Right of return rental protections and other good additions to SB827

Senator Weiner has provided some clarifications along with amendments to his SB827 here, and a discussion of them on Medium.

The big-ticket rental protection here is right of return, although it’s really nice to have the explicit language about inclusionary zoning. There’s no reason to believe that 827 in it original form would have removed IZ reqs, but the clarification is nicer.

I’ve seen Right to Return work well, I’ve seen it encounter problems. Has anybody studied it in a rigorous way? Surely it’s a management problem for both developers and households. Jordon Downs here in LA encountered a real problem with remediation that, when discovered, was likely to delay families’ return, and the longer it takes, the harder it is on everybody and the less likely people are to return. I wonder about the incentives that gives developers; on the one hand, they need to get that occupancy permit ASAP. On the other, the longer the process takes, the less likely they will have to allow those residents to return. I also wonder to what degree R2R units become the default units for IZ requirements; I’m not sure that matters, and I’m not sure it doesn’t matter.

I kind of think that Return units should be automatic approval of additional units, though. Maybe cities will do this anyway, but my general sense is that if the developers is obliged for 14 units, the city should be willing to approve an additional 15-20 units, period, if the developer wants it. Depending on the footprint, that’s easily two floors. Since the idea here is to allow more vertical building anyway…seems like a Pareto trade to me.

Why am I reading slower the older I get?

H1: I just have less time for reading in general because responsibilities proliferate after you attain tenure, unless you are very slippery and capable of saying no more than I am.

I don’t like saying no to students, in particular.

That feels like the reason I am reading less for both pleasure and business overall , not the reason I feel like I am reading more slowly than every before.

H2: My brain works differently.

That’s a possibility.

H3: I am more patient overall, more willing to spend time reading things closely.

Another possibility. I used to skip more things, get impatient with authors and description, give up on books more easily.

H4: I am reading way more philosophy and theory than I did when I was young, or at least theory of a different type.

My youth was spent primarily with economic theory, which I acquired fairly quickly, except for macro. Now I read philosophy regularly, and I do so in original languages as much as possible, which slows me down, naturally.

H5: Much more newspaper and media reading.

When young, I didn’t care as much about keeping up. Now I am a bit obsessive. I also let myself fritter too much on social media.

All these, I suppose are possible contributors. All I know is that I woke up this morning thinking about this as both a sign of my changing mind and body. I no longer read as quickly as I used to–far fewer notches on the “done” column–and instead savor things more.

How to disagree with Lisa or complain to her bosses about rent control or anything else

Ok, so my rent control post was not sufficiently pro rent control for a gentleman in Oregon who went at me on Twitter to “dialogue” and I straight up said: I no longer interact with people who are nasty, and he was nasty. My post was also apparently too favorable towards rent control for other people. Okey dokey.

There are people in the world who do not deserve civility, as Drew Magary points out nicely here in GQ. I don’t feel like I am one of them because when people disagree with me politely, I am polite back–and if you write me a reasoned argument in an email that I see, I’m very likely to ask you to put up your post as guest post to serve as a counterpoint to mine because I care about helping people think about cities, and all I want here is to launch ideas and deliberation.

In particular, the gentleman who wanted to yell at me about his personal experience wanted me to understand that rent control really saved his life. That’s awesome. It’s great the policy helped him. I totally agree: policies that genuinely help people when they are in need have to treated with respect in public policy.

And I also understand that it can be very irritating to have some academic discuss a policy in a bland, abstract terms when that policy has been really important in helping you or really harmful to you or the people you care about. Don’t get me started about student loan programs, for instance.

But talking about the various pros and cons that researchers and others have pointed out about urban policies and politics is my job. The world does not need me to be a single-minded advocate for anything other thinking hard about urban policy and planning. There are plenty of true believers out there. The only thing I really really believe in is having special concern for those who are impoverished and oppressed in public policy.

I would love to advocate for all the right things all the time.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what those are, and I strongly suspect people who do think they know what the right things are all the time are full of shit–and often very, very damaging to precisely the people they tell themselves they are helping.

As I said before, I support carefully crafted rent controls. I’d be pleased to have the outraged gentleman write up his story and put it up here. I’ve had other people fill my ears about how terrible it is they couldn’t live in Berkeley, and they blame rent control. I would also be willing to post that up, too, if you send it and it’s readable.

