in 2008 effectively acted as a brake on financing for new projects. Thus, many markets facing rising rentals have not had any new supply of housing units commenced in three years. Home foreclosures forced former homeowners to become renters. These factors assured absorption of any surplus supply of rental housing in most markets. If the foreclosed homes had immediately become part of the rental supply, the problems would not be so pronounced. But, for the most part the units in the process of foreclosure or those already foreclosed remain vacant awaiting sale.
Some causes of supply shortages may be artificially induced by restrictive land use policies governing the construction of multi-family housing and allowable densities. For example, many years ago, when apartment construction was booming, San Francisco, in response to political pressure, substantially reduced allowable density in many residential neighborhoods, by 50%. Height and bulk limits in many jurisdictions plus open space requirements also contributed to density reductions. These kinds of controls are subjective and wholly artificial. Cities must revisit their land use policies in recognition of the fact that the population is growing and putting pressure on housing demand. Restrictive land use policies of the past may not any longer be appropriate either now or for the future. Cities can control development but they must recognize that they cannot control population growth and must act to assure available shelter for all. Planning must cease being a political process where the decisions are based on an idealized set of criteria reflecting the desires of current influential citizen groups and become a true process of planning for the future.
Another factor contributing to shortages in many markets is the time consuming and unbelievably expensive process of obtaining entitlements. These not only discourage developers because of the costs and risks but also substantially delay the introduction of new supply in addition to adding artificial costs to that supply. Much of this problem lies in the political process involved in obtaining entitlements. Cities must address this problem and create responsible zoning and land use ordinances that allow a quick project review and granting of entitlements without the accompanying political theater.
Creating avenues for increasing supply will not, alone, resolve the problem of escalating rents. Other artificial policies need to be changed as well. In some jurisdictions, every new project is required to include a percentage of “affordable” housing units as defined by local code. The original theory was that the developers would, thus, help contribute to the affordable housing supply. But, what the rule makers overlooked was the fact that the developers don’t pay for this. Rather, the cost is passed through to the market rate consumer who, in the end, subsidizes the “affordable” renter. Increasing property taxes, which are ordinarily passed on to tenants also increase the burden of rent.
In cities with residential rent controls, supply is artificially constrained as tenants with protected low rents are hesitant to move and give up their advantageous position unless there is no other choice. In most cases, because there is no shortage of labor and materials to build new projects, rent control is no longer necessary but has become a political entitlement that has spawned tenant’s rights groups to continue pressing for retention of controls. The best way to enjoy level rents is to maintain a steady supply of new units in a given market. Local government should search for methods of incentivizing developers rather than enacting land use policies, codes and ordinances that discourage risk taking by them.
It is inevitable that cities will experience a dominance of multi-family housing as population growth continues its natural course. The vast majority of the population can’t afford to own an urban single family home. Land is just too expensive to make that option a reality. With expensive land comes the need to use that land more efficiently. Allowing increased densities is a step toward more efficient land use. But, this needs to be done in concert with the development of efficient and convenient public transit in order to eliminate the traffic congestion caused by the proliferation of private automobiles. If municipal transit was efficient, most people would not need their autos and, instead might park them in large parking facilities on the periphery rather than in their building. However, this type of planning would also bring the need to permit residential projects and neighborhoods to become mixed use projects with essential retail and health care services to be located close by. Land use policies of this type would end the ban against retail uses mixed in with residential uses as those bans now appear in many single family neighborhoods.
What all of this suggests is that it does no good to complain about rising residential rents It would be a better use of time and energy to work for a major revision of land use policies that focus on the most probable future needs of a given community. Whatever changes may be enacted should be flexible enough to accommodate future, unknown or unidentified changes without cumbersome bureaucratic delay. Most importantly, planning for the future should not be a political exercise but rather should be only a planning exercise.

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