November 23, 2015 9:54AM

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.

In other words, the fundamental assumption of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing is that it is "fair" to put low-income minorities in cramped apartments with little privacy so long as those apartments are in the same suburbs as single-family homes with large private yards occupied by the middle class. It also assumes that the solution to problems created by zoning is even more government interference in the market, either through regulations mandating certain housing types or subsidies to that housing (another part of the administration's agenda). It is worth noting further that nothing in the program would insure that the people in those apartments are, in fact, racial minorities.

In any case, even when accompanied by housing subsidies, building expensive apartments in middle-class suburbs does little or nothing to make housing more affordable, mainly because even the most aggressive subsidy programs will build too little housing to have much of an effect on the market. This is especially true since this prescription will be diluted by applying it as much to regions like Dallas or Raleigh, which don't have housing affordability problems but may have suburbs that are not racially balanced, as to places with real housing affordability issues such as the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Boston.

Once we recognize that housing affordability is a crisis only in some urban areas and not others, we have to ask what it is about those urban areas that makes housing expensive. It is not zoning that limits density or mixed-use, which is found almost everywhere; it is growth-management planning that limits development at the urban fringe, which is found mainly in coastal states (CA, FL, HI, MA, MD, OR, VA, WA, and most New England states)--not coincidentally, the very places where housing affordability is a major issue.

Without land-use regulation outside of the cities, all the city zoning in the world won't stop developers from meeting demands for affordable high- or low-density housing outside city limits. On the other hand, if growth management, whether through urban-growth boundaries, urban-service boundaries, large-lot zoning, greenbelts, or other means, limits expansion of the urban area, then housing will become both more expensive and more volatile.

Personally, I would be willing to give up all city zoning restricting density and mixed-use development provided we also give up all zoning and land-use regulation outside of city limits. This will allow developers to meet whatever demand there is for high-density housing as well as for traditional suburbs. Neighborhoods could continue to protect themselves from unwanted intrusions and nuisances using deed restrictions, as is done in much of Houston, one of the nation's most affordable cities and urban areas.

One of the major points of my 2012 book, American Nightmare, is that zoning was originally developed to keep not just racial minorities but the working class in general out of middle-class neighborhoods (a point more recently made in Sonia Hirt's 2014 book, Zoned in the USA). When that failed to work due to rising working-class incomes, middle-class planners supplemented zoning with growth management. That policy appears to be working as blacks and other working-class populations are fleeing many of the urban areas that have applied it, urban areas that celebrate themselves as havens for the "creative class," which is simply another name for the middle class.

In short, Furman's and the administration's focus on zoning is wrong and will fail to make housing more affordable. Instead, they should look at growth management as the cause of housing affordability problems and at eliminating such growth management as the solution.