I’m not afraid of a little hot debate, but I am tired of having to be polite and reasonable to people who are neither. Twitter thrives with little boys who want to “score points” instead of really get into the issues. I don’t have time to teach people public finance or urban economics in 230 characters, and if you don’t know the difference between the property tax and land value taxation, then yeah, ducks, I do know more about the subject than you do, and if you don’t understand how new mixed use by transit can lead to higher rents rather than lower (the amenity effect overshadows the new supply effect), then you best not be too loud about shouting at people worried about it.

But since the angry person calling me has threatened to go to my superiors, and should you wish to join him to complain about me to my bosses, here’s the list, starting with the lowest level of authority to the highest:

  1. Marlon Boarnet (department chair) (Marlon’s on Twitter (
    @Marlon_Boarnet) and is really, really brilliant except when he disagrees with me, which is when he’s wrongity wrong wrong, but he is also unfailingly courteous.)

  2. Mike Nichol (vice dean)
  3. Jack Knott (dean)
  4. Michael Quick (provost)
  5. Max Nikias (president)
  6. My mom (who eschews all social media and is kinda more worried about my weight and whether I’m saving for retirement than my policy views, but you could try, as she is the only one of these people who won’t bore the pants off you with talk about academic freedom when you complain.)

Rent control and time

Welp, bring on the supply-splaining:


Because I am talking demand-side today and if there is one policy that supply-siders love to lecture me on other than ‘splaining the micro I teach in the first 3 weeks of my freshman class, it is rent control.

Rent control strikes me as one of those policies that could be enormously helpful or harmful, depending on its design. Most rent control policies are well-intended but badly designed; they get passed in perpetuity, and I think most public sector economists agree that price controls are useful at times in specific instances, but permanent price controls just aren’t a sustainable idea–people find ways around them, there’s underhanded behavior instead of just market behavior, etc.

But temporary price controls can be very useful, indeed. I have long believed UC Davis’ Dan Sperling right in advocating for a price floor for gasoline. That one can be permanent as far as I am concerned; it is a technology-forcing measure that tries to move people off a polluting power source to others.

Rent control, by contrast, should not be permanent. That doesn’t mean it should never happen. Now, maybe the politics are such that if you give people rent control for a bit, it becomes permanent. I don’t buy that, but it’s worth mentioning, though.

Here are the general, valid complaints about rent control:

1. It’s inflexible, and thus it keeps renters stuck in units when they might be better off moving to locations that would be more welfare-enhancing;

2. Ditto, and thus it keeps landlords from making improvements that are location-efficient;

3. Given time, renters age and often become affluent enough that they no longer need rental protection, which they still take anyway because they like the place and why not?

4. Ditto, inflexible, so that it sticks it to newcomers who would find the location welfare-enhancing, but they can’t live there because the units aren’t moving because of rent control.

I’m not going to get into the normative objectives from market ideologists; they will usually explain their position to anybody who doesn’t run away quickly enough, so they hardly need me to do that work.

What I wish people understood about the concerns renters have: most of those fears are short-term because people who have low-incomes often do not have the resources to invest long-term, nor do they have a lot of cushion to withstand short-term price shocks.

Buying them time and easing their transition would be a helpful thing.

1. Supply is medium- to long-term strategy for affordability*.

If one quarters’ building is enough to make rents drop, then the shortage in construction has been vastly over-estimated, and I don’t think it is. It takes time to finance, approve, and build new units, and even if filtering theories are right (not the asterisk), low-income renters are the last people served with filtering.

Now, with more market-rate units, etc, in theory the short-term price benefits should accrue to those down the market segments and reduce downward raiding.

2. Existing landlords can move quicker than most renters and most new suppliers.

In practice, though, any number of things may happen. Existing landlords, eyeing the rents being charged in the new units, jack up their rents believing that they are going to catch the gentrification wave as it comes it. And they may be right.

Now in theory, so many new units should come that landlords can’t do that–they will face too much competition from new units. But those units coming online happens, at the soonest, in 2+ years. Landlords have a lot of renters on month-to-month leases. Time advantage: landlord.

3. With urban population growth, filtering can take a long time, indeed, if it happens ever.

If we are adding new residents, many mays start at the bottom of the filtering process, but that may not be the case for many newcomers. More affluent newcomers can consume new units and slow the process for stabilizing rents on the supply side.

4. We need time to plan for those that the market never seems to get around to serving. We have people who are homeless because of shortage problems, undoubtedly, and short-term price shocks could make that problem worse. We don’t want that.

We want to be able to keep housing vulnerable people in housing in the short term to avoid worsening that problem. But we also have those who need permanent, supportive housing. The market doesn’t build for this group; it never has unless the public sector contracts for it. These are folks who were struggling long before the rapid urbanization and zoning combo left our cities undersupplied.

