Tag: affordable housing

Trump Understands Housing

Trump won, and free market types have valid concerns about a Trump presidency. It certainly won’t be a conventionally free-market administration, and it won’t likely be an ideologically coherent one in the conventional Republican sense. However, one area that free-marketers can find some solace is development regulation. In fact, as a developer and businessman himself, there’s reason to think that Trump intuitively understands this policy area better than any other and self-interest makes him an ally.

All the way back in August, Trump spoke to the National Association of Homebuilders and decried the “horrible regulations” that are stacked against developers to the resounding cheers of the crowd. He described development regulations as increasing by almost thirty percent over the past five years, and complained about the “frivolous lawsuits” brought against homebuilders. Notably, he even framed the discussion in terms of low-cost housing, rather than housing affordability.

Decades of experience taught Trump that more regulation means higher cost housing. Taken together, Trump emphasized that development regulations increase the cost of housing by a whopping 25%. Although that figure may sound substantial, it may actually underestimate the impact of regulation on housing prices in some areas of the country. In Manhattan, for instance, it’s estimated that up to half of the price paid for housing is attributable to the hidden costs of restrictive zoning regulations alone.

Land Use and Economic Mobility: You Could Have Read It Here First

Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal contains a great page 3 article on how stricter land use regulations are slowing the growth of housing in areas that need it most. Laura Kusisto reports on a developer’s fight to build middle-class housing in downtown San Francisco, but she notes that similar problems can be seen in wealthy communities from New York and Connecticut to San Diego and Portland, Ore. She also cites academic research on the topic:

According to research by Daniel Shoag, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University, and Peter Ganong, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a decadeslong trend in which the income gap between the poorest and richest states steadily closed has been upended by growth in land-use regulations.

Moving to a wealthier area in search of job opportunities has historically been a way to promote economic equality, allowing workers to pursue higher-paying jobs elsewhere. But those wage gains lose their appeal if they are eaten up by higher housing costs. The result: More people stay put and lose out on potential higher incomes.

For on-the-ground reporting, you need newspapers. But you could have read about that paper twice in Cato Institute publications. Regulation magazine editor Peter Van Doren wrote about it in Winter 2013-2014 in his “Working Papers” column on new research (page 78). 

And just two months ago a summary version of the paper appeared in the Research Briefs in Economic Policy series edited by Jeff Miron, director of economic studies. 

I hope state and local policymakers will take note of the findings in this paper.

Stay tuned to the Cato Institute for more ahead-of-the-curve ideas.

From Utopia to Animal Farm

In a society such as ours … is appears crazy at first to want revolution.  For we have whatever we want.  But the aim here is to transform the will itself so that people no longer want what they now want… .The question with which we had to deal … amounts to the question of whether … in order to set free these needs, a dictatorship appears necessary…

–Herbert Marcuse, “The End of Utopia” (1967)

All ‘favourable’ Utopias seem to be alike in postulating perfection while being unable to suggest happiness.  . .  The inhabitants of various [Utopias] are chiefly concerned with avoiding fuss. They live uneventful, subdued, ‘reasonable’ lives, free not only from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind, but also from passion … .  Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache. They wanted to produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary. The wiser course would be to say that there are certain lines along which humanity must move, the grand strategy is mapped out, but detailed prophecy is not our business. Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.

–George Orwell, “Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun” (1943)

If another group tie takes the place of the religious one – and the socialistic tie seems to be succeeding in doing so – then there will be the same intolerance towards outsiders as in the age of the Wars of Religion.

–Sigmund Freud, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” (1921).


The actual distribution of income or wealth has often been compared with a hypothetical ideal (Utopia) rather than actual experience in any country at any time. 

Many Westerners once believed incomes were nearly equal in the former Soviet Union, for example, but we now know that substantial privileges did exist for a select few – based on political power rather than economic contribution.[i] Even aside from bribery and corruption, special access to health care, education, housing and special shops was often granted to the Communist Party hierarchy and the bureaucratic elite.  Urban people in general were subsidized at the expense of rural areas.

