On a pre-defined date each month, the 44 percent of people in Hawaii who don’t own their homes face off with the most relentless component of the price of paradise: the rent.

Growing awareness of the affordable housing crisis on Oahu has led to a flurry of proposals and policies out of Honolulu and the state.

And yet, in the many places where policymakers and administrators debate responses to the housing crisis, there is an elephant in the room that is rarely, if ever, seriously discussed.

The pachyderm no one talks about is rent control. Its footprints endure in many towns and cities that have confronted housing crunches across North America and Europe.

It leads to a question: Why don’t we seriously consider it here?

Left, 5-year-old Katin Tilton and right, brother 6-year-old Dayten Tilton enjoy a morning bike ride in their cul de sac off of Booth Road in Pauoa Valley. 29 nov 2014. photograph by Cory Lum

If Oahu had rent control, it might further enhance the sense of community in neighborhoods like this one in Pauoa Valley where Katin Tilton, left, and his brother Dayten cruise.

Cory Lum / Civil Beat

After all, many of the forces that spurred the installation of rent control in other cities long ago are present on Oahu and, to a lesser extent, some neighbor islands today. Working- and middle-class people often don’t earn enough in their jobs to afford their rents, even though the work of teachers, farmers and so many others is crucial to the functioning of the islands.

“The political will has not been strong enough to seriously have this conversation,” explained Hawaii Housing Alliance Managing Director Nani Medeiros.

A one-time member of Gov. Linda Lingle’s Affordable Housing Task Force, Medeiros has witnessed the worsening of Honolulu’s housing and homeless crises even as real estate prices and rents have leapt. “I personally think this is the perfect time to revisit the topic,” she said.

The Bogeyman

On an island of high-value land — where, in addition to tourism, the economy is buoyed by real estate and construction — the words “rent control” can come across as a sort of sort of scary far-off specter to developers, real estate agents and even prominent politicians.

With that in mind, I have a confession to make: I got to know the Rent Control Bogeyman, and — some people aren’t going to want to hear this — it wasn’t so bad.

Feelings about rent control were strong on both sides. A small billboard near a freeway onramp by the local high school referred to the “Soviet Socialist Republic of Santa Monica.”

I spent half of my childhood in a place where annual rent increases were established by an elected rent board and where landlords had to seek and justify additional hikes before that board, which could accept or reject their petitions.

Tenants tended to stay in their units for many years because they enjoyed rents they could afford and were unlikely to find again. Thanks to astute organizing among tenants, rent control was naturally popular; it became law after a majority of voters backed it.

But feelings about rent control were strong on both sides. Even as a kid, I heard people claim rent control would leave a pathway of destruction in its wake. Landlords would let paint crack and facades collapse, the lament went, and homes would sink into disrepair. Neighborhoods would decline because strapped landlords weren’t bringing in enough rent to care for their buildings. The absence of up-to-date market rents was also supposed to drive down property values.

A small billboard near a freeway onramp by the public high school referred to the “Soviet Socialist Republic of Santa Monica.”

Yes, that Santa Monica.

Anti-Soviet rhetoric aside, the comrades of that leftist bastion didn’t stand in lines for bags of rationed sugar or spend time staring mournfully at empty supermarket shelves.

There were a handful of dilapidated homes, but that was less the direct result of rent control than the virulent reaction of a few landlords who left their investment units empty and uncared for, partly to make a dramatic anti-rent control statement.

In rent-controlled Santa Monica, it wasn’t easy to find an available rental, but persistent and resourceful people discovered them. And the result was that even my primary school teacher, who lived across the street from my family, could afford a flat near our public school. (Are you listening Hawaii?)

The common criticisms of rent control these days tend to be out of date. Many people criticize “hard” rent control, elements of which existed in Santa Monica. That more rigid form of rent control kept the rent low even after a renter moved out of a unit. (That said, rent control did not — and does not — apply to new units in Santa Monica; a response to criticisms that earlier-generation versions undercut new construction.)

View of buildings near Piikoi Street and King Street areas featuring walk up apartments. ERIC PAPE STORY. 13 NOV 2014. photograph by Cory Lum.

In most cities, rent control applies only to older units. It doesn’t apply to new structures because doing so might prevent developers from building.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In the 1990s, a statewide legal change in California put an end to “hard” rent control, meaning that rents in controlled areas like Santa Monica, Berkeley and West Hollywood shot up to however much the rental market would bear whenever a tenant departed (or was forced out).