Getting a smart public housing plan off the ground will take a little.

With temporary rent control that allows for escalation to a yearly ceiling, I don’t see a ton of downside. If, as supply siders think, housing prices immediately react to new supply and competition forces landlords to keep their prices reasonable, then nobody need hit the ceiling or prompt the escalator. And the escalator can be designed to hold harmless long enough to allow renters to make moving arrangements even if local supply doesn’t ante up.

*I’m not convinced in global capital era that filtering theories are right. But I can pretend they are for the sake of argument.

No, I did not cancel my NYT subscription because “I can’t stand views different from mine”

Ever since the New York Times did laughably dumb thing that we “edumacated people are supposed to pay to consume because….It’s New York! It’s the Times!” #15,021,818 of running various “Nazis aren’t so bad” articles (yeah, this one is the most explicit, but virtually all the let’s understaaaaaand Trumpsters boil down to the same damn thing), a number of people I follow took social media to say they were cancelling their subscription only to get lectured on how the NYT isn’t their “safe space” and “learn to deal with civil society and disagreement”, etc.

Bitch, please.

I cancelled my subscription to the NYT before it got to “let’s normalize the Nazi” which the NYT defend with “it’s reporting on reality” like somehow, all of us are so damn stupid we thought, prior to the New York Times soppy reporting about Nazi Tony and his girlfriend, that Nazis had horns and tails and only lived in caves in Arkansas.

Why did I cancel? Because here is what I got with the Op-Ed page from the Financial Times over the past few days:

–a piece on the importance and difficulties of the South African presidential election (not great, but still more informative than David Brooks inanities about ham)

–a piece about the ideological wedges appearing even among hard Brexiters, nicely done, by a writer I almost never agree with but at least I don’t feel like just made myself stupider having spent the time to read him (Gideon Rachman)

–Martin Wolf on the stock market correction

–a long piece about how high tech firms are helping fossil fuel companies remain competitive with renewables.

From Le Monde:

#MosqueMeToo : des musulmanes dénoncent des agressions sexuelles subies à La Mecque

(A piece about women coming forward about sexual abuse in their religious communities and the response from leaders)

Afrique du Sud : le centenaire de Mandela, terni par la crise politique
More on the South African presidential election.

I could go on with what I from get from German and Israeli papers, but I think the point is made. Did y’all know Merkel finally pulled together a coalition? I did!

In the run-up to the 2016 election, the dudes at the NYT seemed pretty obsessed with Hillary’s emails, long after I had read my fill of the story for the months of prior coverage.

Then I had to sit through well-intended but often silly commentary from Frank Bruni as he went across the country trying to sell us “Trump voters are complicated, complex human beings with nuanced views on the world” stories that always read like this:

Bruni: It’s important to BJ Cockle that people understand she’s not a racist.

BJ Cockle: I just don’t think it’s right for that Mooslem president to give out free phones to the blacks. And I just don’t think a woman president is a good idea. What about her children?

I just don’t need to pay for that. My forehead and keyboard and can’t withstand any more of that.

To be sure, there are some excellent reporters at the New York Times, reporters at the very, very top of their games doing the best reporting found anywhere.

But those stories get picked up by the AP and I can read them in the LA Times without paying for columnists to write some version this about my beloved home after they spend 30 minutes in a layover at LAX:

Los Angeles, a tiny inconsequential cesspool of traffic and d-list actors, exists in a hopeless cultural vacuum of its own making because it’s not New York, is where people live lives of utter desperation, unlike the love and conviviality experienced on a NY subway, so that Angelenos resemble not so much Americans but the eloi and morlocks of Wells’ dystopian future living today among us. (insert all us’s being impressed by that obscure lit-rary reference!). Do these people even read, yo?

So yeah: I don’t need to pay for this garbage just to find the bits of excellent reporting that remain. I didn’t cancel to protect my delicate widdle political feelers: I canceled because there are better newspapers that help me understand the whole world, treat other countries like their politics and struggles and matter more than David Brooks’ feelings about lunch meat, and where cities other than New York get discussed in terms other than hackneyed navel-gazing.

Where, in other words, I get more for my dollars. Sorry, not sorry. Maybe the Times will come back from the editorial morass it’s gotten itself in, and if so, I’ll be happy to think about putting it back into my media routine. Until then, no.

If the NYT remains worth it to you, good on ya. Read on and subscribe on with my well wishes.