Let’s make sure we get the questions right when we talk about rent control

If you’ve been listening to the recent conversation around rent control in Santa Barbara, you’ve only been reminded in passing that the statewide cap on rent increases throughout California is the lowest of 5 percent plus the Consumer Price Index or a flat 10 percent. If the legislation under consideration in City Hall passes, then the cap on rent increases in this community will be the lowest of 2 percent plus the Consumer Price Index.

These circumstances are truly unique. To my knowledge, not one of the 50 United States has ever legislated statewide rent control before. So we are faced with one of the very first opportunities as a city to tighten up a statewide rent control program by 3 percent. That is what we are talking about. It might take years for the inflation we are dealing with as a result of Putin’s infantile aggression in Ukraine, COVID-19, and general political instability to normalize and for this program to numerically affect rental rates in Santa Barbara.

“Is rent control good?” “Is rent control bad?” “Is rent control divisive?” “Who will play the mortgage on my gold-plated beach house in Montecito if I can’t raise the rent by an arbitrary amount ever year?” These questions are in the rearview mirror. We already have rent control.

Now it’s time to modify a statewide program so that it reflects the unique circumstances in Santa Barbara. So that the people who put sweat equity into this community and their children can stay. Every instance of progress brings new challenges. The claim is not that rent control will be a silver bullet that repairs overnight a delicate, extremely high-value real estate market that requires continuous monitoring. The main objection to rent control in Santa Barbara seems to be that it will not fix everything about this city’s real estate market and that it will bring further challenges.

That’s hardly an objection. One of the greatest political achievements of United States civil society was the integration of public schools in the American South. Integration brought with it new racialized disparities in education as it pulled African-American students out of historically Black colleges and universities; made many African-American teachers in elementary, middle, and high schools “redundant” (hardly); and ended the practice — mandated by Plessy vs. Ferguson — of Southern states’ paying for qualified African-American applicants to attend prestigious medical and law schools, such as Harvard and Yale, rather than admit them to more middling, local white institutions such as the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

While the issues of school integration and rent control in an idyllic Southern California beach community are not to be conflated, it stands to notice that the main objection in both of these situations was the same: making the change under consideration would create more problems than it would solve. Furthermore, just as integration wasn’t just about educational opportunity, rent control isn’t just about having a reasonably priced place to live. It’s about power. Everyone know this, but no one talks about it. There’s a significant normative dimension to this debate about if tenants should have more of a say in how much or whether their rent goes up. Let’s talk about that.

Charles Perkins, ABD, MA, is a graduate member of the UCSB Department of Philosophy.


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