Please Stop Helping Me! A Homeless Economist Faces Unintended Consequences

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A good social scientist should be cautious about injecting himself into a story, much like a gonzo journalist or a New York Times reporter. Science should be objective. Then again, Murray Rothbard is reported to have encouraged fellow libertarians to channel their frustrations: “Let anger be your muse!” And — even if it does not end there — observation of the world can start with the individual human, whose designs to act are thwarted by outside forces.

So, before I turn to regulations and generalizations, let me back up. I grew up outside of Paris, France. When I returned to the US at the age of 14, I promised myself I would someday return to live in the City of Lights. I have been able to return a few times a year to visit family or attend academic conferences, and I have spent some delightful summers here. But it was always temporary, and I never got to be a true Parisian and suck the cultural and culinary marrow from the city. Then, finally, it happened. For all its disruptions, COVID did leave us with at least one positive change: new attitudes to remote working and distance education. So I left a cushy endowed chair at a mediocre state university, and I found a professorship at the Universidad de las Hespérides.

The university is nominally located in the Canary Islands; it is a 100-percent-remote, start-up, classical liberal endeavor. The university was started by Gabriel Calzada, former chancellor of the classical liberal Universidad Francisco Marroquin, which has been thriving since 1971 in Guatemala City. The university aims to teach solid science that is rooted in the philosophy of freedom, through an exciting combination of synchronous and asynchronous remote classes. It’s not the comfort of an endowed chair with a reduced teaching load and a big travel budget. But I get to live in Paris, and I get to teach again, after a decade without students — I say that intentionally: in the past decade, I have had plenty of “COs” (classroom occupants) and “RGs” (revenue generators), but a student must have an actual desire to learn).

When I arrived in Paris this summer, I found the rental market to be a byzantine black box of inefficiency. I started looking in August. At the twilight of the year, I have finally — with the help of a facilitator — visited a whopping four apartments out of more than 50 inquiries, and I have been rejected by all four, because I don’t quite check the right boxes. 

Why is it so difficult to secure a lease in Paris? I am a victim of strong consumer-protection laws. Any decent student in a micro-principles class can tell you that interventions have unintended consequences. 

Here are some of the “protections” from which I am suffering:

It is illegal to evict a tenant, even for non-payment, during the “winter truce” from November 1 to March 31. After all, it can get cold out there. 

An eviction procedure typically takes four to six months (aside from the five winter months, of course). After multiple steps, a landlord must seek a judge’s approval to cancel a lease and evict a tenant. The judge has one month to decide; if the judge does not grant the lease cancellation, the tenant can then get a grace period of up to three years. If the judge rules in favor of the landlord, the tenant has two months to vacate the premises (outside, again, of the five winter months).

The city of Paris has enacted rent controls – these vary by neighborhood, so there is some lip service to markets… but markets are not allowed to function.

From 1997 to 2010, and again since 2023, new construction has been limited to 12 stories (37 meters or about 120 feet). From 2010 to 2013, the limit was temporarily raised to 50 meters (164 feet) for housing blocks (or about 16 stories). The urban landscape is surely more pleasant, but the opportunity cost is obvious.

It will be illegal, effective in 2025, to rent any property that has the lowest environmental impact score (more than 420kwH per square meter of annual energy consumption or more than 100 kg of CO2 emissions per square meter per year). My mind boggles so much that I won’t even bother converting those to imperial. This means, of course: (1) a further drop in the housing stock; or (2) mandatory expenses for landlords, with an incentive to occupy one’s own property to avoid costly renovations.

There are, naturally, other causes, such as the recent rise in European interest rates (which put pressure on housing purchases, and thus on rentals), and the upcoming Paris Olympics (which offer a further incentive to buy now, so as to sublease apartments over the summer or rent them on AirBNB). 

But the most interesting one is the French obsession with one’s “socioeconomic status.” Yes, France, the country of liberté, égalité, fraternité and the abolition of privileges after the Ancien Régime, slots everybody into an official socioeconomic status. Unlike the US, where the IRS kindly taxes all forms of income (if at different rates), every French citizen has an official status: student, temporary contract, permanent contract, retired, freelance, and the like. Even though I am a dual national with France, I lack a formal status until I file to become recognized, formally, as an entrepreneur. I wonder what Jean-Baptiste Say, who coined the word and was one of the first theorists of entrepreneurship, would say. Of course, I can’t get that formal status until I have an address. So, in the meantime, my US credit score, my income, my savings, and my twelve different leases over 32 years, with a stellar history of rent payment, along with the purchase and sale of three different properties in the US — all mean nothing to a landlord or a real estate agent who can’t figure out in which box I belong. It would be much easier for me to be an impossible-to-fire French state employee with half my income.

As an economist, I tried a number of market measures, from offering a higher rent to offering a substantially bigger security deposit. This was all in vain, and I am still looking.

I’m frustrated but I’ll be fine: I have generous relatives, and I can afford hotels and AirBNBs when I need to. And, as a veteran of American public universities, I can navigate make-work bureaucracies. I pity those who lack the means or the experience, as regulations typically have regressive effects. We need only look at the sad case of San Francisco. I just wish the French government would stop helping us!