The Economics of Housing Supply

chart by Smallman12q

Housing economists Edward L. Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko have posted The Economic Implications of Housing Supply to SSRN (behind a paywall but you can find a slightly older version of the paper here). The abstract reads,

In this essay, we review the basic economics of housing supply and the functioning of US housing markets to better understand the distribution of home prices, household wealth and the spatial distribution of people across markets. We employ a cost-based approach to gauge whether a housing market is delivering appropriately priced units. Specifically, we investigate whether market prices (roughly) equal the costs of producing the housing unit. If so, the market is well-functioning in the sense that it efficiently delivers housing units at their production cost. Of course, poorer households still may have very high housing cost burdens that society may wish to address via transfers. But if housing prices are above this cost in a given area, then the housing market is not functioning well – and housing is too expensive for all households in the market, not just for poorer ones. The gap between price and production cost can be understood as a regulatory tax, which might be efficiently incorporating the negative externalities of new production, but typical estimates find that the implicit tax is far higher than most reasonable estimates of those externalities.

The paper’s conclusions, while a bit technical for a lay audience, are worth highlighting:

When housing supply is highly regulated in a certain area, housing prices are higher and population growth is smaller relative to the level of demand. While most of America has experienced little growth in housing wealth over the past 30 years, the older, richer buyers in America’s most regulated areas have experienced significant increases in housing equity. The regulation of America’s most productive places seems to have led labor to locate in places where wages and prices are lower, reducing America’s overall economic output in the process.

Advocates of land use restrictions emphasize the negative externalities of building. Certainly, new construction can lead to more crowded schools and roads, and it is costly to create new infrastructure to lower congestion. Hence, the optimal tax on new building is positive, not zero. However, there is as yet no consensus about the overall welfare implications of heightened land use controls. Any model-based assessment inevitably relies on various assumptions about the different aspects of regulation and how they are valued in agents’ utility functions.

Empirical investigations of the local costs and benefits of restricting building generally conclude that the negative externalities are not nearly large enough to justify the costs of regulation. Adding the costs from substitute building in other markets generally strengthens this conclusion, as Glaeser and Kahn (2010) show that America restricts building more in places that have lower carbon emissions per household. If California’s restrictions induce more building in Texas and Arizona, then their net environmental could be negative in aggregate. If restrictions on building limit an efficient geographical reallocation of labor, then estimates based on local externalities would miss this effect, too.

If the welfare and output gains from reducing regulation of housing construction are large, then why don’t we see more policy interventions to permit more building in markets such as San Francisco? The great challenge facing attempts to loosen local housing restrictions is that existing homeowners do not want more affordable homes: they want the value of their asset to cost more, not less. They also may not like the idea that new housing will bring in more people, including those from different socio-economic groups.

There have been some attempts at the state level to soften severe local land use restrictions, but they have not been successful. Massachusetts is particularly instructive because it has used both top-down regulatory reform and incentives to encourage local building. Massachusetts Chapter 40B provides builders with a tool to bypass local rules. If developers are building enough formally-defined affordable units in unaffordable areas, they can bypass local zoning rules. Yet localities still are able to find tools to limit local construction, and the cost of providing price-controlled affordable units lowers the incentive for developers to build. It is difficult to assess the overall impact of 40B, especially since both builder and community often face incentives to avoid building “affordable” units. Standard game theoretic arguments suggest that 40B should never itself be used, but rather work primarily by changing the fallback option of the developer. Massachusetts has also tried to create stronger incentives for local building with Chapters 40R and 40S. These parts of their law allow for transfers to the localities themselves, so builders are not capturing all the benefits. Even so, the Boston market and other high cost areas in the state have not seen meaningful surges in new housing development.

This suggests that more fiscal resources will be needed to convince local residents to bear the costs arising from new development. On purely efficiency grounds, one could argue that the federal government provide sufficient resources, but the political economy of the median taxpayer in the nation effectively transferring resources to much wealthier residents of metropolitan areas like San Francisco seems challenging to say the least. However daunting the task, the potential benefits look to be large enough that economists and policymakers should keep trying to devise a workable policy intervention. (19-20)

High Rents and Land Use Regulation

photo by cincy Project

The Federal Reserve’s Devin Bunten has posted Is the Rent Too High? Aggregate Implications of Local Land-Use Regulation. It is a technical paper about an important subject. It has implications for those who are concerned about the lack of affordable housing in high-growth areas. The abstract reads,

