Walkers in the City

photo by Derrick Coetzee

The Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at The George Washington School of Business has released Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros for 2016. The Executive Summary opens,

The end of sprawl is in sight. The nation’s largest metropolitan areas are focusing on building walkable urban development.

For perhaps the first time in 60 years, walkable urban places (WalkUPs) in all 30 of the largest metros are gaining market share over their drivable sub-urban competition—and showing substantially higher rental premiums.

This research shows that metros with the highest levels of walkable urbanism are also the most educated and wealthy (as measured by GDP per capita)— and, surprisingly, the most socially equitable. (4)

This strikes me as a somewhat over-optimistic take on sprawl, but I certainly welcome the increase in walkable urban places over a broad swath of metropolitan areas. The report’s specific findings are that

There are 619 regionally significant, walkable urban places—referred to as WalkUPs—in the 30 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. These 30 metros represent 46 percent of the national population (145 million of the 314 million national population) and 54 percent of the national GDP.

The 30 metros are ranked on the current percentage of occupied walkable urban office, retail, and multi-family rental square feet in their WalkUPs, compared to the balance of occupied square footage in the metro area. The six metros with the most walkable urban space in WalkUPs are, in rank order, New York City, Washington, DC, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Economic Performance: There are substantial and growing rental rate premiums for walkable urban office (90 percent), retail (71 percent), and rental multi-family (66 percent) over drivable sub-urban products. Combined, these three product types have a 74 percent rental premium over drivable sub-urban.

Walkable urban market share growth in office and multi-family rental has increased in all 30 of the largest metros between 2010-2015, while drivable sub-urban locations have lost market share. The market share growth for 27 of the 30 metros is two times their market share in 2010. This is of the same or greater magnitude as the market share gains of drivable sub-urban development during its boom years in the 1980s, but in the reverse direction.

Indicators of potential future WalkUP performance show that many of the metros ranked highest for current walkable urbanism are also found at the top of our Development Momentum Ranking—namely, the metros of New York City, Boston, Seattle, and Washington, DC. This indicates that these metros will continue to build on their already high WalkUP market shares and rent premiums.

There are also some surprising metros in this top tier of Development Momentum rankings, including Detroit, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

The most walkable urban metro areas have a substantially greater educated workforce, as measured by college graduates over 25 years of age, and substantially higher GDP per capita. These relationships are correlations, and determining the causal relationships requires further research to prove.

Walkable urban development describes trends resulting from both revitalization of the central city and urbanization of the suburbs. For nearly all metros, the future urbanization of the suburbs holds the greatest opportunity; metro Washington, DC, serves as a model, splitting its WalkUPs relatively evenly between its central city (53 percent) and its suburbs (47 percent).

Social Equity Performance: The national concern about social equity has been exacerbated by the very rent premiums highlighted above, referred to as gentrification. Counter-intuitively, measurement of moderate-income household (80 percent of AMI) spending on housing and transportation, as well as access to employment, shows that the most walkable urban metros are also the most socially equitable. The reason for this is that low cost transportation costs and better access to employment offset the higher costs of housing. This finding underscores for the need for continued, and aggressive, development of attainable housing solutions. (4, footnote omitted)

There is a lot of import here. Is there more than a correlation between walkability and the educational level of the workforce and, if so, why? Why don’t more housing affordability studies take into account transportation costs when evaluating the affordability of a given community? What is the trend line of this new direction toward urbanism and how far can it go in the face of decades of investment in car-based communities? This annual study will help us answer those questions, over time.

The Land Use Report of the President


The Economic Report of the President contains an important analysis of local land use policies in a section titled “Constraints on Housing Supply:”

Supply constraints provide a structural challenge in the housing market, particularly in high-mobility, economically vibrant cities. When housing supply is constrained, it has less room to expand when demand increases, leading to higher prices and lower affordability. Limits on new construction can, in turn, impede growth in local labor markets and restrain aggregate output growth. Some constraints on the supply of housing come from geography, while others are man-made. Constraints due to land-use regulations, such as minimum lot size requirements, height restrictions, and ordinances prohibiting multifamily housing, fall into the man-made category and thus could be amended to support more inclusive growth. While these regulations can sometimes serve legitimate purposes such as the protection of human health and safety and the prevention of environmental degradation, land-use regulations can also be used to protect vested interests in housing markets.

Gyourko and Molloy (2015) argue that supply constraints have worsened in recent decades, in large part due to more restrictive land-use regulations. House prices have risen faster than construction costs in real terms, providing indirect evidence that land-use regulations are pushing up the price of land.