By the late seventies, only a handful of Western leftists continued  to defend such dictatorships as Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, or North Korea’s Kim Jong-il/Kim Jong-un feudal dynasty.  

In recent years, the left’s previous romanticism of communism has sometimes been briefly salavaged by relabeling similar authoritarian regimes as “socialist” (Chavez in Venezuela), which sounds nicer but isn’t. Others have switched to romanticizing some golden age of the past.  In the U.S., for example, the Golden Age of greater equality was said to have occurred between 1930 and 1973. Yet the realtively egalitarian (“fair”?) suffering of 1930-39 is difficult to romaticize, for obvious reasons, as is the post-1973 stagflationary collapse of Nixon’s authoritatian price controls.

Vague allusions to social justice are often employed to suggest that a larger fraction of the economy’s benefits (food, housing, health care, etc.) could and should be distributed by government rather than by markets.  In theory, we could turn over all of our income to democratically elected officials and let them decide who gets what. But distribution on the basis of political criteria is not necessarily fairer than distribution on the basis of economic criteria.  Political markets also tend toward one-size-fits-all solutions, with less variety and innovation than in economic markets.

Those currrently expecting politicians to make various goods or services “affordable” or “free” are really just asking government officials to force someone else to pay.  But artificially low prices (e.g., for colleges or physicians) inflate demand and discourage supply, requiring some bureaucrat to use nonprice rationing such as waiting lists, lotteries or preferential treatment for those with the most political clout.

The only alternative to a free market is a politically rigged market, and that invariably turns out to be neither fair nor pleasant. 

The only way to ban markets is to beat them down with force. And since markets are abstractions, the force is used against people. So the alternative to a market-oriented society in which everyone is required to respect everyone else’s rights is a society in which those in power use force on whomever they can get away with using it on.”

–David R. Henderson, The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (1997)


[i] David R. Henderson, Robert M. McNab & Tamás Rózsás, “The Hidden Inequality in Socialism,” The Independent Review (Winter 2005)

Zoning, Grandmas, and Affordable Housing

On its front page today, the Washington Post writes about legal and regulatory obstacles to building small second housing units on single-family lots, often for aging family members.

Second homes, often called “granny flats,” have become a new front in the conflict that pits the need for more housing in the country’s most expensive cities against the wishes of neighbors who want to preserve their communities. The same battles flare over large developments that might loom over single-family neighborhoods. But even this modest idea for new housing — let homeowners build it in their own back yards — has run into not-in-my-back-yard resistance….

Homes like the Coffees’, proponents argue, could help ease housing shortages that have made $2,000-a-month one-bedrooms look like a bargain in cities such as Los Angeles. They could yield new affordable housing at no cost to the public. They could add rentals and economic diversity to more neighborhoods. And they could expand housing options for a population in which baby boomers are aging and millennials are stuck at home.

Many neighbors, though, protest that a glut of back yard building would spoil the character of neighborhoods designed around the American ideal of one family on one lot surrounded by verdant lawn. …

“You have surging housing prices in the most prosperous cities in the country, and at the same time income inequality is growing, and there’s a cultural and demographic resurgence of urban living,” [Alan Durning, executive director of the Sightline Institute] said. Young people with less money, in particular, he adds, are “slamming into their parents and grandparents’ regulatory regimes of strict limits on construction of new housing.”

It’s not the first time I’d heard of the problem. In 1996 George Liebmann wrote in Regulation about how “Zoning makes it more difficult to keep aged parents close by and care for them.” He recommended that “Duplex homes and accessory apartments should be permitted in all new residential construction. Housing options such as these allow elderly persons to live near their adult children without intruding on their children’s privacy.” (“Modernization of Zoning,” pp. 71, 75). Note that he was talking not about separate structures but simply residential units attached to the main house. And even those were impeded by zoning regulations. I mentioned them briefly in my 1997 book Libertarianism: A Primer and my 2015 update, The Libertarian Mind (p. 309).

