The New York Times Posts Pro-Rent-Control Cringe

Rent control is not a smart idea. We also learned that it is not funny.

It is now The New York TimesA short documentary featuring Jeff Seal, self-described comedian and videojournalist, tries to present the comedy case for the controversial “good cause of eviction” bill that is currently being considered in New York.

The bill, sponsored by socialist state Sen. Julie Salazar (D, WF–New York City), would require landlords to renew lease agreements with their current tenants, and prevent them evicting renters except for a few enumerated instances of “good cause.”

Tenants could be expelled for violating the substantive provisions of the lease or damaging the unit. However, this provision has a significant asterisk.

Salazar’s bill still would protect tenants against eviction for not paying rent, even if rent rose less than 3 per cent or 150 percent above inflation. If that happens, tenants would be able to claim in eviction proceedings the rent rise was not “reasonable”. The landlords will have to show that their rent increases were reasonable.

The bill rent control is now functionally done by this. Although Salazar objected to this description it is difficult to think of another name.

(No one is arguing, for instance, that a near-identical policy in St. Paul, Minnesota, which caps rent increases at 3 percent but allows landlords to apply for exemptions, is not rent control.)

The bill has been criticized by all manner of landlord groups. These groups argue that this policy discourages developers from creating new housing and encourages landlords to take existing properties off of the rental market, or spend less on maintaining them.

“Strict regulations lead to reduced quality and lower quantity of rental housing,” Joseph Condon, general counsel for landlord group the Community Housing Improvement Program, told RealDeal earlier in the week. “There is no historical example that would support this.”

Seal gives little attention to the arguments presented and the evidence supporting them in this mini-documentary. He spends twelve minutes (it feels like longer) switching between the newsman and comedian roles, but not doing an especially good job of either.

Seal is dressed as an actor in the opening minutes. School House RocksBill, performing about Salazar’s eviction law. After that, we move to the interviews. One set of tenants are evicted in order for their landlords to “gut and renovate and fill up the building with new tenants, higher-paying tenants.” Another tenant is evicted because her landlord may evict or demand repairs.

It is not clear whether it is a positive thing that the markets offer property owners reasons to make improvements to their properties. It also doesn’t explain why limiting landlords’ rights to make a profit on their property would encourage them to spend less money.

Seal will return to his original position before the viewers spend too long pondering these issues. School House RocksCostume asked Salazar direct questions, asking her hard-hitting queries about her bill. “Basically you need to get as many New Yorkers interested in it as possible.”

Then he performs dance routines about subway riders being evicted for good causes and lists details about the bill in a game called Charades. This is to increase awareness of the law.

Although the video contains a brief back and forth between Seal, Sherwin Belkin (a good cause eviction critic) and a real-estate lawyer, it is not very substantive. Seal asserts that tenants should pay rent on time. Belkin counters, stating that it’s normal for capitalist systems to have rents rise more quickly than inflation.

Seal closes the video, urging people support the bill. He even suggests that they contact certain members of the state legislative who may still be on the fence.

This last segment makes the video not only cringe, but also cringe activism.

This is possible, given the fact that the video clearly states that it’s an opinion piece. However, it is notable that Times‘ straight news coverage of Salazar’s good cause eviction bill—which might present readers with a little more substantive criticism of it—has been pretty skimpy. This year, it’s only been mentioned in one article.

Seal doesn’t have to be wrong when he points out that New York City’s housing costs are extremely high, which adds uncertainty to the lives and livelihoods of low-income renters.

However, the video does not explore how government limits to housing supply affect prices and housing supply. If he had done a bit more digging, he may have found that New York City prior to the epidemic was growing at an amazing rate, but the city and New York suburbs didn’t build enough housing for these people.

Experts blame this disparity on both low- or non-residential zoneing and parking requirements. They also point out other policies that prevent housing from being built in the areas people choose to live. New Jersey—which has far fewer restrictions on supply and a more modest good cause eviction policy with no rent cap—is responsible for building the bulk of the region’s new housing. This makes it a far more affordable location to live.

Seal would like New York adopt a more stringent New Jersey version of its eviction protections. The better choice would be to adopt its less strict rules regarding new development. It is also supported empirically by research which shows that building more housing will result in lower housing prices. Instead of paying higher renters for insufficient units (and yes, sometimes dated), they have the choice to live in newly built buildings.

It lowers chances that Seal’s tenant will be forced to pay unaffordable rent hikes that force him out of his long-term home. Tenants would be forced to keep their homes in better condition if landlords had to face new competition.

This idea can be communicated without the need for a dance routine on the subway.