According to Gyourko and Molloy (2015), between 2010 and 2013, real house prices were 55 percent above real construction costs, compared with an average gap of 39 percent during the 1990s. Several other studies note that land-use regulations have been increasing since roughly 1970, driving much of the real house appreciation that has occurred over this time (Glaeser, Gyourko, and Saks 2005; Glaeser and Ward 2009; Been et al. 2014). This pattern is noteworthy because of the positive correlation between cities’ housing affordability and the strictness of their land use regulations, as measured by the Wharton Residential Land Use Regulation Index (Gyourko et al. 2008). Cities to the lower right of the figure which include Boston and San Francisco, have stringent land-use regulations and low affordability. Cities at the upper left, which include St. Louis and Cleveland, have low regulation and high affordability. Supply constraints by themselves do not make cities low in affordability. Rather, the less responsive housing supply that results from regulation prevents these cities, which often happen to be desirable migration destinations for workers looking for higher-paying jobs, from accommodating a rise in housing demand.

In addition to housing affordability, these regulations have a range of impacts on the economy, more broadly. Reduced housing affordability—whether as an ancillary result of regulation or by design—prevents individuals from moving to high productivity areas. Indeed, empirical evidence from Molloy, Smith, and Wozniak (2012) indicates that migration across all distances in the United States has been in decline since the middle of the 1980s. This decreased labor market mobility has important implications for intergenerational economic mobility (Chetty et al. 2014) and also was estimated in recent research to have held back current GDP by almost 10 percent (Hsieh and Moretti 2015).

Land-use regulations may also make it more difficult for the housing market to accommodate shifts in preferences due to changing demographics, such as increased demand for modifications of existing structures due to aging and increased demand for multifamily housing due to higher levels of urbanization (Goodman et al. 2015). A number of Administration initiatives, ranging from the Multifamily Risk-Sharing Mortgage program to the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, try to facilitate the ability of housing supply to respond to housing demand. Ensuring that zoning and other constraints do not prevent housing supply from growing in high productivity areas will be an important objective of Federal as well as State and local policymakers. (87-89, figures omitted and emphasis added)

It is important in itself that the Executive Branch of the federal government has acknowledged the outsized role that local land use policies play in the economy. But the policies that the Obama Administration has implemented don’t go very far in addressing the problems caused by myopic land use policies that favor vested interests. The federal government can be far more aggressive in rewarding local land use policies that support equitable housing and economic development goals. It can also punish local land use policies that hinder those goals.

Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko get much of the credit for demonstrating the effect that local land use policies have on federal housing policy. Now that the President is listening to them, we need Congress to pay attention too. This could be one of those rare policy areas where Democrats and  Republicans can find common ground.

Economic Factors That Affect Housing Prices

photo by TaxRebate.org.uk

S&P has posted a paper on Economic Factors That Affect Housing Prices. This is, of course, an important topic, albeit one that is an art as well as a science. While S&P undertook this analysis more for mortgage-backed securities investors than for anyone else, it certainly is of use to the rest of us. The paper opens,

The U.S. domestic housing market has experienced a 23% price increase since the beginning of the housing recovery in 2011. Many local housing markets are now close to or above their peak levels of 2006, which leads us to investigate whether the pace of home price appreciation (HPA) can continue at its current pace. In this paper, we (1) examine the economic factors that influence HPA and (2) forecast HPA for numerous geographic regions assuming various economic conditions over the next five years. While the aggregate national pattern in housing prices is an important reference, we need to examine housing prices at a more granular geographic level in order to understand regional housing market dynamics and learn how these are affected by local macroeconomic factors. This paper demonstrates that several economic variables are needed to predict average home price movements for each of 48 different U.S. metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs).

*     *      *

Factors that influence HPA can be difficult to predict. Therefore, residential mortgage backed securities (RMBS) investors frequently use a range of HPA projections to estimate their potential bond returns. With that in mind, for each MSA, we considered five separate hypothetical economic scenarios, ranging from an “Upside” forecast to an extreme “Stress 3” case. Interestingly, our Stress 3 case forecasts a 28% decline in HPI at the national level over the next five years, which corresponds roughly to the decline experienced in the last recession. Our “base case” scenario leads to forecasts at the national level of a 26% increase in HPI over five years. This represents what we believe to be the most likely economic forecast. (1-2)

S&P’s key findings include:

  • Movement in HPA is primarily influenced by up to five variables, depending on the MSA: housing affordability, changes in shadow inventory, the unemployment rate, the TED spread [a measure of distress in the credit markets], and population growth.
  • HPA in many MSAs has momentum, meaning that it depends on its level in the previous quarter of observation.
  • The mortgage rate generally appears to have little predictive power in connection with home prices.
  • Chicago, Houston, Boston, and San Francisco are projected to appreciate at a greater pace (45%, 40%, 27%, and 36%, respectively) than the 26% forecast for the nation as a whole over the next five years, and New York at a slower pace (21%). Columbus led all MSAs with a projected five-year HPA of 50%.
  • Under our most pessimistic (Stress 3) scenario, Chicago is forecast to experience a greater decline in HPI (34%) over the next five years than the nation as a whole (29%), while New York, Boston, Houston, and San Francisco are projected to experience declines that are less severe than that of the nation (19%, 3%, 17%, and 16%, respectively). Markets that have been vulnerable in the past (Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Riverside) are projected to experience the greatest five-year declines under our Stress 3 scenario (66%, 68%, and 68%). The markets that show the greatest movements are the most sensitive to the five factors and frequently show the greatest upside and downside. (2-3, emphasis in the original)

I found the first and third bullet points to be the most interesting, as many pundits weigh in on the factors that affect housing prices. It will be interesting to see if further research confirms S&P’s findings.