Those cities shifted to the more modern “soft” rent control model in which new tenants move in at market rates, but from that point on, landlords can only raise the rent in accordance with the rent board’s decisions. So, assuming rents continue to outpace incomes and inflation, the longer someone stays in a “soft” rent controlled unit, the better a deal it becomes.

These days, Santa Monica doesn’t bear too many scars from the era of heavily suppressed rents. Nor do the landlords who stayed around for a while and cashed in big. In fact, it is arguable that rent control helped to draw the big-money residents who have in recent years helped to turn the city into a next-generation Beverly Hills by the sea.

Today it is one of the most desirable — and pricey — real estate spots in America with median value owner-occupied units at around $1 million, according to U.S. Census numbers.

This highlights an irony about some frequent criticisms of rent control and stabilization efforts. Such policies are often accused of undermining real estate markets, but rent control continues in some of the most expensive cities in America: New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Santa Monica.

Just not in Honolulu.

Where Bad Rent Control Might Have Good Effects

Rent control almost invariably creates a fairness problem. Even “soft” rent control is, from a market perspective, biased toward long-term tenants. Those who come late have a harder time even finding a place and they almost invariably pay more as a result.

But in Hawaii, and especially on Oahu, such unfairness could be cast in another light, given the greater forces at play on a densely populated archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

In a place like Hawaii, where so many people struggle to find housing they can afford, rent control offers a way to respond to the price problem caused by the islands’ magnetism.

Since I’ve been working on the Living Hawaii series, fatalistic readers have repeatedly commented that even if there was some way to bring prices down, a more affordable Hawaii would just draw more people from the mainland until prices go back up. “That’s,” they say, “just the price of paradise.”

In a place like Hawaii, where so many people struggle to find housing they can afford, rent control offers a way to respond to the price problem caused by the islands’ magnetism.

While improbable proposals have occasionally been floated to limit migration from the mainland — which is almost certainly unconstitutional, on discrimination grounds — rent control doesn’t discriminate based on people’s origins. (The modern versions have also survived numerous legal changes.) It simply makes it harder on late arrivals to a desirable rent controlled area.

Put another way, rent control might transfer some of the paradise tax on residential rentals to newcomers, and that added cost might just prevent some of them from moving here.

Ultimately, given the worsening housing crisis, Oahu in particular needs to make supply-and-demand decisions on housing. It will either need to build more or improve its management of the existing housing stock — or do both. That second category could, for a time, include elements of soft rent control — at least until the crisis around the cost of housing is sufficiently addressed.

Just Like Home

From a quality of life point of view, the lifestyle of the rent-controlled south side of Santa Monica where I grew up would likely have some appeal in Honolulu these days.

People of diverse economic classes, backgrounds and ages were able to live in homes and apartments that rising market prices might otherwise have driven them out of. It facilitated an enduring sense of community in a town with a mellow coastal vibe. People were just a little more likely to live to work, rather than work to live.

So what was it like to grow up, thanks to rent control, a few blocks from the beach? The reality was less about any Rent Control Bogeyman and more about the worn out Boogie Boards on our scruffy porch and the warm and quirky mix of people in our neighborhood. That wasn’t a coincidence. Facilitating diversity was a key part of the pitch to voters to pass rent control.

That Santa Monica has largely disappeared. Funky little shops have been replaced by fancy boutiques and chain stores on Main Street and elsewhere. New residents are almost uniformly wealthier — in some cases far more.

There are holdouts in older buildings who enjoy their old-school rents, but they live in increasingly expensive neighborhoods.

Left, 5-year-old Katin Tilton and right, brother 6-year-old Dayten Tilton enjoy a morning bike ride in their cul de sac off of Booth Road in Pauoa Valley. 29 nov 2014. photograph by Cory Lum

Given rising rent trends, it is difficult to imagine how kids like Katin and Dayten will be able to pay for their own place when they grow up.

Cory Lum / Civil Beat

The children who grew up in rent-controlled units have, except when they simply took over their parents’ homes, largely moved away. Many types of diversity in the rental areas of town continue to fade.

Santa Monica has become the kind of place where new arrivals to the pleasant coastal area need to have a lot of money, whether from savings, a benefactor or a really well-paying job. For those moving into the growing number of non-rent-controlled units, wealth increasingly decides who lives there, and who can’t.

In other words, it is a lot like looking for a place to live in Honolulu.

Here are five troubling infographics that detail Honolulu’s housing crisis.

Join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation and discuss practical and political solutions.

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