Tag: Housing

Ignoring the Law of Supply and Demand

A recent report from Fannie Mae finds that baby boomers are not leaving their comfortable suburban homes for lively inner-city communities with walkable streets. As a news article about the report observes, this challenges the “conventional wisdom that ‘empty nester’ baby boomers would eventually downsize from the homes where they raised families, flocking instead to apartments or condos.”

Rather than conventional wisdom, it would be more accurate to say that this notion was wishful thinking among urban planners who believe more Americans should be packed into high-density “compact cities” where they will get around by foot, bicycle, or transit rather than by automobile. In contrast, demographers have known that populations of virtually all age groups, whether millennials or empty nesters, are growing faster in the suburbs and exurbs than in the cities. After all, the baby boomers’ parents overwhelmingly preferred to “age in place” rather than move when their children left home; why should baby boomers be any different?

Despite this, regional planning agencies all over the country are writing plans that presume America will need no more single-family homes, especially on large lots, and instead will need lots of apartments, condos, or townhouses. Many of these plans effectively zone away the possibility of new single-family homes on large lots while they subsidize construction of high-density housing. For example, the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Plan Bay Area mandates that 80 percent of all new housing be in high-density urban centers.

To justify these plans, the planning agencies often hire Arthur C. Nelson, the University of Utah urban planning professor who in 2006 predicted that the U.S. will soon have 22 million surplus single-family homes on large lots. Nelson wrote a 2011 report predicting that the Bay Area, which has one of the most acute housing shortages in America today, would have a surplus of nearly 572,000 single-family homes by 2040; Plan Bay Area relied heavily on this report to justify its strict land-use policies.

Polarization and Freedom

A new Pew poll finds that three out of four “consistent liberals” would rather live in a community “where the houses are smaller and closer to each other” but within walking distance of schools, stores, and restaurants. Conversely, three out of four “consistent conservatives” would rather live in a larger home on a large lot even if it means driving to schools, stores, and restaurants.


Source: Pew Research Center. Click chart to download Pew’s 121-page (3.5-MB) report on polarization in America.

Pew says this shows that “differences between right and left go beyond politics,” which Pew claims is one of the seven most important things to know about polarization in America. Yet the left has turned the choice between a traditional suburb and a so-called walkable community into a political issue, so it is no wonder that people’s views on this choice are polarized.

Disappointingly, Pew’s report on polarization defines everything in terms of liberal vs. conservative. Pew’s big news is that the share of Americans who are consistently conservative or consistently liberal has more than doubled since 1994–yet you have to read deep into the report to learn that these groups make up just 21 percent of the country. The report says little about the other 79 percent of Americans, yet you’d think they would be important since they outnumber the consistent ones by almost four to one.

Cutting the Tie Between Education and Housing

We already have a market in education: the real estate market. Controlling for other factors, houses in districts with higher-performing government schools are more expensive than those in areas with lower-performing schools. In 2012, the Brookings Institution issued a report finding that in “the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring public school.” The report also found that “the average low-income student attends a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams, while the average middle/high-income student attends a school that scores at the 61st percentile on state exams.”

Essentially, access to a quality education depends on one’s parents’ ability to purchase a relatively more expensive house in an area with a good school. That this is a horribly unjust policy for low-income children is obvious and oft-discussed, but what’s often overlooked is that the negative consequences also extend to middle-income families.

With quality education tied to housing, middle-income parents who desire the best for their children must seek out housing in areas with better government schools or scrape together money for private school tuition. Unfortunately, as a new Brookings report reveals, this too-often means purchasing a home that is just barely within a family’s financial means, creating a situation where millions of middle-income families live “hand-to-mouth” with very low levels of liquid savings though they have considerable non-liquid assets. The Atlantic’s Matthew O’Brien explains:

This shouldn’t be too much of a mystery. Imagine a couple that’s getting ready to have kids, and wants to buy a house near good schools. Well, that’s expensive. As Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi pointed out in The Two Income Trap, buying a house in a school district you can’t really afford is one of the biggest causes of bankruptcies. Couples can only afford the mortgage with both their salaries, so they’ll get in trouble if either of them loses their job. 

But even if everything goes right, they’ll still be cash-poor for a long time. They’ll probably have to use most of their savings on the down payment, and use a big part of their income on the mortgage payments. In other words, the wealthy hand-to-mouth are parents overextending themselves to get their kids into the best schools possible in our de facto private system.

