Ethan: So, a couple weeks ago on our podcast, you surprised me by supporting a ban on facial surveillance.
Phil: Why surprised? It seems pretty Republican to oppose overzealous government surveillance.
Ethan: I agree. It’s just that your party is less than unanimous on this issue. But that’s why I like hanging out with you. You occasionally buck party leadership.
Phil: I wish I could get you to buck party leadership.
Ethan: I buck your party leadership all the time.
Phil: That’s not what I meant.
Ethan: Your support for eliminating facial surveillance in Portland motivates me to explore whether you support one of the other ballot initiatives ( there are five!). In particular, rent control?
Phil: Excuse me, what did you say?
Ethan: Pushing my luck?
Phil: You think? I’m a free market believer, why would I want a government regulator to decide what someone pays for rent?
Ethan: Because Portland has seen rents go up exponentially. Literally, 40 percent from 2010-2015 and almost 50 percent of renters in the city are currently paying more than 30 percent of their gross income in rent. We have more homeless on our streets and with 72 families in Cumberland County already being put on the eviction block, everyone expects the problem to get much worse.
Phil: Sounds like demand exceeds supply. Either Portland makes it easier to meet that demand or prices rise. What am I missing?
Ethan: You’re missing that even in the middle of this pandemic, someone reached out to me because their rent was being increased by $500 a month. That has nothing to do with supply and demand. That is greed and gouging.
Phil: Greed too is rooted out of free markets, if alternatives exist. But rent control does more harm than good. Just look at San Francisco and New York City. These two cities boast some of the strongest rent control rules in the country and are among the most expensive places to live.
Ethan: Right, but you have the cause and effect backwards. Imagine how expensive these cities would be without rent control? Having rent control doesn’t make cities less affordable, rent control protects affordability and keeps cities more economically diverse. I grew up in a three-room-plus-a-kitchen apartment on the lower west side of Manhattan. The only way my father kept that roof over our heads is because of rent control.
Phil: Your dad is a warrior to work within the regulations to provide for your family. But, just think of all the housing that would have been built if rent control wasn’t in place? More housing means more supply, which means demand decreases and renters have more leverage.
Ethan: Unfortunately, that theory simply doesn’t work with housing. Unlike going out to dinner, housing is something everyone needs. Exploitation is a much bigger factor in rent increases than market value, especially among the poor. And especially since the tenant protections in this state are so weak.
Phil: Which is why you need to reduce costly regulation in your fair city so developers can build less expensive housing. This free market encouragement creates options for renters when their landlord gets greedy.
Ethan: It is absurd to think most tenants have the resources to move every year, but even if your scenario worked, you would create tremendous displacement. Part of what rent control does is help stabilize neighborhoods. It keeps kids in local schools and it keeps families growing up together, because the cost of living doesn’t force them out of town.
Phil: Government control results in properties becoming run-down as landlords stop upgrading their buildings in the face of not being able to make up the difference in rent.
Ethan: The Portland initiative allows for capital improvements. It allows for an increase equal to the cost of living, plus whatever tax increase the city incurs that year, plus the landlord can get permission to increase the rent for major capital improvements.
Phil: The operative problem in your paragraph is “ask permission.” Why should a landlord have to ask a government bureaucrat what they can market their apartment for? A better approach for elected officials would be to create an economy where there is an abundance of housing combined with raising wages. Reminds me of President John Kennedy’s words about a rising tide lifting all boats.
Ethan: Good news! Another referendum would raise the minimum wage to $15 and another would require companies to pay construction workers a more livable wage.
Phil: I’ll need to explain to you what it means to run your own business in a future column…
Phil Harriman served as a town councilor and state senator from Yarmouth. Ethan Strimling served as mayor and state senator from Portland.