Sunday, November 02, 2014

Human Factors in the Law

San Francisco has rent control laws.  The important detail is that when you first move into an apartment you pay whatever the current market rate is.  But then each time you renew your lease, any rent increase is limited to the inflation rate.  So if market rents increase faster than inflation, the longer you live in a rental, the better deal you would be getting.  But from the landlords’ perspective, they are getting a worse deal every renewal.  Eventually, it is not worth keeping the unit as a rental so they take it off the market to do something else, like sell it or turn it into something else.

San Francisco was worried that when landlords take a unit off the market and evict the tenant, that tenant would then have to pay the current market rate, which they may not be able to afford.  Especially if you consider the typical rent controlled apartment tenant and the state of the San Francisco market.  So they passed a law that the landlord would have to pay the tenant for the expense of moving.

At first, the expense of moving was defined as relocation costs.  This was deemed reasonable by the Appeals courts so it stood for years.  Recently, SF modified the law to include two years of difference in the rent of an equivalent unit.  So if a tenant was paying $1000/month in a rent controlled unit and the current market rate for an equivalent unit was $3000, the landlord had to pay $2,000 * 24 months.  Add in relocation and we are talking $50 grand.  Ouch. 

The 9th circuit overturned, saying that this is not “reasonable,” which is the criterion required by law.  How do we define reasonable?  2 days (relocation costs) or 2 years (rent differential)?  In human factors we often have to define reasonable as well. 

  • What is a reasonable accommodation for a disabled worker? 
  • What is a reasonable level of expertise for supervising a confined space? 
  • What is a reasonable amount of care for someone walking down a busy street? 
  • What is a reasonable use for a consumer product?

We also need to consider who caused the situation.  The proximate cause of the problem in San Francisco is the property owner.  He decided to take the unit off the market, causing the increase in expenses to the tenant, and therefore is responsible for it.  That justifies the law.

But a root cause looks further back. 

  • The city of SF has onerous zoning rules that have kept supply from increasing. 
  • This caused rents to increase. 
  • This led to rent control to prevent the lower income population from being priced out of the market. 
  • This led to landlords losing money on their units. 

We could probably diagnose the causes of the original zoning laws if we kept at it.  But clearly, the landlords are only the last link in this chain.  Are they really the ones who should pay the costs, however they are defined?

The same thing happens in human factors.  When an incident occurs, what is the cause?  The proximate cause is often human “error.”  Someone made a decision that led to an injury or damage.  Someone hit the wrong button and machines did the wrong task.  The wrong person got the sensitive information in an email.

But what is the root cause?  It is often the design of the system.  The worker was rushing because the supervisor was watching because the supervisor was under the gun to hit production schedules and the company prioritized schedules over safety metrics (on the ground – on paper it is often the opposite). 

The pedestrian was looking sideways when she could have been looking at the crack in the sidewalk. But this was because of the confusing signage that she needed to read to figure out where to turn.  She was distracted by the sidewalk juggler and crowd around him.  These conditions were created by city ordinances allowing jugglers and sign designers who didn’t take a good human factors course.  Both of these were created by the city needing new revenue sources and to save money on training.  And sidewalk maintenance.