As O’Brien notes, a system of school choice would sever the ties between housing and education, which is a policy that could keep “many people from becoming cash-poor and wealthy—a precarious thing—in the first place.” School choice also provides a passport out of poverty for those students whose parents could not afford an expensive house at all.

Mayor Bloomberg Doesn’t Understand Economics

Mayor Bloomberg says New York City’s lack of affordable housing is a sign of a vibrant economy, because it proves people want to live there. Despite his reputation in the business world, he obviously doesn’t understand the laws of supply and demand.

“Somebody said that there’s not enough housing,” Bloomberg said on a radio show. “That’s a good sign.” Housing is only scarce, he said, because “as fast as we build, more people want to live here.”

In fact, as I showed in chaper 10 of my book, American Nightmare, as well as in this blog post, high housing prices do not prove that lots of people really find an area desirable. Instead, they are more a sign of government barriers to housing. In a nutshell, downward sloping demand curves means a few people may be willing to pay a high price for any good, but that doesn’t mean the public in general finds that good to be particularly valuable.

As reported by Virginia Postrel on Bloomberg’s own news service a few months ago, America’s elites have built an economic wall around places like New York City and California in order to make these areas more exclusive. Rent control in the city combined with New Jersey’s and Connecticut’s smart-growth policies have turned New York from a fairly affordable place to live as recently as 40 years ago to one that is completely unaffordable today.

Yes, Bloomberg’s city may be building some housing. But it obviously isn’t building enough to meet demand. In 1969, median housing prices in the New York urban area (including northern New Jersey) were just 2.6 times median family incomes, and 3.3 times in 1979. By 2005, they were 8.4 times. Thanks to the recession more than new housing, they were down to 5.3 by 2012–still way too high. But in New York City alone median prices were still 8.7 times median family incomes.

Here’s the surprise: Median family incomes in New York City were just 15 percent greater than in the city of Houston in 2012. But home prices were 284 percent greater. That’s not a sign that people are demanding to live there; it’s a sign of acute shortages.

Houston frets when its median home prices approach $150,000 and price-to-income ratios come close to 2.2. With New York City median prices approaching $480,000 and median values nearly nine times median incomes, Mayor Bloomberg should do more than pat himself on the back; he should recognize that the city is suffering from a major housing crisis.

Obama’s Housing Speech: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

Yesterday, President Obama went to what was perhaps ground-zero of the housing crisis: Phoenix. He laid out his vision for the role of housing in building a middle class, as well as his solutions for avoiding bubbles.    

On the rhetorical side, the president certainly laid out some principles that anyone would be hard-pressed to disagree with. For instance, he characterized the business mode of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as “heads we win, tails you lose”–which of course it was. The president was correct in calling it “wrong.”  If only then-Senator Obama had aided the efforts to reform Fannie and Freddie by Senator Richard Shelby and others, perhaps this mess could have been avoided. But, hey–better late than never.  

The president is also correct in highlighting the issue of local barriers that increase the cost of housing. Both Cato’s Randy O’Toole and I have written regularly on this topic. You don’t get bubbles without supply constraints. But then every president since Reagan, at least, has pointed to this problem and yet it has only gotten worse. If the president has a substantial plan to bring down regulatory barriers in places like California, then I would love to see it.

Perhaps most importantly, the president recognized that what we had was a housing bubble, and the solution isn’t to “just re-inflate” it. As the president urged, we must “turn the page on the bubble-and-bust mentality” behind the housing crisis. That was the good, and again I applaud the president for recognizing those facts.  

Unfortunately, what details we have of his vision are not exactly consistent with these facts–which are bad and ugly. The president wants “no more leaving taxpayers on the hook for irresponsibility or bad decisions,” but then he implies that government should continue to stand behind risk in the housing market. The primary purpose of FHA, which the president commends, is to allow lenders to pass along the costs of their mistakes to the taxpayer.  

Mr. President, there is only one way to take the taxpayer off the hook:  get the government out of the mortgage market.  Anything short of that will continue to undermine the incentive for lenders to make responsible loans.  

Immigrants Are Attracted to Jobs, Not Welfare

Unauthorized and low skilled immigrants are attracted to America’s labor markets, not the size of welfare benefits.  From 2003 through 2012, many unauthorized immigrants were attracted to work in the housing market.  Housing starts demanded a large number of workers fill those jobs.  As many as 27 percent of them were unauthorized immigrants in some states.  Additionally, jobs that indirectly supported the construction of new houses also attracted many lower skilled immigrant workers.

