On Friday a town hall held on rising rents in Williston, ND, (central to North Dakota’s oil fields) came “to a boil” according to a report from Eric Killelea at the Williston Herald.
The issue has unfortunately been politicized. A Democrat state Senate candidate – Barbara Vondell – has made high rents her campaign platform, and she’s fanning the flames of angst over housing shortages in the Williston area. But even though most of the consternation seems focused around two trailer courts, and one landlord who more than doubled lot rents at each, there’s no question that rents in Williston are high.
Now the Williston Herald is calling for rent control.
“It has been well-established that rent control is illegal in the state of North Dakota, but it is also gaining momentum from residents and activists seeking change,” writes the Herald. “It may be time for the state to step outside of its comfort zone in the way many of its residents have been forced to do. It may be time for the state to think outside the box and consider some sort of rent control to support its long-time residents until the market is reeled back to reality.”
The Herald says they’re not calling on the state to set rents, only to control rent increases, but that seems a distinction with little difference.
What’s shocking about the editorial is how blind its authors are to the harm went control would do to the housing situation in the west.
What western North Dakota needs desperately is more housing. More supply in the face of elevated demands would moderate prices. But with financiers already seeing the Bakken boom as a risky investment – now knowing, after all, how long the boom will last or whether the west’s new population growth will still be around 5 or ten years from now – wouldn’t they see those investments as riskier if the politicians stepped in with controls on how much they could charge for their properties?
Rent control of any form to address this short-term rent crisis would hamstring the long-term solution to the problem, which is the development of more housing.
And this isn’t some right-wing talking point. “The analysis of rent control is among the best-understood issues in all of economics, and — among economists, anyway — one of the least controversial,” wrote Nobel Prize-winning economist and left-wing celebrity columnist Paul Krugman for the New York Times in 2000. “In 1992 a poll of the American Economic Association found 93 percent of its members agreeing that ”a ceiling on rents reduces the quality and quantity of housing.'”
Does that sound like what western North Dakota needs right now? Reduced quality and quantity of housing?
Conservative economist Thomas Sowell sings the same tune about rent control. “Rent control has allowed some people to take up more housing space than they would if they had to pay the full price that reflects other people’s demand for housing,” he wrote for National Review in 2007. “The net result, whether in New York or San Francisco or elsewhere, is a lot of apartments with just one person living in each, and lots of families who cannot find a vacant place to move into. Housing shortages have resulted from rent control in cities around the world.”
It seems a Democrat politician, hoping to be elected to the state legislature, thinks she can get traction with Williston area voters by promising a sort of “free lunch” on high rents. But there are no free lunches. If the state steps in and begins controlling the prices of western housing, keeping those prices from reflecting the realities of supply and demand, what we’re going to be stuck with is less investment in western housing.