How we can actually solve the housing shortage

Sep 16 JDN 2458378

In previous posts I’ve talked about the housing crisis facing most of the world’s major cities. (Even many cities in Africa are now facing a housing crisis!) In this post, I’m going to look at the empirical data to see if we can find a way to solve this crisis.

Most of the answer, it turns out, is really not that complicated: Build more housing.

There is a little bit more to it than that, but only a little bit. The basic problem is simply that there are more households than there are houses to hold them.

One of the biggest hurdles to fixing the housing crisis comes ironically from the left, in resistance to so-called “gentrification”. Local resistance to new construction is one of the greatest obstacles to keeping housing affordable. State and federal regulations are generally quite sensible: No industrial waste near the playgrounds. It’s the local regulations that make new housing so difficult.

I can understand why people fight “gentrification”: They see new housing going in as housing prices increase, and naturally assume that new houses cause higher prices. But it’s really the other way around: High prices cause new construction, which brings prices down. By its nature, new housing is almost always more expensive than existing housing. Building new housing still brings down the overall price of housing, even when the new housing is expensive. Building luxury condos does make existing apartments more affordable—and not building anything most certainly does not.

California’s housing crisis is particularly severe: California has been building less than half the units needed to sustain its current population trend since the crash in 2008. It’s worst of all in the Bay Area, where 500,000 jobs were added since 2009—and only 50,000 homes. California also has a big problem with delays in the permit process: Typically it takes as long as three or four years between approval and actual breaking ground.

We are seeing this in Oakland currently: The government has approved an actually reasonable amount of housing for once (vastly more than what they usually do), and as a result they may have a chance at keeping Oakland affordable even as it grows its population and economy. And yet we still get serious journalists saying utter nonsense like The building boom and resulting gentrification are squeezing the city’s most vulnerable.” Building booms don’t cause gentrification. Building booms are the best response to gentrification. When you say things like that, you sound to an economist like you’re saying “Pizza is so expensive; we need to stop people from making pizza!”

Homeowners who want to increase their property values may actually be rational—if incredibly selfish and monopolistic—in trying to block new construction. But activists who oppose “gentrification” need to stop shooting themselves in the foot by fighting the very same development that would have made housing cheaper.

The simplest thing we can do is make it easier to build housing. Streamline the permit process, provide subsidies, remove unnecessary regulations. Housing is one of the few markets where I can actually see a lot of unnecessary regulations. We don’t need to require parking; we should provide better public transit instead. And while requiring solar panels (as the whole state is now doing) sounds nice, it makes everything a lot more expensive—and by only requiring it on new housing, you are effectively saying you don’t want any new housing. I love solar panels, but what you should be doing is subsidizing solar panels, not requiring them. Does that cost the state budget more? Yes. Raise taxes on something else (a particularly good idea: electricity consumption) if you have to. But by mandating solar panels without any subsidies to support them, you are effectively putting a tax on new housing—which is exactly what California does not need.

It’s still a good idea to create incentives to build not simply housing, but affordable housing. There are ways to do this as well. Denver did an excellent job in creating an Affordable Housing Fund that they immediately spent in converting vacant apartments into affordable housing units.

There are also good reasons to try to fight foreign ownership of housing (and really, speculative ownership of housing in general). There is a strong correlation between current account deficits and housing appreciation, which makes sense if foreign investors are buying up our housing and making it more expensive. If Trump could actually reduce our trade deficit, that would drive down our current account deficit and quite likely make our housing more affordable. Of course, he has absolutely no idea how to do that.

Victor Duggan has a pretty good plan for lowering housing prices in Ireland which includes a land tax (as I’ve discussed previously) and a tax on foreign ownership of real estate. I disagree with him about the “Help-to-Buy” program, however; I actually think that was a fine idea, since the goal is not simply to keep housing cheap but to get people into houses. That wealth transfer is going to raise prices at the producer side—increasing production—but not at the consumer side—because people get compensated by the tax rebate. The net result should be more housing without more cost for buyers. You could have done the same thing by subsidizing construction, but I actually like the idea of putting the money directly in the pockets of homeowners. The tax incidence shouldn’t be much different in the long run, but it makes for a much more appealing and popular program.

What exactly is “gentrification”? How should we deal with it?

Nov 26, JDN 2458083

“Gentrification” is a word that is used in a variety of mutually-inconsistent ways. If you compare the way social scientists use it to the way journalists use it, for example, they are almost completely orthogonal.

The word “gentrification” is meant to invoke the concept of a feudal gentry—a hereditary landed class that extracts rents from the rest of the population while contributing little or nothing themselves.

