Why Housing Should Be Regulated as a Public Utility

Aerial view of a residential complex next to a highway and modern buildings.

Something is a public utility because it is essential, such as electricity, telephone, gas, and water. The government, through proper regulations, must ensure that these basic needs are virtually guaranteed.

Housing falls into the same category. Some things need more guarantees than the market can provide.

After all, it is the market that got us to the place where the average rent of $2,742 in city like Los Angeles, California is more than you would earn working full-time at a minimum wage job. Virtually every low-income person is routinely offered lifeline rates for utilities. We do not leave it up to unregulated private entities to determine whether the lights stay on, or whether people have water to drink or basic sanitation.

Society has established public utility commissions for the express purpose of protecting the needs of the disadvantaged. Unfortunately, these commissions are not there to maintain access to shelter. What is more basic than shelter?

The typical discussion about housing is upside-down and inside-out. If you start with the assumption that any civilized society will house all of its people, then you must have a plan that excludes the possibility of people being left to sleep on the street. The alternative is to take the total space available and divide it by the people who need housing. The current system excludes all of the available housing that is built and reserved for people with money, and then says that whatever is left over must cover all of the poor and disenfranchised. This results in a game of musical chairs where some people are completely left out.

When the sole criterion for apportioning housing is to satisfy the profit motive, then there are no incentives to produce a less expensive model with lower margins. There is a long and glorious history of public housing and rent control that has successfully provided housing to millions of people. In a bygone time, American society considered the availability of a place to live – no matter how humble it might be –a birthright.

But it is not a mystery how we got here. Big Real Estate fervently opposes even the most minor housing regulations. Because the supply of low-income housing is inadequate and the need is enormous, current solutions will continue to fail. If we had treated housing like a human right – like a necessity such as gas, water, and electricity – we would not be where we are today.

Regulation creates its own headaches. Putting our faith in government to solve the housing crisis is problematic in many ways. However, no other entity is large enough and strong enough to rectify the current crisis. It is the job of tenant activists to monitor and correct these government activities, while also being the voice of the tenants themselves.

Big Real Estate vultures pounced on the financial crisis to squeeze even more out of the unfortunate people who lost their homes. Vast numbers of homes and apartments have shifted to corporate ownership. The power behind landlord groups like the California Apartment Association – which is very active in my home state – is their ability to bribe politicians and warp news coverage.

It is long past time we take a stand and stop allowing the affordable housing and homelessness crises to escalate. Big Real Estate has no problem stepping over Americans sleeping on the streets to build more luxury developments they can’t fill and that the people who need housing the most could never afford.

Michael Weinstein is the president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the largest global HIV/AIDS organization, and AHF’s Healthy Housing Foundation.