Who's Really Looking Out for the Least Fortunate?

Burdensome real estate regulations meant to help low-income workers wind up hurting them instead.

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Last month here on the Thomas Jefferson Street blog, I explained how building height restrictions in our nation's capital are contributing to the city's out-of-control cost of living, and hurting the environment in the process.

A couple of weeks later, Josh Barro had a piece at Business Insider explaining why New York City is also so expensive. In both cases, the reasons revolve around government policies – in Manhattan, for example, a huge number of apartment units are rent controlled, it's extremely difficult for property owners to evict deadbeat tenants and much of the construction work is required to be carried out by union employees.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

For some liberal commentators, this doesn't seem like such a bad thing. As New York Magazine's Kevin Roose tweeted, "If unionized labor, rent control, and tenant rights are why NYC has high rents, then maybe I'm okay with high rents?" But this sentiment belies the claims of progressives that their philosophy is one of compassion for the disadvantaged. He, a successful writer at a prestigious publication, can afford, if necessary, to pay more to live in a desirable location. He can support feel-good policies that seem like they will make things better for poor residents, because he doesn't have to confront the reality every day that low-income families are who's hardest hit by exorbitant rent prices.

As with the zoning restrictions in Washington, D.C., which prevent people here from building structures more than 130 feet tall, the restrictions Barro lists may well be intended to make New York more livable. In practice, however, they make the city un­-livable for all but the wealthiest Wall Street types.

Take rent control. When the cost of a large swath of apartments is held artificially low, landlords must dramatically increase the rent on all remaining units in order to turn a profit. This is great if you're one of the lucky few already living in a low-rent building. But for everyone else, have fun trying to find affordable housing. You won't, because it doesn't exist.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should the Government Help Homeowners With Underwater Mortgages?]

That's an annoyance for rich New Yorkers; it's a crisis for poor ones, who may be forced to spend long hours commuting in from the suburbs, take lower-paying jobs outside the city or spend an inordinate proportion of their income on tiny, squalid quarters in crime-ridden neighborhoods. Stated more plainly, a policy that drives up the cost of housing can be the difference between getting by and not for families on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.

We're told over and over that conservatives are concerned only with making things easier for rich Americans at the expense of the less privileged. Yet it's liberals who continue to support laws that, whatever their intentions, have turned out to be disproportionately harmful to the poorest members of society. Maybe it's time we rethink our assumptions about which side of the philosophical divide is actually looking out for the least among us.

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