If indeed that is what we are talking about, then obviously this is bad. Moreover, it’s not an entirely unfounded fear; there are some remarkably strong vestiges of feudalism in the developed world, even in the United States where we never formally had a tradition of feudal titles. There really is a significant portion of the world’s wealth held by a handful of billionaire landowner families.

But usually when people say “gentrification” they mean something much broader. Almost any kind of increase in urban real estate prices gets characterized as “gentrification” by at least somebody, and herein lies the problem.

In fact, the kind of change that is most likely to get characterized as “gentrification” isn’t even the rising real estate prices we should be most worried about. People aren’t concerned when the prices of suburban homes double in 20 years. You might think that things that are already too expensive getting more expensive would be the main concern, but on the contrary, people are most likely to cry “gentrification” when housing prices rise in poor areas where housing is cheap.

One of the most common fears about gentrification is that it will displace local residents. In fact, the best quasi-experimental studies show little or no displacement effect. It’s actually mainly middle-class urbanites who get displaced by rising rents. Poor people typically own their homes, and actually benefit from rising housing prices. Young upwardly-mobile middle-class people move to cities to rent apartments near where they work, and tend to assume that’s how everyone lives, but it’s not. Rising rents in a city are far more likely to push out its grad students than they are poor families that have lived there for generations. Part of why displacement does not occur may be because of policies specifically implemented to fight it, such as subsidized housing and rent control. If that’s so, let’s keep on subsidizing housing (though rent control will always be a bad idea).

Nor is gentrification actually a very widespread phenomenon. The majority of poor neighborhoods remain poor indefinitely. In most studies, only about 30% of neighborhoods classified as “gentrifiable” actually end up “gentrifying”. Less than 10% of the neighborhoods that had high poverty rates in 1970 had low poverty rates in 2010.

Most people think gentrification reduces crime, but in the short run the opposite is the case. Robbery and larceny are higher in gentrifying neighborhoods. Criminals are already there, and suddenly they get much more valuable targets to steal from, so they do.

There is also a general perception that gentrification involves White people pushing Black people out, but this is also an overly simplistic view. First of all, a lot of gentrification is led by upwardly-mobile Black and Latino people. Black people who live in gentrified neighborhoods seem to be better off than Black people who live in non-gentrified neighborhoods; though selection bias may contribute to this effect, it can’t be all that strong, or we’d observe a much stronger displacement effect. Moreover, some studies have found that gentrification actually tends to increase the racial diversity of neighborhoods, and may actually help fight urban self-segregation, though it does also tend to increase racial polarization by forcing racial mixing.

What should we conclude from all this? I think the right conclusion is we are asking the wrong question.

Rising housing prices in poor areas aren’t inherently good or inherently bad, and policies designed specifically to increase or decrease housing prices are likely to have harmful side effects. What we need to be focusing on is not houses or neighborhoods but people. Poverty is definitely a problem, for sure. Therefore we should be fighting poverty, not “gentrification”. Directly transfer wealth from the rich to the poor, and then let the housing market fall where it may.

There is still some role for government in urban planning more generally, regarding things like disaster preparedness, infrastructure development, and transit systems. It may even be worthwhile to design regulations or incentives that directly combat racial segregation at the neighborhood level, for, as the Schelling Segregation Model shows, it doesn’t take a large amount of discriminatory preference to have a large impact on socioeconomic outcomes. But don’t waste effort fighting “gentrification”; directly design policies that will incentivize desegregation.

Rising rent as a proportion of housing prices is still bad, and the fundamental distortions in our mortgage system that prevent people from buying houses are a huge problem. But rising housing prices are most likely to be harmful in rich neighborhoods, where housing is already overpriced; in poor neighborhoods where housing is cheap, rising prices might well be a good thing.
In fact, I have a proposal to rapidly raise homeownership across the United States, which is almost guaranteed to work, directly corrects an enormous distortion in financial markets, and would cost about as much as the mortgage interest deduction (which should probably be eliminated, as most economists agree). Give each US adult a one-time grant voucher which gives them $40,000 that can only be spent as a down payment on purchasing a home. Each time someone turns 18, they get a voucher. You only get one over your lifetime, so use it wisely (otherwise the policy could become extremely expensive); but this is an immediate direct transfer of wealth that also reduces your credit constraint. I know I for one would be house-hunting right now if I were offered such a voucher. The mortgage interest deduction means nothing to me, because I can’t afford a down payment. Where the mortgage interest deduction is regressive, benefiting the rich more than the poor, this policy gives everyone the same amount, like a basic income.

In the short run, this policy would probably be expensive, as we’d have to pay out a large number of vouchers at once; but with our current long-run demographic trends, the amortized cost is basically the same as the mortgage interest deduction. And the US government especially should care about the long-run amortized cost, as it is an institution that has lasted over 200 years without ever missing a payment and can currently borrow at negative real interest rates.