Tag: Housing

Oregon Legislature Repeals Laws of Supply & Demand

Like the apocryphal story of the state legislature that passed a law dictating that pi equals 3, the Oregon state legislature has passed two laws that pretend the laws of supply & demand don’t exist. The difference is that, in reality, no state legislature ever did pass a law saying that pi equals 3, but Oregon’s legislature is totally ignoring basic economic principles.

First, earlier this week, the legislature passed a new minimum wage law increasing the minimum to as high as 14.75 per hour in the Portland area by 2022 (with lower minima for other parts of the state). This will supposedly be the highest in the nation, but only in the unlikely event that no other state raises its minimum wage in the next six years. However, after adjusting for the cost of living, Oregon’s new minimum wage probably is the highest in the nation even before 2022.

Proponents claim the minimum-wage law will improve Oregon’s economy by putting more money in the hands of its residents that they will spend in Oregon businesses. The new minimum wage “is going to be good for Oregon families and is going to add to consumer purchasing power that will benefit our small businesses,” Oregon’s labor commissioner told a reporter. That’s like warming the bed by cutting off one end of a blanket and sewing it on to the other end. If increasing the minimum wage does so much good, why not increase it to $15 right away? Or $50? Or $500?

Will Obama Make Housing Affordable?

Property-rights and housing-affordability advocates were surprised and elated that the chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, Jason Furman, gave a speech blaming housing affordability problems on zoning and land-use regulation. They shouldn’t be: while Furman is correct in general, he is wrong about the details and the prescriptions he offers could make the problems worse than ever.

There is no doubt, as Furman documents in his speech, that land-use regulation is the cause of growing housing affordability problems. Yet Furman fails to note the fact that these problems are only found in some parts of the country. This is a crucial observation, and those who fail to understand it are almost certain to misdiagnose the cause and propose the wrong remedies.

Citing Jane Jacobs (who was wrong at least as often as she was right), Forman blames affordability problems on zoning that “limits density and mixed-use development.” Such zoning is found in almost every city in the country except Houston, yet most cities don’t have housing affordability problems. Thus, such zoning alone cannot be the cause of rising rents and home prices.

Based on this erroneous assumption, Furman endorses what he calls the administration’s agenda, which is its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing program. Rather than making housing more affordable, this program is aimed at ending racial segregation of middle-class suburbs by requiring the construction of multifamily housing in suburbs that are not racially balanced relative to their urban areas. It assumes that multifamily housing is less costly (and thus more affordable to low-income minorities) than single family, but that is only true because units are smaller: on a dollar-per-square-foot basis, multifamily costs more than single family, especially for mid-rise and high-rise apartments. Multifamily also uses more energy per square foot than single family, which means heating bills will be higher.

Markets and Social Justice in Housing and Education

For decades, discriminatory housing policies in the U.S. restricted the ability of black citizens to purchase homes outside of predominantly black ghettos. From the 1950s through the 1970s, real estate speculators called “blockbusters” made some progress opening up white-only neighborhoods to black families until an odd coalition of segregationists and left-wing activists succeeded in regulating blockbusters out of existence. Tragically, the U.S. housing market has remained largely segregated even until today. Moreover, because a family’s access to a quality education is determined primarily by the location of their home, black children are disproportionately assigned to low-performing district schools, depriving them of opportunity. 

Sadly, misguided suspicions about the market led left-wing leaders to support paternalistic regulations that harmed the very people they intended to help – a disastrous mistake that many modern progressives are now repeating in education policy.

In a recently updated version of his 1998 paper, “A Requiem for Blockbusting,” Dmitri Mehlhorn of the Progressive Policy Institute details the sordid history of discriminatory housing policy in the U.S. When Southern agricultural jobs dried up in the early 20th century, black workers began migrating to the industrial North. The response was ugly:

White Americans mostly reacted to this migration with coordinated and violent hatred. Driven by xenophobia, they used physical, political, and economic power to drive blacks into strictly circumscribed ghettos. The ugliness was a team sport, including local governments, state and federal agencies, courts, businesses, and the media.

At the federal level, the Federal Housing Administration encouraged racial covenants, stating that they “provide the surest protection against undesirable encroachment and inharmonious use.” These covenants contractually prohibited homes from being resold to black families. By the 1940s, integrated neighborhoods had ceased to exist in every major city in the United States.

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled against racial covenants in housing, but racists found workarounds. As Mehlhorn details:

For instance, both federal and local agencies encouraged white flight by steering resources to whites seeking segregated suburban houses and schools, while cutting those resources for black families. So-called “urban renewal” laws were used to raze expanding black neighborhoods that threatened white institutions. Federal funds were used to construct massive public housing projects for the displaced black residents.

We are still feeling the effects of these discriminatory policies today, particularly in education, which is intimately linked with housing policy. According to a 2012 study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, “80% of Latino students and 74% of black students attend majority nonwhite schools (50-100% minority), and 43% of Latinos and 38% of blacks attend intensely segregated schools (those with only 0-10% of whites students) across the nation.”

