There is no question that Howard County and Maryland face a housing affordability crisis. Right now, county officials are grappling with how to address it. Authorities on the U.S. housing market agree that when it comes to lowering rents, nothing is more important than making it easier to develop housing. But the question of whether rent control measures provide such relief is far from settled.
Rent control’s implementation around the country in recent decades has yielded dubious results and at times has exacerbated the lack of affordable housing. Elected officials in Howard County are considering legislation to implement rent control measures. That would be a rash decision to prioritize short-term political expediency over sound policymaking.
Given questions about the effectiveness of these measures, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball and the County Council should take into consideration the failed economic theories embraced by advocates to address the county’s worsening housing picture. First and foremost, that means grasping a better understanding of the effects rent control has had on overall affordability in surrounding areas.
It’s worth considering the impact of rent control measures in other parts of the state in recent decades. Just four years after implementing rent control in the 1970s, Montgomery County abandoned such measures after it saw rents rise and housing production sputter.
Takoma Park provides a good case study of what can happen when rent control is imposed over a longer duration. A 2017 report produced by the city noted that no multifamily rental buildings had been constructed in Takoma Park since the 1970s, a timeframe that lines up almost perfectly with when rent control was first passed there.
Since then, the city has seen little growth and has experienced a noticeable demographic shift. Between 2000 and 2015, Takoma Park’s senior population, ages 65 and older, grew by 24.7%. At the same time, its young adult population, ages 18-34, shrunk by 7.1%. The city’s population is aging in place, and no growth strategy appears to exist to make room for young families and the tax base they bring with them.
The broader economic implications of rent control in Maryland are also well documented. A 2015 Towson University analysis of the impact of rent control in Montgomery County found the county would lose more than $10.4 billion in economic output, nearly 71,000 jobs and $5.4 billion in wages over the course of a decade.
On the other hand, Howard County has seen exponential growth since the 1990s, with its population increasing nearly 60%. With that growth comes a larger tax base and top-notch public services. County Executive Ball has smartly supported this growth, and the county’s economic outlook has flourished under his leadership. But if past Maryland rent control attempts are a guide, a new measure in Howard County has the potential to stagnate that growth, if not entirely roll it back.
Nationally, economists raise similar flags about use of rent control. Typically, researchers have found that rent control provides less incentive for developers to build and greater incentive to convert rental housing to condominiums. Stanford University economist Rebecca Diamond told The Economist that rent control often produces exactly the opposite of the lower rents housing activists rightly seek.
“The targeting of the benefits of rent control is completely backwards,” she told the publication.
Given the risk that rent control poses to our county’s potential growth, it is imperative that our elected leaders do not embrace a policy that has largely served to limit housing supply and increase rents more broadly when implemented around the country. What’s more, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties’ new rent control laws have only just gone into effect, and it would be wise to understand the effects of these policies before imposing similar measures elsewhere in the state.
Thoughtful housing reform must be viewed according to its impact on a growing county and based on the bounty of evidence about rent control policies. By closely tracking the impact of rent control in Montgomery and Prince George’s, County Executive Ball should seek an evidence-based solution to a complex issue. That — not rapid-fire, reactive legislative proposals — represents progressive leadership at its best.
Linda Ostovitz chairs the Howard County Chamber of Commerce.