Ethics & Public Policy Center

Apartment Hunting in Paris Reminds Me Why I’m a Conservative

Published in The Week on April 14, 2015


My family and I live in Paris. There are many nice things about Paris, as everyone on the planet knows. Apartment hunting is not one of them.

Nevermind the extortionary rents. To rent an apartment, you have to submit to a virtual proctology exam, handing over everything short of blood tests about your financial history to landlords or asset managers, who invariably treat you like dirt. Landlords will only look at your file if you earn three times the rent, which, given Paris rents, means you must make a lot of money. But the most frustrating thing is that landlords evaluate not just how much money you make — fair enough — but how you make it. For someone like me, a freelancer, the bar is even higher. Friends with foreign-sounding last names and/or darker skin report being turned down without their file being looked at.

Why is apartment hunting in Paris such a chore? In a word: socialism.

France’s well-intentioned 1980s socialist government made it extremely onerous for landlords to evict bad tenants, who can typically drag the process out for years. Much in the way that tight labor regulations that make it hard to fire people disincentivize hiring — and thereby penalize the least productive members of society on the labor market — these regulations make landlords reluctant to lend.

Add to that regulations mandating that before an apartment is rented out to a new owner it must be refurbished and put up to code — including myriad, ever-increasing safety and environmental regulations — and many apartments simply sit empty, landlords preferring not to put up with the cost, risk, and bureaucratic hassle of lending.

Add to that numerous building restrictions and rent control regulations, and you’ll understand why, according to watchdog group Observatoire des inégalités, despite plentiful social housing, 3.5 million French people are poorly housed. My family will do ok — we still make a good amount of money relative to the rest of the country. The people penalized by policies like these are not yuppies like us; they are the marginal members of society.

All of this is a far cry from places like Texas and other Sun Belt states, which are attracting population from the rest of the United States — particularly budget crisis-stricken, overregulated, and overtaxed Blue States — in large part thanks to their plentiful, cheap housing, which is plentiful and cheap precisely because it is deregulated.

Today, the idea that housing regulations hurt the very people they are intended to help by driving up the cost of housing is well understood in many quarters of the left, at least in the U.S.

But in the 1980s, whenever American conservatives railed against public housing, the left denounced it as race-baiting. Nevermind that at the same time, Thatcher’s conservatives engaged in the same kind of railing, even though most public housing tenants in Britain were of the white working class. And so did conservatives in France, where the racial dynamic to social housing exist, but are completely different from the American version. When French conservatives denounced rent control, they were accused of trying to evict grandma for the sake of hurting her.

Well-meaning lefties reassure themselves that they are doing God’s work by punishing landlords and passing well-intentioned regulations, while the very people they are trying to help are left poorly housed (or not housed at all) by their policies. This is exactly the sort of spectacle — repeated inalmost every policy realm in France — that has made me into a conservative. I have seen up close, over and over again, how big government policies hurt the poor and create a system that only entrenches class privilege. And so I have no patience for those who think good intentions are fine substitutes for intelligent and sound policy.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another form to fill out.

– Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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