Tale of Two Airbnbs

photo by Chordboard

CBRE has issued a report, The Sharing Economy Checks In: An Analysis of Airbnb in the United States. It opens,

The sharing economy has become a prominent though not well understood economic phenomenon over the past several years. Airbnb is the market leader as it relates to the temporary accommodations industry. CBRE Hotels’ Americas Research compiled select information from STR, Inc. and Airdna, a company that provides data on Airbnb, for hundreds of U.S. markets to assess the relevancy of this sharing platform to the traditional hotel industry.

Airbnb’s presence in key markets throughout the U.S. is growing at a rapid pace, with users spending $2.4 billion on lodging in the U.S. over the past year, according to analysis from CBRE Hotels. Over the study period of October 2014 – September 2015, more than 55 percent of the $2.4 billion generated was captured in only five U.S. cities (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and Boston), represents a significant portion of the lodging revenues in these markets.

CBRE Hotels compiled select information for hundreds of U.S. markets to assess the relevancy of this sharing platform to the traditional hotel industry. From this data, the firm has developed an Airbnb Competition Index. This measure incorporates a comparison of Airbnb’s Average Daily Room rates (ADR) to traditional hotel ADR’s; the scale of the active Airbnb inventory in a market to the supply of traditional hotels, and the overall growth of active Airbnb supply in that market, into a measure of potential risk. New York was identified as the number one domestic market at risk from the growth of Airbnb, with an Airbnb Risk Index of 81.4, followed by San Francisco, Miami, Oakland and Oahu. (1)

What I find interesting about this is that Airbnb’s footprint is so hyperlocal. On a national level, just a handful of markets account for a majority of its revenues. But then, if you look at one of those individual markets, New York, just a handful of neighborhoods account for a majority of the revenue coming from that market. I cannot yet imagine what the hospitality sector will look like once the sharing economy fully saturates it, but it will surely be different that what it is today.


Planning for Affordability

DSCN3187 prospectnewtown e 600"

Prospect New Town in Longmont, Colorado

Rick Hills and David Schleicher have posted Planning an Affordable City to SSRN. The abstract reads,

In many of the biggest and richest cities in America, there is a housing affordability crisis. Housing prices in these cities have appreciated well beyond the cost of construction and even faster than rising incomes. These price increases are a direct result of zoning rules that limit the ability of new supply to meet rising demand. The high cost of housing imposes a heavy burden on poorer and younger residents and, by forcing residents away from these human capital rich areas, has even reduced regional and national economic growth. While scholars have done a great deal to identify the problem, solutions are hard to come by, particularly given the strong influence of neighborhood “NIMBY” groups in the land-use process that resist any relaxation of zoning limits on housing supply.

In this Article, we argue that binding and comprehensive urban planning, one of the most criticized ideas in land-use law, could be part of an antidote for regulatory barriers strangling our housing supply. In the middle of the last century, several prominent scholars argued that courts should find zoning amendments that were contrary to city plans ultra vires. This idea was, however, largely rejected by courts and scholars alike, with leading academic figures arguing that parcel-specific zoning amendments, or “deals,” provide space for the give-and-take of democracy and lead to an efficient amount of development by encouraging negotiations between developers and residents regarding externalities from new building projects.

We argue, by contrast, that the dismissal of plans contributed to the excessive strictness of zoning in our richest and most productive cities and regions. In contrast with both planning’s critics and supporters, we argue that plans and comprehensive remappings are best understood as citywide deals that promote housing. Plans and remappings facilitate trades between city councilmembers who understand the need for new development but refuse to have their neighborhoods be dumping grounds for all new construction. Further, by setting forth what can be constructed as of right, plans reduce the information costs borne by purchasers of land and developers, broadening the market for new construction. We argue that land-use law should embrace binding plans that package together policies and sets of zoning changes in a number of neighborhoods simultaneously, making such packages difficult to unwind. The ironic result of such greater centralization of land-use procedure will be more liberal land-use law and lower housing prices.

For me, the paper highlights one of the great paradoxes of housing policy — people say that they want restrictive land use policies which limit the construction of new housing at the same time that they say that housing is too darn expensive in their communities.