Apprehensions of illegal crossers on the Southwest border (SWB) is a good indication of the size of the unauthorized immigrant flow into the United States.  The chart below shows apprehensions on the SWB and housing starts in each quarter:

 

Fewer housing starts create fewer construction jobs that attract fewer crossings and, therefore, fewer SWB apprehensions.  The correlation holds before and after the mid-2006 housing collapse. 

What about welfare? 

Here is a chart of the national real average TANF benefit level per family of three from 2003 to 2011 (2012 data is unavailable) and SWB apprehensions:

 

Prior to mid-2006, TANF benefit levels fell while unauthorized immigration rose.  During the housing construction boom, unauthorized immigrants were attracted by jobs and not declining TANF benefits.  After mid-2006, when housing starts began falling dramatically, real TANF benefit levels and unauthorized immigration both fell at the same time.  If unauthorized immigration was primarily incentivized by the real value of welfare benefits, it would have fallen continuously since 2003.   

The above chart does not capture the full size of welfare benefits or how rapidly other welfare programs increased beginning in 2008.  As economist Casey Mulligan explained in his book The Redistribution Recession, unemployment insurance, food stamps (SNAP), and Medicaid benefits increased in value and duration beginning in mid-2008.  Including those would skew welfare benefits upward in 2008 and beyond, but unauthorized immigration inflows still fell during that time.

In conclusion, housing starts incentivize unauthorized immigration while TANF does not. 

Yes, Land-Use Regulation Does Increase Income Inequality

Harvard economists have proven one of the major theses of American Nightmare, which is that land-use regulation is a major cause of growing income inequality in the United States. By restricting labor mobility, the economists say, such regulation has played a “central role” in income disparities.

When measured on a state-by-state basis, American income inequality declined at a steady rate of 1.8 percent per year from 1880 to 1980. The slowing and reversal of this long-term trend after 1980 is startling. Not by coincidence, the states with the strongest land-use regulations–those on the Pacific Coast and in New England–began such regulation in the 1970s and 1980s.

Forty to 75 percent of the decline in inequality before 1880, the Harvard economists say, was due to migration of workers from low-income states to high-income states. The freedom to easily move faded after 1980 as many of the highest-income states used land-use regulation to make housing unaffordable to low-income workers. Average incomes in those states grew, leading them to congratulate themselves for attracting high-paid workers when what they were really doing is driving out low- and (in California, at least) middle-income workers.

As Virginia Postrel puts it, “the best-educated, most-affluent, most politically influential Americans like th[e] result” of economic segregation, because it “keeps out fat people with bad taste.” Postrel refers to these well-educated people as “elites,” but I simply call them “middle class.”

Middle class doesn’t mean middle income; it means people with managerial, creative, or other jobs that require thinking, not repetitive or physical labor. As a proxy, I use college education: less than 30 percent of working-age Americans have a bachelor’s degree or better. Though some people with college degrees flip burgers just as some without such degrees gained enough knowledge on the job to be promoted into management, it seems likely that about 30 percent of the population are middle- or upper-class while 70 percent are working- or lower-class.

Census data show that, in the late 1970s, the average worker with a high school diploma but no college education earned more than 64 percent as much as the average worker with a bachelor’s degree. By 2010, it was less than 53 percent.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the barrier between the 1 percent and the 99 percent is far more porous than the one between middle class and working class. The rising cost of higher education and the high cost of moving into regions with land-use regulation prevent less-educated people from bettering themselves. Increased regulation of commercial operations limit people’s ability to start small businesses. Increased traffic congestion (favored by “progressive” anti-auto cities) also hits working-class people harder than middle-class workers as the former are less likely to be able to take advantage of flex-time, telecommuting, and other ways of avoiding congestion.

Britain, which has regulated land use since 1947, is suffering many of the same problems. As the Telegraph reports, this regulation has divided “the nation between old and young, haves and have-nots.”

Of course, many urban planners still refuse to believe that land-use regulation makes housing expensive. Never mind the fact that economists at Harvard, Whartons, and a wide range of other universities agree that it does. Let’s just ignore the fact that such regulation is destroying our economy and oppressing low-income families. All that is important is that the middle-class elites who benefit are happy.

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