I have an online ritual that I follow almost without exception every day. I read Letsrun.com for my running news; The Ringer for my football and basketball. Car and Driver and bringatrailer.com to scratch my automobile itch, the New York Times to learn about the world and then—and maybe most importantly—Tyler Cowen’s blog Marginal Revolution. Cowen is one of the intellectual world’s hidden gems. He is an economist at George Mason University and I suppose he would self-identify as a species of libertarian. But his true gift is that his mind is as open as anyone I’ve ever encountered. Tyler—Cowen-ites refer to him by his first name, like Michael or Pelé or Beyoncé—is interested in everything, which is what makes Marginal Revolution essential reading.
So in this newsletter, I simply want to talk about a research paper that I found out about on Tyler’s blog (and that, in a million years, I would never have discovered on my own).
It’s from a young economics Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University named Boaz Abramson. Abramson is interested in what happened to rental markets during COVID, when lots of jurisdictions around the country enacted measures to prevent evictions. At the beginning of a major economic upset like a pandemic, if someone loses their minimum-wage job, no one wants that person and their family out on the street the next month, when the money runs out. So some places in the United States imposed moratoriums on evictions and also passed “right to counsel” laws, meaning that people facing eviction would have immediate access to legal help.
Abramson’s question is this: What is the effect of those two measures? And how do those effects compare to other ways of helping people facing eviction—like rental assistance? So he looks at what happened in the San Diego area during the pandemic, and builds a model to answer his question. He titles his paper "The Welfare Effects of Eviction and Homelessness Policies."
Here are his conclusions:
In the short term, moratoria and right-to-counsel laws definitely help prevent evictions.
In the long term, those two measures do the opposite. The response of landlords is to raise rents, avoid tenants at the margin, and restrict supply—with the result that the housing market gets a lot tighter. How much tighter? By his estimate, right-to-counsel laws, in particular, increase homelessness by 15 percent.
What about rental assistance? Abramson models channelling $400 a month to the most vulnerable renters in the San Diego area. That program, he finds, reduces evictions by 75 percent and reduces homelessness by 45 percent.
Not to belabor the obvious, but these are huge numbers. One approach increases homelessness by 15 percent, the other cuts it by 45 percent.
What should we make of this? After reading the paper, I couldn’t get it out of my head, and it struck me that there are a number of really important lessons here.
First, do I know whether Abramson’s analysis is correct? Of course not. I tried to read the paper, and the statistical analyses in the middle, where he discloses his calculations, are way above my head—and I suspect above the heads of most people who are not academic economists. (Take a look at page 28, for example.) One thing that we can expect is that other economists will now step in and try and replicate his results. In a couple years, we’ll probably have a better sense of how true or generalizable his findings are.
But that’s not really the point here. The real point is that lots and lots of people who think about a problem like homelessness have an ideological intuition about the way to prevent it. Providing vulnerable tenants with legal assistance seems like common sense to someone with liberal leanings. (And I count myself as someone with liberal leanings!) But Abramson’s point is that this isn’t an ideological question. It’s an empirical question. Don’t approach a complicated problem like homelessness with a feeling about the best way to help those on the bottom. To paraphrase an infamous adage, the housing problem doesn’t care about your feelings. If we want to solve this problem—properly—the only way to do that is to bring in the smartest people we can find, tell them to analyze the data, and use their findings to make the world a little bit better.
If in fact Abramson’s research, for example, inspires a whole new group of economists to study this question, it is certainly possible that they will conclude that Abramson is wrong and that right-to-counsel laws and moratoria are a good idea. If we establish that fact, then all of the people who (like me) read Abramson and said, “Wow. That’s convincing,” should now do an about-face and say, “Let’s pass more right-to-counsel laws.” Far, far too many issues in our society remain mired in ideological quicksand. We need to understand the real limitations of our policy instincts. Many of the hardest problems in society are ultimately empirical questions, and our obligation is to go where the evidence points us. And in that hypothetical instance—where Boaz Abramson is proven wrong—do you know who I think would be the first to do an about-face? Boaz Abramson! Because good economists—and he strikes me as a very good young economist—are by definition empiricists.
Second point. Being an empiricist is really hard! Even some empiricists aren’t very good at empiricism. One of the sobering revelations about a lot of academic work in recent years—not to mention seemingly objective systems like artificial intelligence—is how ridden with bias things that aren’t supposed to be biased really are. I wonder sometimes if we should recast social-science education in universities as simply empiricism training: Can we teach a student, if only for the four years they spend in college, to keep their mind wide open? Send your kids to George Mason to take classes with Tyler Cowen!
One final, more important point. The real news in Abramson’s work is not the unexpectedly high costs of politically fashionable eviction restrictions. It’s the unexpected enormous benefits of rental assistance. I’ve been writing about homelessness for a decade or more. One of my favorite Revisionist History episodes—“A Memorial for the Living,”—was about Changing Homelessness, an innovative housing group in Jacksonville, Florida. And the one thing I’ve always heard from professionals working to fight homelessness is that the problem with our public policy is that we misunderstand the roots of homelessness. People are not homeless because of a lack of access to quality legal representation or drug treatment programs or because they like living in cardboard boxes. They are homeless because housing is too expensive in America, there isn’t enough of it, and lots of people in this country don’t have enough money to make rent.
That’s what the Abramson paper is really saying. We can tie ourselves in knots making the lives of landlords difficult or recruiting carloads of lawyers. Or we can write a check to someone who really needs the money.
[Header Image: Spencer Platt / Staff via Getty Images]