04/18/2017

A Twisted Tale Of Rent Control In The Maximum City

Alex Tabarrok, Marginal Revolution

Walking around Mumbai it’s common to see some lovely, older buildings (circa 1920s perhaps) that are in a great state of disrepair. A well maintained building can last for hundreds of years so why are these buildings falling apart? The answer is rent control. Bombay passed a rent control act in 1947 that froze rents at 1940 levels.

rentcontrol1

 

More than fifty years later, rents remained frozen at 1940 levels. It wasn’t until 1999 that the Act was modified slightly to lift controls on some new construction and to allow rent increases of 4% per year. After a fifty two year freeze, however, a 4% increase was a pittance. Thus, even today there are thousands of flats where tenants are paying rents of 400-500 rupees a month (that’s $6 to $8 a month!)–far, far below market rates.

The rent control law meant that there was virtually no construction of rental housing (WP) for decades and a slowly dilapidating housing stock. (Ironically, the only free market in rental housing is in the slums.)

The nominal landlords have neither the incentive nor the funds to maintain the buildings so every year during monsoon season some of the buildings collapse and people die. As the World Bank put it, the monsoons are Natural Hazards but the collapses are Unnatural Disasters:

Rent controls in Mumbai may have initially benefited tenants at the expense of landlords, but over time everyone suffers. Rent controls cause landlords to forgo maintenance and neglect their properties, and tenants not only live in dilapidated buildings but die when they collapse in heavy rains. Even if tenants are willing to either pay higher rents or to maintain the building, each tries to not pay his share of the expense (free riding), especially if appropriate retrofitting involves structural changes to the entire residential structure and not to individual apartments. Tenants also may lack the legal authority to make changes to their building’s structure.

Consider the photo at top, it’s an elegant building on a nice plot in a highly desirable part of town but take a closer look and you can see that it is falling apart (second photo). Several businesses and flats operate in the building. Now read the sign on the wall.

rentcontrol3I don’t doubt that the sign is largely accurate but it also illustrates another aspect of rent control. Rent control transforms a mutually profitable exchange into a zero-sum war of misery. As I discovered in my investigations, a remarkable and sometimes hilarious example is illustrated by this very building.

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