Minimum standards for rental housing is back in the news in New Zealand. After some deaths in some rather nasty fires in rental houses without fire alarms, there are demands that landlords must put fire alarms in place and maintain those fire alarms. About a dozen people or so die in fires in New Zealand every year.
The fact that in the proposed regulation, landlords are also required to maintain those fire alarms – ensure they have batteries in them – is a microcosm of the economics of rental housing habitability laws.
Even when landlords put in fire alarms, low income tenants prefer to spend their money on something other than replacement batteries for those alarms. These tenants are presumed to be competent to vote and drive cars, but not manage the risk of fires in the houses in which they live.
Maybe the reason for the lack of interest of low income tenants in putting batteries and fire alarms is domestic household fires are relatively rare these days. Fire is buried in the green area of the diagram below and is similar to drowning and falls.
The American data below suggests that your chances of dying by fire are about the same as dying from choking and a little worse from dying from post surgery complications.
Rather than in need of nudging, your average low income tenants seems to have it pretty right regarding the risks of dying in a fire.
When I went looking for some economics of housing habitability laws, Google was a bit of a disappointment. There are some empirical work done in the 1970s and early 1980s and then it fell away.
My suspicion is there is not so much empirical work on the economics of housing habitability laws because proving the obvious is not a good investment in Ph.D. topics or tenure track economic research.
The owner of ghetto housing differs little from any other purveyor of low-cost merchandise. In fact, he is no different from any purveyor of any kind of merchandise. They all charge as much as they can.
First consider the purveyors of cheap, inferior, and second-hand merchandise as a class. One thing above all else stands out about merchandise they buy and sell: it is cheaply built, inferior in quality, or second-hand.
A rational person would not expect high quality, exquisite workmanship, or superior new merchandise at bargain rate prices; he would not feel outraged and cheated if bargain rate merchandise proved to have only bargain rate qualities.
Our expectations from margarine are not those of butter. We are satisfied with lesser qualities from a used car than from a new car. However, when it comes to housing, especially in the urban setting, people expect, even insist upon, quality housing at bargain prices.
Richard Posner discussed housing habitability laws in his Economic Analysis of the Law. The subsection was titled wealth distribution through liability rules. Posner concluded that habitability laws will lead to abandonment of rental property by landlords and increased rents for poor tenants.
What do-gooder would want to know that a warranty of habitability for rental housing will lead to scarcer, more expensive housing for the poor! Surprisingly few interventions in the housing market work to the advantage of the poor.
It would be a mistake, however, to look upon a decline in substandard rental housing as an unmitigated gain. In fact, in the absence of substandard housing, options for indigent tenants are reduced. Some tenants are likely to end up in over-crowded standard units, or even homeless.