The Economics and Law of Rent Control

41 Pages Posted: 8 Dec 2004

See all articles by Kaushik Basu

Kaushik Basu

Cornell University - Department of Economics; IZA Institute of Labor Economics; Brookings Institution

Patrick Munro Emerson


Date Written: August 1998


What stirs most people against rent control laws in the United States and elsewhere are stories of people who have held apartments for many years and now pay absurdly low rents for them. There are important reasons for removing rent controls, but the shock value of a low rent is not one of them.

Basu and Emerson construct a model of second-generation rent control, describing a regime that does not permit rent increases for sitting tenants - or their eviction. When an apartment becomes vacant, however, the landlord is free to negotiate a new contract with a higher rent. They argue that this stylized system is a good (though polar) approximation of rent control regimes that exist in many cities in India, the United States, and elsewhere.

Under such a regime, if inflation exists, landlords prefer to rent to tenants who plan to stay only a short time. The authors assume that there are different types of tenants (where type refers to the amount of time tenants stay in an apartment) and that landlords are unable to determine types before they rent to a tenant. Contracts contingent on departure date are forbidden, so a problem of adverse selection arises. Short stayers are harmed by rent control while long-term tenants benefit. In addition, the equilibrium is Pareto inefficient.

Basu and Emerson show that when tenant types are determined endogenously (when a tenant decides how long to stay in one place based on market signals) in the presence of rent control, there may be multiple equilibria, with one equilibrium Pareto-dominated by another. In other words, many lifestyle choices are made based on conditions in the rental housing market. One thing rent control may do is decrease the mobility of the labor force, because tenants may choose to remain in a city where they occupy rent-controlled apartments rather than accept a higher-paying job in another city. Basu and Emerson show that abolishing the rent control regime can do two things: Shift the equilibrium to a better outcome and result in lower rents, across the board.

A version of this paper - a product of the Office of the Senior Vice President and Chief Economist, Development Economics - was presented at an Applied Microeconomics Workshop at Cornell University.

JEL Classification: D40, K10, L51, R31

Suggested Citation

Basu, Kaushik and Emerson, Patrick Munro, The Economics and Law of Rent Control (August 1998). Available at SSRN:

Kaushik Basu

Cornell University - Department of Economics ( email )

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