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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Like a Fly in Amber

Some Things Never Change (like Rent Control)


Walter Tevis. “Rent Control.” Omni Magazine, 1979.

One of FEE’s earliest publications was a tidy little 22-page pamphlet by Milton Friedman and George Stigler, written in 1946, explaining the problems with rent control.

In 1975, Allen Brownfield wrote in The Freeman of the damage done to the poor by rent control: “In New York City, which has long had rent controls, the plight of the poor in seeking housing is probably the worst in the nation. The rental vacancy rate is below 1 percent and private building is at a near paralysis.”

Just last week, again in The Freeman, Robert Murphy neatly summarized the major problems with rent control:

Rent control makes apartments cheaper for some tenants while making them infinitely expensive for others, because some people can no longer find a unit, period, even though they would have been able to at the higher, free-market rate. Furthermore, the people who remain in apartments — enjoying the lower rent —receive a much lower-quality product. Especially when left in place for decades, rent control leads to abusive landlords and can quite literally destroy large portions of a city’s housing.

And as Friedman and Stigler point out in Roofs or Ceilings?, the paralysis caused by rent control is permanent. “As long as the shortage created by rent ceilings remains there will be a clamour for continued rent controls. This is perhaps the strongest indictment of ceilings on rents. They … perpetuate themselves.”

That is why FEE’s message, for close to 70 years now, has been that rent control is worse than unhelpful. It is actually damaging. And it’s not just economists who know it.

In 1979, the science fiction writer Walter Tevis wrote a short story called “Rent Control” for Omni magazine. In it, Edith and Terry are two fairly contented 30ish New Yorkers living in Edith’s small but gloriously rent-controlled apartment. They wake one morning and discover that because they have achieved a new ideal of intimacy, they can freeze time when they are in bed together and touching.

Terry let go of Edith and the man [outside their window] finished putting on his coat. Two cars drove by in the street. The light became normal.

Terry touched Edith again, this time laying his hand gently on her back. Outside the window everything stopped, as when a switch is thrown on a projector to arrest the movement…. “Wake up, Edith. I’ve got something to show you.”

Their bed rapidly becomes a sanctuary from the world, where they can pursue their own projects away from the demands of life’s deadlines, grab extra time for a challenging work project, or simply be together while not “losing any time” to the world outside. Since the magic does not work if they fight or disagree, they must always maintain a peaceful and unruffled relationship. It sounds heavenly.

When Terry and Edith realize that the time they spend in their bed does not age them, they spend more and more time there.

Each had learned to spend hours motionless, staring at the mirror or out the window, preserving his youth against the ravages of real time and real movement. Each became obsessed, without sharing the obsession, with a single idea: immortality. They could live forever, young and healthy and fully awake in this loft bed. There was no question of interestingness or of boredom.

Soon, they no longer leave the apartment. And shortly after that, they decide to no longer leave the bed.

Maintaining their frozen time means that they must maintain perfect peace in their relationship, and so they elect not to speak to one another. “So they stopped talking. And each turned toward his own mirror and thought of living forever. They were back to back, touching.”

When the landlord finds them, minds utterly destroyed by stasis, he is shocked, but recognizes that “they would be sent somewhere and that he would be able to charge a profitable rent, at last, with someone new.”

Tevis’s tale is the dark side of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which celebrates the joys of stillness:

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
 Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
 For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
 For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d…

While Edith and Terry think they have found this kind of warm, sensual perfection, readers of “Rent Control” soon discover that it is more like Robert Herrick’s poem about an amber bead:

I saw a fly within a bead
Of amber cleanly buried;
The urn was little, but the room
More rich than Cleopatra’s tomb.

Readers might also liken it to the sinister, featureless, black cube-shaped condos available for sale in a recent episode of Welcome to Night Vale, where the condos trap their owners forever in endless and perfect stillness.

Bystanders say that once inside, the human forms are going limp, and floating out into the center of the cubes where they stay, paralyzed. Faces, slack. Eyes, glazed. A small sign has appeared outside of each cube that contains a person. The sign is red, and it says in simple white lettering: “Condos! A perfect kind of human. A perfect kind of life. Get yours today.”

Those of us who are not Keats are terrified of stasis. And as Tevis’s story so chillingly reminds us, stasis is the outcome of rent control. Renters stay in their apartments long after the space is too big or too small for their needs. They are unwilling to relocate for new jobs and opportunities because it would mean giving up the rent-controlled apartment. Landlords fail to make needed updates and improvements. New residential buildings aren’t constructed because potential owners worry that rent control will make them unprofitable. Like Edith and Terry, like the fly in amber, like the Night Vale condo owners, no one goes anywhere. Everyone is stuck.

And I suspect columnists for The Freeman will be stuck writing about rent control for a long time to come.