Why Is the Rent Too Damn High? Because We Ignore the Real Problem

Rising home prices and apartment rents have been in the news lately, but almost no one is looking at the real causes behind these problems. Instead, they are proposing band-aid solutions that will do little to help most people afford housing but will greatly benefit special interest groups.

According to the news, BostonLos AngelesMiamiNew YorkPortlandSan Francisco-Oakland, San JoseSeattle, and Washington, DC, among other major urban areas, are all suffering from housing crises. Economists who have studied these regions know why their housing is becoming less affordable.

First, urban-growth boundaries and other land-use regulations in most of these regions have limited the amount of land available for new housing. Urban planners say these regulations are needed to control the externalities caused by urban sprawl. However, as New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister recently noted in a speech about a similar housing crisis in Auckland, urban planning itself “has become the externality” that is making housing the most expensive.

Second, in many of these regions–specifically, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco-Oakland, San Jose, and Washington–rent control has only made housing less affordable for everyone not lucky enough to live in a rent-controlled apartment. Even though some of these cities exempt new developments from rent-control rules, developers know that such exemptions could be eliminated at any time and are wary of investing in new housing. Many of these and other cities have also passed “inclusionary zoning ordinances” that force developers to sell or rent 10 to 20 percent of the new housing units they build at below-market rates, which both discourages new development and increases the cost of the market-rate units that are built.

Although these problems are obvious to anyone who understands the rudiments of supply and demand, they are almost completely ignored by politicians, housing officials, and low-income housing advocates. Instead, the almost exclusive focus is on building government-subsidized (or, in the case of inclusionary zoning, developer-subsidized) housing. Yet this does nothing to solve the problem for the vast majority of homebuyers and renters.

The Most Racist Urban Area in America?

Yesterday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved a new fair housing rule called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. This follows the Supreme Court’s recent ruling allowing HUD to use disparate impact as a criterion for determining whether a community is guilty of unfair housing practices.

 Wikimedia photo by Bernard Gagnon.

In one form of disparate impact analyses, HUD compares the racial makeup of a city or suburb with the makeup of the urban area as a whole. If the city doesn’t have enough minorities, it is presumed guilty and must take steps to attract more. Under the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, that could mean subsidizing low-income housing or rezoning land for high-density housing.

While I have no doubt that prejudice is still a factor in housing in America, there are many other factors that influence the distribution of people across an urban area. These include religion, education, and personal tastes in food, recreation, and other activities. For example, low-income families with children will be more likely to live near a Walmart Supercenter while high-income families with no children will be more likely to live near a Whole Foods. To expect every suburb, most of whose borders are based on little more than historical accidents, to have a perfect mix of races is absurd.

This Is the Housing Market You Wanted, Hillary Clinton Staffers

The New York Times reports:

For decades, idealistic twenty-somethings have shunned higher-paying and more permanent jobs for the altruism and adrenaline rush of working to get a candidate to the White House. But the staffers who have signed up for the Clinton campaign face a daunting obstacle: the New York City real estate market….

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign prides itself on living on the cheap and keeping salaries low, which is good for its own bottom line, but difficult for those who need to pay New York City rents….

When the campaign’s finance director, Dennis Cheng, reached out to New York donors [to put up staffers in their apartments], some of them seemed concerned with the prospective maze of campaign finance laws and with how providing upscale housing in New York City might be interpreted.

Here are some words that don’t appear in the article: rent control, regulation, zoning. But those are among the reasons that housing is expensive in New York. As a Manhattan Institute report noted in 2002:

  • New York City and State have instituted policies that severely distort the dynamics of housing supply and demand. Only 30 percent of the city’s rental units, for instance, are subject to market prices. These distortions—coupled with Rube-Goldbergian environmental and zoning regulations—have denied New York the kind of healthy housing market enjoyed by most other major cities.

And a report by Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko for the Federal Reserve Board of New York Economic Policy Review suggests that “homes are expensive in high-cost areas primarily because of government regulation” that imposes “artificial limits on construction.”

As I’ve said in other contexts: This is the business you have chosen. If you want the government to control rents and impose regulatory costs on the building of housing, then you can expect to see less housing and thus more expensive housing. Welcome to your world, Hillary Clinton staffers.

Housing and Wealth Inequality

American Nightmare is in some ways the most profound of the three books I have written for Cato. It covers a wide range of issues, including a detailed explanation of the 2008 financial crisis. But the overarching theme is that urban planning and zoning are best viewed as a form of economic warfare by the upper and middle classes against the working and lower classes. While that might not have been the original intent, to judge by the smug attitudes of the beneficiaries of such planning and zoning, they are perfectly happy with the results.

The book, therefore, was really about inequality, an issue that of course has been made popular and controversial by Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s thesis is that income inequality is necessarily rising because the returns to capital wealth are greater than overall economic growth, thus giving people one more reason to hate capitalists.

Last month, a paper by an MIT graduate student in economics named Matthew Rognlie, examined Piketty’s thesis in detail. Rognlie found that, contrary to Piketty, the returns on most kinds of wealth and capital have not been greater than overall economic growth, and therefore haven’t been contributing to income inequality. The one exception, Rognlie found, was housing.

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