Before I started my stint as a policy consultant for the California Legislature’s Assembly Committee on Housing back in 1989, I was in favor of rent control. It seemed to me wholly unfair that landlords (I’m not aware of a gender neutral term) could raise rents on low-income tenants whenever they wanted to improve their financial position. Having been a renter (and at times even a low-income one), I sympathized with the argument that rent control kept landlords’ greedy impulses in check and provided reasonable housing costs for those in the rental market.
Once I got immersed in the details of the affordable housing issues that confronted my committee, I learned that rent control is far more effective at creating slum-like conditions for tenants than it is at providing affordable housing for those most in need. When rents are controlled by government edict, those who own the premises have the profit they need to realize from their ownership threatened by increased costs that cannot be passed to the tenants. As a result, maintenance on the lowest income properties suffers.
In addition, because the properties are rented at rates far below what the market would allow, gentrification often occurs (wherein wealthier renters take on the rentals, fixing them up to livable standards, and then remaining in them as tenants).
Thus, communities with extreme forms of rent control often become either slum dwellings that breed disease and crime or havens for this generation’s version of yuppies. In neither instance is the presumed motivation for the enactment of rent control (to provide affordable housing for low-income families) realized.
Rents can be regulated to prevent landlords from overstepping the “greed is good” parameters (such as they are), but the best way to provide affordable housing for those most in need starts with the basic law of supply and demand. Rent levels will adjust based on the number of renters looking and the number of units available. Government assistance can then be provided to those low-income tenants who cannot afford what the market provides, and low tax rates can be provided to developers who construct low-income units.
It isn’t an easy solution. It requires far more attention to detail and greater understanding of both sides of the equation. But if a community really wants to eliminate slum-like rental properties and provide quality affordable housing for low income families and individuals, neither a rigid rent control system nor a totally free market approach will work.
Minimum wage requirements are another kind of knee-jerk solution to a far more difficult problem. For those on the left, raising the minimum wage seems a sure way to provide a livable income to those who struggle to avoid abject poverty. For those on the right, minimum wage laws only discourage hiring and limit the number of jobs that might otherwise be available.
A more nuanced approach would recognize the need to provide minimum income levels for all those in the work force while also providing incentives for those who hire those workers. Thus, regional or even local minimum wages can be adopted based on cost of living standards in specific communities. Another option is to set minimum wages by industry, thereby allowing all fast food companies to operate profitably, with somewhat lower wages for food service workers, and hospitals to do the same, with perhaps slightly higher wages for their workers.
Again, the solution isn’t necessarily the easy fix of a national minimum wage. Such laws might work for some industries and for some communities but not for others. Instead, federal guidelines can be developed with flexibility given to states and localities to find ways to provide reasonable incomes for those working at all levels and in all areas of the economy. It’s harder than just mandating a national solution or just leaving it to market forces to resolve, but it’s also more likely to work.
Nuanced approaches to serious problems can be effective in many areas. Healthcare is another issue where simplistic reactions to attempted solutions are counter-productive. Medicare, for example, was condemned by those on the right as socialized medicine, without considering the problem it sought to address (the unbearable costs of health care for the elderly). It is now revered by many who otherwise despise anything that smacks of government control or interference with personal freedoms and liberties.
Obamacare is being similarly criticized and demonized. And while it is hardly a perfect solution, it is also intended to address a serious problem in the country. Repealing Obamacare will not solve the underlying problems the law addresses. Instead, many Americans would again be left without access to health care and health care costs would continue to cripple the nation’s economy and fiscal integrity. Obamacare may well need to be modified/fixed. Ditto Medicare. But fixes that are based on gut reactions or ideological intransigence only make the initial problem worse.
On the international level, the war on terror was a knee jerk reaction to a serious problem, and it led the country into a disastrous military invasion of another country, the result of which is the rise of the most virulent forms of terrorism that have only made the country less secure and the world more afflicted with terrorist attacks.
Instead of invading Iraq and engaging in an endless effort to militarily destroy any and all terrorist cells, a more nuanced approach would have been to engage the world of nations in efforts to address the demands of those who have turned to terrorism. Such efforts might not have been successful, but it is hard to see how a worse situation could exist than does now had diplomacy been used fully in place of the dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of course, few would consider such an approach after the country suffered the attacks of 9/11. And those of us who did were considered pariahs, if not unpatriotic, for opposing war as a first response.
And so it goes. The quick and easy solutions rarely work as intended. The harder, more nuanced approaches are all too often rejected if they are considered at all.