Highly productive U.S. cities are characterized by high housing prices, low housing stock growth, and restrictive land-use regulations (e.g., San Francisco). While new residents would benefit from housing stock growth in cities with highly productive firms, existing residents justify strict local land-use regulations on the grounds of congestion and other costs of further development. This paper assesses the welfare implications of these local regulations for income, congestion, and urban sprawl within a general-equilibrium model with endogenous regulation. In the model, households choose from locations that vary exogenously by productivity and endogenously according to local externalities of congestion and sharing. Existing residents address these externalities by voting for regulations that limit local housing density. In equilibrium, these regulations bind and house prices compensate for differences across locations. Relative to the planner’s optimum, the decentralized model generates spatial misallocation whereby high-productivity locations are settled at too-low densities. The model admits a straightforward calibration based on observed population density, expenditure shares on consumption and local services, and local incomes. Welfare and output would be 1.4% and 2.1% higher, respectively, under the planner’s allocation. Abolishing zoning regulations entirely would increase GDP by 6%, but lower welfare by 5.9% because of greater congestion.

The important sentence from the abstract is that “Welfare and output would be 1.4% and 2.1% higher, respectively, under the planner’s allocation.” Those are significant effects when we are talking about  real people and real places. The introduction provides a bit more context for the study:

Neighborhoods in productive, high-rent regions have very strict controls on housing development and very limited new housing construction. Home to Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area is the most productive and most expensive metropolitan region in the country, and yet new housing construction has been very slow, especially in contrast to less-productive large cities like Houston, Texas. The evidence suggests that this slow-growth environment results from locally determined regulatory constraints. Existing residents justify these constraints by appealing to the costs of new development, including increased vehicle traffic and other types of congestion, and claim that they see few, if any, of the benefits from new development. However, the effects of local regulation extend beyond the local regulating authorities: regions with highly regulated municipalities experience less-elastic housing supply. (2, footnotes omitted)

The bottom line, as far as I am concerned, is that localities that are attempting to deal with their affordable housing problems have to directly address how they go about their zoning. If the zoning does not support housing construction, then no amount of affordable housing incentives will address the demand for housing in high growth places like NYC and San Francisco.

Silicon Valley’s Housing Crisis

photo by Smitha Murthy

Drop in the Bucket? quoted me in Could There Really Be Relief Ahead for Silicon Valley’s Housing Crisis? It opens,

Finally! A glimmer of hope has appeared in Silicon Valley’s housing crisis. Amid gloomy and downright terrifying stories about astronomical home prices and tighter-than-tight inventories forcing well-paid tech workers to live in vans, pay $2 million for a tear-down shack, or ponder commuting to work from Las Vegas, there seems to be some good news for a change: City Council members in Mountain View, CA, approved plans to build 10,250 new homes in the area.

Given that Mountain View has only about 32,000 homes total, this will increase its housing inventory by a whopping 32%—all purportedly within “walking distance” (possibly a bit of a long walk) of tech giant Google, which has long been lobbying on this front and will no doubt break out the Champagne once developers break ground. Sure, it may be years before these homes become a reality, but even the idea of them may have many locals (or those moving there) daring to dream. Might this new influx of housing cause home prices to drop within reasonable reach?

As logical as this renewed optimism about Silicon Valley’s housing market might seem, experts aren’t so sure home prices will budge all that much.

“This news in itself will not drive down prices much,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “While a 10,000-unit commitment is significant, Silicon Valley as a whole has about 3 million people living there.”

So if you consider the population of the entire area—many of whom would likely kill to move to Mountain View—10,000 new houses would house only 0.3% of these people. For you math-challenged, that’s less than a measly half-percent! 

And even though the number of homes may be edging upward, so are the number of people moving there.

“Silicon Valley remains a booming economy, so it’s likely that the population will continue to grow, further driving up prices,” Reiss continues.

As further evidence that more homes doesn’t necessarily lead to cheaper home prices, Florida Realtor® Cara Ameer points to another historically hot market: New York City.

“In New York, more new buildings has had no impact on housing prices or rents,” she says. If anything, the only change New Yorkers noticed is their neighborhood got a lot more cramped. The same will likely be true for picture-perfect Mountain View.

“The biggest thing people will see is increased congestion,” says Amer, “with many more residents, cars, and the need for schools and additional services.”

In fact, fears of overcrowding might even galvanize current homeowners in the area to show up en force at future City Council meetings to fight the greenlighting of additional developments—that is, unless they’re out-muscled by employee-hungry firms such as Google.

“As key businesses realize that the lack of housing is hurting their ability to recruit and retain good employees, it is possible that Mountain View’s decision is a harbinger for more pro-development decisions throughout Silicon Valley,” Reiss explains. “Current homeowners, called ‘homevoters,’ tend to make their anti-growth views known to local officials, but once the interests of local businesses focus on the lack of workforce housing, it can change the dynamics.

“These are powerful companies. The result is that those decisions can become more pro-growth than is typical for suburban communities.”