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.

Krimminger and Calabria on Conservatorships

When the Federal Housing Finance Agency (“FHFA”) was appointed conservator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it was the first use of the conservatorship authority under the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 (“HERA”), but it was not without precedent. For decades, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) has successfully and fairly resolved more than a thousand failing banks and thrifts using the virtually identical sections of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act (“FDIA”).
*     *     *
The predictability, fairness, and acceptance of this model led Congress to adopt it as the basis for authorizing the FHFA with conservatorship powers over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in HERA. Instead of following this precedent, however, FHFA and Treasury have radically departed from HERA and the principles underlying all other U.S. insolvency frameworks and sound international standards through a 2012 re-negotiation of the original conservatorship agreement.
*     *     *
     This paper will:
  • Describe the historical precedent and resolution practice on which Congress based FHFA’s and Treasury’s statutory responsibilities over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac;
  • Explain the statutory requirements, as well as the procedural and substantive protections, in place so that all stakeholders are treated fairly during the conservatorship;
  • Detail the important policy reasons that underlie these statutory provisions and the established practice in their application, and the role these policies play in a sound market economy; and
  •  Demonstrate that the conservatorships of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac ignore that precedent and resolution practice, and do not comply with HERA. Among the Treasury and FHFA departures from HERA and established precedents are the following:
    • continuing the conservatorships for more than 6 years without any effort to comply with HERA’s requirements
      to “preserve and conserve” the assets and property of the Companies and return them to a “sound and solvent” condition or place them into receiverships;
    • rejecting any attempt to rebuild the capital of Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac so that they can return to “sound and solvent” condition by meeting regulatory capital and other requirements, and thereby placing all risk of future losses on taxpayers;
    • stripping all net value from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac long after Treasury has been repaid when HERA, and precedent, limit this recovery to the funding actually provided;
    • ignoring HERA’s conservatorship requirements and transforming the purpose of the conservatorships from restoring or resolving the Companies into instruments of government housing policy and sources of revenue for
    • repeatedly restructuring the terms of the initial assistance to further impair the financial interests of stakeholders contrary to HERA, fundamental principles of insolvency, and initial commitments by FHFA; and
    • disregarding HERA’s requirement to “maintain the corporation’s status as a private shareholder-owned company” and FHFA’s commitment to allow private investors to continue to benefit from the financial value of the company’s stock as determined by the market. (1-3, footnotes omitted)

I am intrigued by the recollections of these two former government officials who were involved in the drafting of HERA (much as I was by those contained in a related paper by Calabria). But I am not convinced that their version of events amounts to a legislative history of HERA, let alone one that should be given any kind of deference by decision-makers. The firmness of their opinions about the meaning of HERA is also in tension with the ambiguity of the text of the statute itself. The plaintiffs in the GSE conservatorship litigation will see this paper as a confirmation of their position. I do not think, however, that the judges hearing the cases will pay it much heed.

Housing Finance Reform at the AALS

The Financial Institutions and Consumer Financial Services Section and the Real Estate Transactions section of the American Association of Law Schools hosted a joint program at the AALS annual meeting on The Future of the Federal Housing Finance System. I moderated the session, along with Cornell’s Bob Hockett.
Former Representative Brad Miller (D-N.C.) keynoted.  Until recently he was a Senior Fellow, at the Center for American Progress and is now a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He was followed by four more great speakers:
The program overview was as follows:
The fate of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are subject to the vagaries of politics, regulation,public opinion, the economy, and not least of all the numerous cases that were filed in 2013 against various government entities arising from the placement of the two companies into conservatorship. All of these vagaries occur, moreover, against a backdrop of surprising public and political ignorance of the history and functions of the GSEs and their place in the broader American financial and housing economies. This panel will take the long view to identify how the American housing finance market should be structured, given all of these constraints. Invited speakers include academics, government officials and researchers affiliated to think tanks. They will discuss the various bills that have been proposed to reform that market including Corker-Warner and Johnson-Crapo. They will also address regulatory efforts by the Federal Housing Finance Agency to shape the federal housing finance system in the absence of Congressional reform.
During the presentations, I felt a bit of awe for the collective knowledge of the speakers.  The program also emphasized for me how much there always is to learn about a topic as complex as housing finance.
Laurie Goodman was kind enough to let me post her PowerPoint slides from the program. If you are looking for a good overview of the current state of housing finance reform, you will want to take a look at them.
I was a bit depressed by the slide titled, “Why GSE reform is unlikely before 2017:”
1. There is no sense of urgency: GSEs are profitable, current system is functioning.
2. Higher legislative priorities.
3. No easy answers as to what a new housing finance system should look like.
4. Bipartisan action requires compromise, and some believe they have more to lose than to gain by compromising in this arena.
While the slide depressed me, I think it offers a pretty realistic assessment of where we are. I hope Congress and the Obama Administration prove me wrong.