Zoning and Housing Affordability

Vanessa Brown Calder has posted Zoning, Land-Use Planning, and Housing Affordability to SSRN. It opens,

Local zoning and land-use regulations have increased substantially over the decades. These constraints on land development within cities and suburbs aim to achieve various safety, environmental, and aesthetic goals. But the regulations have also tended to reduce the supply of housing, including multifamily and low-income housing. With reduced supply, many U.S. cities suffer from housing affordability problems.

This study uses regression analysis to examine the link between housing prices and zoning and land-use controls. State and local governments across the country impose substantially different amounts of regulation on land development. The study uses a data set of court decisions on land use and zoning that captures the growth in regulation over time and the large variability between the states.

The statistical results show that rising land-use regulation is associated with rising real average home prices in 44 states and that rising zoning regulation is associated with rising real average home prices in 36 states. In general, the states that have increased the amount of rules and restrictions on land use the most have higher housing prices.

The federal government spent almost $200 billion to subsidize renting and buying homes in 2015. These subsidies treat a symptom of the underlying problem. But the results of this study indicate that state and local governments can tackle housing affordability problems directly by overhauling their development rules. For example, housing is much more expensive in the Northeast than in the Southeast, and that difference is partly explained by more regulation in the former region.

Interestingly, the data show that relatively more federal housing aid flows to states with more restrictive zoning and land-use rules, perhaps because those states have higher housing costs. Federal aid thus creates a disincentive for the states to solve their own housing affordability problems by reducing regulation. (1)

This paper provides additional evidence for an argument that Edward Glaeser and others have been making for some time now.

Local governments won’t make these changes on their own. Nonetheless, local land-use decisions have a large negative impact on many households and businesses who are not currently located within the borders of the local jurisdictions (as well as some who are). As a result, the federal government could and should take restrictive land use regulation into account when it allocates federal aid for affordable housing.

The Obama Administration found that restrictive local land-use regulations stifled GDP growth in the aggregate. Perhaps reforming land-use regulation is something that could garner bipartisan support as it is a market-driven approach to the housing crisis, a cause dear to the hearts of many Democrats (and not a few Republicans).

GSE Investors’ Hidden Win

Judge Brown

The big news yesterday was that the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled in the main for the federal government in Perry Capital v. Mnuchin, one of the major cases that investors brought against the federal government over the terms of the Fannie and Freddie conservatorships.

In a measured and carefully reasoned opinion, the court rejected most but not all of the investors’ claims.  The reasoning was consistent with my own reading of the broad conservatorship provisions of the Housing and Economic Recover Act of 2008 (HERA).

Judge Brown’s dissent, however, reveals that the investors have crafted an alternative narrative that at least one judge finds compelling. This means that there is going to be some serious drama when this case ultimately wends its way to the Supreme Court. And there is some reason to believe that a Justice Gorsuch might be sympathetic to this narrative of government overreach.

Judge Brown’s opinion indicts many aspects of federal housing finance policy, broadly condemning it in the opening paragraph:

One critic has called it “wrecking-ball benevolence,” James Bovard, Editorial, Nothing Down: The Bush Administration’s Wrecking-Ball Benevolence, BARRONS, Aug. 23, 2004, http://tinyurl.com/Barrons-Bovard; while another, dismissing the compassionate rhetoric, dubs it “crony capitalism,” Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr., Commentary, Fannie/Freddie Bailout Baloney, CATO INST., http://tinyurl.com/Cato-O-Driscoll (last visited Feb. 13, 2017). But whether the road was paved with good intentions or greased by greed and indifference, affordable housing turned out to be the path to perdition for the U.S. mortgage market. And, because of the dominance of two so-called Government Sponsored Entities (“GSE”s)—the Federal National Mortgage Association (“Fannie Mae” or “Fannie”) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (“Freddie Mac” or “Freddie,” collectively with Fannie Mae, the “Companies”)—the trouble that began in the subprime mortgage market metastasized until it began to affect most debt markets, both domestic and international. (dissent at 1)

While acknowledging that the Fannie/Freddie crisis might justify “extraordinary actions by Congress,” Judge Brown states that

even in a time of exigency, a nation governed by the rule of law cannot transfer broad and unreviewable power to a government entity to do whatsoever it wishes with the assets of these Companies. Moreover, to remain within constitutional parameters, even a less-sweeping delegation of authority would require an explicit and comprehensive framework. See Whitman v. Am. Trucking Ass’ns, Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001) (“Congress . . . does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions—it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes.”) Here, Congress did not endow FHFA with unlimited authority to pursue its own ends; rather, it seized upon the statutory text that had governed the FDIC for decades and adapted it ever so slightly to confront the new challenge posed by Fannie and Freddie.