The paper’s proposal to adopt “binding and comprehensive urban planning” is an intriguing one that could solve that paradox, but I wonder if there is sufficient political will to implement it over the interests of the parties that benefit from our current ad hoc system of land use regulation.

The Housing/Income Affordability Gap

We need affordable housing

The Urban Institute has issued a policy brief, The Housing Affordability Gap for Extremely Low-Income Renters in 2013. The brief opens,

Since 2000, rents have risen while the number of renters who need low-priced housing has increased. These two pressures make finding affordable housing even tougher for very poor households in America. Nationwide, only 28 adequate and affordable units are available for every 100 renter households with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income. Not a single county in the United States has enough affordable housing for all its extremely low-income (ELI) renters. The number of affordable rental homes for every 100 ELI renters ranges from 7 in Osceola County, Florida, to 76 in Worcester County, Maryland.

*     *     *

This brief is the first publication on housing affordability to combine detailed county-level data on ELI renter households (those with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median) and the impact of US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rental assistance. Its four key findings:

  • Supply is not keeping up with demand. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of ELI renter households increased 38 percent, from 8.2 million to 11.3 million. At the same time, the supply of adequate, affordable, and available rental homes for these households increased only 7 percent, from 3.0 million to 3.2 million.
  • The gap between ELI renter households and suitable units is widening over time. From 2000 to 2013, the number of adequate, affordable, and available rental units for every 100 ELI renter households nationwide declined from 37 to 28.
  • Extremely low-income renters increasingly depend on HUD programs for housing. More than 80 percent of adequate, affordable, and available homes for ELI renter households are HUD-assisted, up from 57 percent in 2000.
  • The supply of adequate, affordable, and available units varies widely across the country. Among the 100 largest US counties, Suffolk County, which includes Boston, comes closest to meeting its area’s need, with 51 units per 100 ELI renter households.Denton County, part of the Dallas-Ft. Worth metropolitan area, has the largest housing gap,with only 8 units per 100 ELI renters. Rust Belt areas (e.g., Detroit, MI; Chicago,IL, and Milwaukee, WI) have seen large declines in adequate, affordable, and available units. Most counties had fewer units available in 2013 than 2000. Notable exceptions to this trend include Suffolk, MA; Los Angeles, CA; and Miami, FL, which have expanded their number of available units since 2000. (1-2, footnote omitted)

The brief concludes, “Simply put, virtually no affordable housing units would be available to ELI households absent the continued investment in federally assisted rental housing.” (14)

This is an affordable housing story, but it is just as much an income story — low-income households are getting left behind in the race between rising income and expenses. One solution is to expand housing assistance for low-income families. Another is to increase income, one way or another. The bottom line, though, is that low-income households don’t have enough to make a go of it in these United States.

Renting in America’s Largest Cities


Following up on an earlier graphic they produced, the NYU Furman Center and Capital One have issued a report, Renting in America’s Largest Cities. The Executive Summary reads,

This study includes the central cities of the 11 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. (by population) from 2006 to 2013: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.

The number and share of renters rose in all 11 cities.

The rental housing stock grew in all 11 cities from 2006 to 2013, while owner-occupied stock shrank in all but two cities.

In all 11 cities except Atlanta, the growth in supply of rental housing was not enough to keep up with rising renter population. Mismatches in supply and demand led to decreasing rental vacancy rates in all but two of the 11 cities in the study’s sample.

The median rent grew faster than inflation in almost all of the 11 cities in this study. In five cities, the median rent also grew substantially faster than the median renter income. In three cities, rents and incomes grew at about the same pace. In the remaining three cities, incomes grew substantially faster than rents.

In 2013, more than three out of every five low-income renters were severely rent burdened in all 11 cities. In most of the 11 cities, over a quarter of moderate-income renters were severely rent burdened in 2013 as well.

From 2006 to 2013, the percentage of low-income renters facing severe rent burdens increased in all 11 cities in this study’s sample, while the percentage of moderate-income renters facing severe rent burdens increased in six of those cities.

Even in the cities that had higher vacancy rates, low-income renters could afford only a tiny fraction of units available for rent within the last five years.

The typical renter could afford less than a third of recently available rental units in many of the central cities of the 11 largest U.S. metro areas.

Many lower- and middle-income renters living in this study’s sample of 11 cities could be stuck in their current units; in 2013, units occupied by long-term tenants were typically more affordable than units that had been on the rental market in the previous five years.

In six of the cities in this study, the median rent for recently available units in 2013 was over 20 percent higher than the median rent for other units in that year, indicating that many renters would likely face significant rent hikes if they had to move. (4)

While this report does an excellent job on its own terms, it does not address the issue of location affordability, which takes into account transportation costs when determining the affordability of a particular city. It would be very helpful if the authors supplemented this report with an evaluation of transportation costs in these 11 cities. This would give a more complete picture of how financially burdened residents of these cities are.