Oct 2 JDN 2459855
This is a topic I could have done for quite awhile now, and will surely address again in the future; it’s a slow-burn crisis that has covered most of the world for a generation.
In most of the world’s cities, housing prices are now the highest they have ever been, even adjusted for inflation. The pandemic made this worse, but it was already bad.
This is of course very important, because housing is usually the largest expenditure for most families.
Changes in housing prices are directly felt in people’s lifestyles, especially when they are renting. Homeownership rates vary a lot between countries, so the impact of this is quite different in different places.
There’s also an important redistributive effect: When housing prices go up, people who own homes get richer, while people who rent homes get poorer. Since people who own homes tend to be richer to begin with (and landlordsare typically richest of all), rising housing prices directly increase wealth inequality.
The median price of a house in the US, even adjusted for inflation, is nearly twice what it was in 1993.
This wasn’t a slow and steady climb; housing prices moved with inflation for most of the 1980s and 1990s, and then surged upward just before the 2008 crash. Then they plummeted for a few years, before reversing course and surging even higher than they were at their 2007 peak:
This is not a uniquely American problem. The UK shows almost the same pattern:
But it’s also not the same pattern everywhere. In China, housing prices have been rising steadily, and didn’t crash in 2008:
In France, housing prices have been relatively stable, and are no higher now than they were in the 1990s:
Meanwhile, in Japan, housing prices surged in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, ending up four times what they had been in the 1960s; then they suddenly leveled off and haven’t changed since:
It’s also worse in some cities than others. In San Francisco, housing now costs three times what it did in the 1990s, even adjusting for inflation:
Meanwhile, in Detroit, housing is only about 25% more expensive now than it was in the 1990s:
This variation tells me that policy matters. This isn’t some inevitable result of population growth or technological change. Those could still be important factors, but they can’t explain the strong varation between countries or even between cities within the same country. (Yes, San Francisco has seen more population growth than Detroit—but not that much more.)
Part of the problem, I think, is that most policymakers don’t actually want housing to be more affordable. They might say they do, they might occasionally feel some sympathy for people who get evicted or live on the streets; but in general, they want housing prices to be higher, because that gives them more property tax revenue. The wealthy benefit from rising housing prices, while the poor are harmed. Since the interests of the wealthy are wildly overrepresented in policy, policy is made to increase housing prices, not decrease them. This is likely especially true in housing, because even the upper-middle class mostly benefits from rising housing prices. It’s only the poor and lower-middle class who are typically harmed.
This is why I don’t really want to get into suggesting policies that could fix this. We know what would fix this: Build more housing. Lots of it. Everywhere. Increase supply, and the price will go down. And we should keep doing it until housing is not just back where it was, but cheaper—much cheaper. Buying a house shouldn’t be a luxury afforded only to the upper-middle class; it should be something everyone does several times in their life and doesn’t have to worry too much about. Buying a house should be like buying a car; not cheap, exactly, but you don’t have to be rich to do it. Because everyone needs housing. So everyone should have housing.
But that isn’t going to happen, because the people who make the decisions about this don’t want it to happen.
So the real question becomes: What do we do about that?