With the return of Councilmember Sawant’s rent control bill, we are once again subjected to bad reporting on rent control; witness this morning’s Seattle Times article, which quotes advocates on both sides but presents little in the way of real facts or research on the topic.
Here’s the latest data from ApartmentList.com on rents in Seattle. Note that this is not the Seattle “metro area”; this is for the City of Seattle only (which is where Sawant’s bill, if enacted and the state repeals its preemption on rent control, would take effect). You can find all of ApartmentList’s data here.
As you can see from the graph, rents are on an annual cycle: they go up in the summer and back down in the winter. So if we want to do year-to-year comparisons, we need to compare the same month of the year.
In June 2017, rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $1890; in June 2023, it was $1949. That’s an increase of only 3.1% over six years. Not 3.1% per year; 3.1% in total.
If we look at the worst-case year-over-year comparison (excepting the COVID pandemic, a clear anomaly), August 2018 ($1861) to August 2022 ($2075), that’s an increase of 11.1% over four years: less than 2.5% per year.
The inescapable conclusion is that rents have been very stable in Seattle; there has not been runaway price-gouging by Seattle landlords. To be sure, rents have risen much faster in other parts of the state, including in other parts of King County and the Seattle metro area. But not here – mainly because Seattle has invested heavily in building new rental housing, while most other cities and towns have not.
Here’s the vacancy rate in Seattle:
Now let’s overlay the two:
The data makes it clear that the two are inversely correlated: when the vacancy rate goes up, rents come down (and vice versa). This is more evidence that the most impactful policy for keeping rents low is to build more rental housing.
I’ve written extensively about rent control before, summarizing the huge amount of research that has been done on the subject. Here’s an article from 2019, and in 2021 I revisited the topic with updated research. Earlier this year, when the state legislature was flirting with the idea, I also wrote an article for Post Alley summarizing the consensus view of economists: it doesn’t work. It also has data on rents in several other Washington cities for comparison.