*     *     *

[Congress] chose a well-understood and clearly-defined statutory framework—one that drew upon the common law to clearly delineate the outer boundaries of the Agency’s conservator or, alternatively, receiver powers. FHFA pole vaulted over those boundaries, disregarding the plain text of its authorizing statute and engaging in ultra vires conduct. Even now, FHFA continues to insist its authority is entirely without limit and argues for a complete ouster of federal courts’ power to grant injunctive relief to redress any action it takes while purporting to serve in the conservator role. See FHFA Br. 21  (2-3)

What amazes me about this dissent is how it adopts the decidedly non-mainstream history of the financial crisis that has been promoted by the American Enterprise Institute’s Peter Wallison.  It also takes its legislative history from an unpublished Cato Institute paper by Vice-President Pence’s newly selected chief economist, Mark Calabria and a co-author.  There is nothing wrong with a judge giving some context to an opinion, but it is of note when it seems as one-sided as this. The bottom line though is that this narrative clearly has some legs so we should not think that this case has played itself out, just because of this decision.

GSE Conservatorship History Lesson

Mark Calabria, the Director of Financial Regulation Studies at the Cato Institute, has posted a very interesting paper, The Resolution of Systemically Important Financial Institutions: Lessons from Fannie and Freddie. This is a more formal version of what he presented at the AALS meeting early this month. I do not agree with all of Mark’s analysis, but this paper certainly opened my eyes about what can happen in committee when important statutes are being drafted. It opens,

There was perhaps no issue of greater importance to the financial regulatory reforms of 2010 than the resolution, without taxpayer assistance, of large financial institutions. The rescue of firms such as AIG shocked the public conscience and provided the political force behind the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act. Such is reflected in the fact that Titles I and II of Dodd-Frank relate to the identification and resolution of large financial entities. How the tools established in Titles I and II are implemented are paramount to the success of Dodd-Frank. This paper attempts to gauge the likely success of these tools via the lens of similar tools created for the resolution of the housing government sponsored enterprises (GSEs), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
An additional purpose of this paper is to provide some additional “legislative history” to the resolution mechanisms contained in the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (HERA), which established a resolution framework for the GSEs similar to that ultimately created in Title II of Dodd-Frank. The intent is to inform current debates over the resolution of systemically important financial institutions by revisiting how such issues were debated and agreed upon in HERA. (1-2)
As an outside-the-Beltway type, I found the “legislative history” very interesting, even if it wouldn’t qualify as any type of legislative history that a judge would consider in interpreting a statute. It does, however, offer policy wonks, bureaucrats and politicians an inside view of how a Congressional staffer helps to make the sausage that is legislation. It also shows that in the realm of legislation, as in the realm of fiction, author’s intent can play out in tricky ways.

Calabria concludes,

The neglect of HERA’s tools and the likely similar neglect of Dodd-Frank’s suggest a much deeper reform of our financial regulatory system is in order. The regulatory culture of “whatever it takes” must be abandoned. A respect for the rule of law and obedience to the letter of the law must be instilled in our regulatory culture. More important, the incentives facing regulators must be dramatically changed. If we hope to end “too-big-to-fail” and to curtail moral hazard more generally, significant penalties must be created for rescues as well as deviations from statute. A very difficult question is that lack of standing for any party to litigate to enforce statutory prohibitions against rescues. (19)

I take a couple of lessons from this paper. First, tight drafting of legislation that is supposed to kick in during a crisis is key. If a statute has wiggle room, decision makers are going to stretch it out as they see fit. And second, I agree with Mark that even tight drafting won’t necessarily keep government actors from acting as they see fit in a crisis.

If Congress really want to constrain the choices of future decision makers, it will need to grant a third party standing to enforce that decision as it is unlikely that crisis managers will have the self-restraint to forgo options that they would otherwise prefer. Congress should be very careful about constraining the choices of these future decision makers. But if it chooses to do so, that would be the way to go.