Local officials think their zoning rules are more important than keeping families together.  They fume that allowing such small structures for grandma would “turn our zoning ordinance upside down.” And what’s more important, saving money and keeping grandma near her family or strict adherence to zoning regulations? The Post article, featuring a conflict in Los Angeles, notes the problem of NIMBY or “not in my back yard” attitudes by neighbors. And in this case, as reporter Emily Badger notes, it’s actually in your back yard. Or technically, it’s a matter of “not in my neighbor’s back yard.”

Brink Lindsey wrote about how zoning limits affordable housing in his recent paper on regressive regulation, as did Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko in Regulation.

Language Matters: Call It Low-Cost Housing

Housing affordability is an issue that’s been paid considerable attention over the previous two decades, but it doesn’t show signs of meaningful improvement. This even despite the almost $50 billion HUD spends in taxpayer dollars annually on solving the affordability crisis and related concerns.

So what gives? One likely culprit is the language we use to describe the problem.

Take the word “affordable.” Affordable housing – used in a public policy context – is a misnomer of sorts: affordability implies the ability to pay for something given your budget. But budgets vary considerably between households, and so the definition of affordability varies considerably, too.

There are only two – improbable – ways that any given housing could be affordable to the aggregate U.S. population. One option is that everyone’s incomes are identical. Another option is that housing is altogether free.

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.

HUD’s ‘Wastelands’

A year-long investigation by the Washington Post into the Department of Housing & Urban Development’s HOME affordable housing program uncovered systemic waste, fraud, and abuse. The tale is yet another example of why the federal government should extricate itself from housing policy and allow the states to chart their own course.

The piece is lengthy and should be read by interested readers in its entirety, so I’ll just excerpt the Post’s findings:

  • Local housing agencies have doled out millions to troubled developers, including novice builders, fledgling nonprofits and groups accused of fraud or delivering shoddy work.
  • Checks were cut even when projects were still on the drawing boards, without land, financing or permits to move forward. In at least 55 cases, developers drew HUD money but left behind only barren lots.
  • Overall, nearly one in seven projects shows signs of significant delay. Time and again, housing agencies failed to cancel bad deals or alert HUD when projects foundered.
  • HUD has known about the problems for years but still imposes few requirements on local housing agencies and relies on a data system that makes it difficult to determine which developments are stalled.
  • Even when HUD learns of a botched deal, federal law does not give the agency the authority to demand repayment. HUD can ask local authorities to voluntarily repay, but the agency was unable to say how much money has been returned.

In a Cato essay on HUD community development programs, I cite similar examples of HOME funds being wasted. And an essay on HUD scandals shows that mismanagement and corruption in federal housing programs is hardly new. Indeed, a follow-up story from the Post that focuses on related affordable housing shenanigans in the DC area explains that housing speculators who bilked HUD in the 1980s are involved in the current troubles:

All three were convicted in a scheme in the 1980s that involved getting straw buyers to purchase properties in the District at inflated prices using fraudulent appraisals. HUD backed the loans and ultimately lost millions of dollars. The Post called it the largest real estate fraud of its kind in the city’s history; about 30 people were convicted.

The response from Congress to the Post’s expose isn’t any more surprising than the findings: it’s time for a probe! This is where members of Congress point the finger at everybody else except themselves, promise to “fix” the problems, and pay lip-service to the concerns of taxpayers.

From the statement issued by Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) and ranking member Richard Shelby (R-AL):

We are deeply concerned by these reports, particularly at a time when so many Americans are in need of affordable housing. Many communities across the country have successfully used HUD programs to create vital housing opportunities for their citizens. However, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, like any government agency, has a duty to safeguard taxpayer funds. The Committee takes its oversight responsibilities very seriously, and we plan to get to the bottom of this issue.

Republicans are having a difficult time naming federal programs to abolish, while Democrats would have us believe that only the federal government can take care of the “less fortunate.” For Republicans who are serious about spending cuts, HUD’s latest black eye offers an opportunity to challenge the existence of federal housing programs. For Democrats, well, perhaps one or two will start to question the sanctity of these programs.