The Missing Piece in The Affordable Housing Puzzle

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has posted The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes. The report opens,

One of the biggest barriers to economic stability for families in the United States struggling to make ends meet is the severe shortage of affordable rental homes. The housing crisis is most severe for extremely low income renters, whose household incomes are at or below the poverty level or 30% of their area median income (see Box 1). Facing a shortage of more than 7.2 million affordable and available rental homes, extremely low income households account for nearly 73% of the nation’s severely cost-burdened renters, who spend more than half of their income on housing.

Even with these housing challenges, three out of four low income households in need of housing assistance are denied federal help with their housing due to chronic underfunding. Over half a million people were homeless on a single night in 2017 and many more millions of families without assistance face difficult choices between spending their limited incomes on rent or taking care of other necessities like food and medical care. Despite the serious lack of affordable housing, President Trump proposes further reducing federal housing assistance for the lowest income households through budget cuts, increased rents and work requirements.

Based on the American Community Survey (ACS), this report presents data on the affordable housing supply, housing cost burdens, and the demographics of severely impacted renters. The data clearly illustrate a chronic and severe shortage of affordable homes for the lowest income renters who would be harmed even more by budget cuts  and other restrictions in federal housing programs. (2, citations omitted)

The report’s key findings include,

  • The nation’s 11.2 million extremely low income renter households account for 25.7% of all renter households and 9.5% of all households in the United States.
  • The U.S. has a shortage of more than 7.2 million rental homes affordable and available to extremely low income renter households. Only 35 affordable and available rental homes exist for every 100 extremely low income renter households.
  • Seventy-one percent of extremely low income renter households are severely cost-burdened, spending more than half of their incomes on rent and utilities. They account for 72.7% of all severely cost-burdened renter households in the United States.
  • Thirty-two percent of very low income, 8% of low income, and 2.3% of middle income renter households are severely cost-burdened.
  • Of the eight million severely cost-burdened extremely low income renter households, 84% are seniors, persons with disabilities, or are in the labor force. Many others are enrolled in school or are single adults caring for a young child or a person with a disability. (2, citations omitted)

While the report does show how wrongheaded the Trump Administration’s proposed cuts to housing subsidies are, I was surprised that it did not address at all the impact of local zoning policies on housing affordability. There is no way that we are going to address the chronic shortage in affordable housing by subsidies alone.

The federal government will need to disincentivize local governments from implementing land use policies that keep affordable housing from being built in communities that have too little housing. These rules make single family homes too expensive by requiring large lots and make it too difficult to build multifamily housing. We cannot seriously tackle the affordability problem without addressing restrictive local land use policies.

Dems Favor Land Use Reform

photo by DonkeyHotey

The Democratic Party has released its draft 2016 Policy Platform. Its housing platform follows in its entirety. I find the highlighted clause particularly intriguing and discuss it below.

Where Donald Trump rooted for the housing crisis, Democrats will continue to fight for those families who suffered the loss of their homes. We will help those who are working toward a path of financial stability and will put sustainable home ownership into the reach of more families. Democrats will also combat the affordable housing crisis and skyrocketing rents in many parts of the country that are leading too many families and workers to be pushed out of communities where they work.

We will increase the supply of affordable rental housing by expanding incentives and easing local barriers to building new affordable rental housing developments in areas of economic opportunity. We will substantially increase funding for the National Housing Trust Fund to construct, preserve, and rehabilitate millions of affordable housing rental units. Not only will this help address the affordable housing crisis, it will also create millions of good-paying jobs in the process. Democrats also believe that we should provide more federal resources to the people struggling most with unaffordable housing: low-income families, people with disabilities, veterans, and the elderly.

We will reinvigorate federal housing production programs, increase resources to repair public housing, and increase funding for the housing choice voucher program. And we will fight for sufficient funding to end chronic homelessness.

We must make sure that everyone has a fair shot at homeownership. We will lift up more families and keep the housing market robust and inclusive by defending and strengthening the Fair Housing Act. We will also support first time homebuyers, implement credit score reform to make the credit industry work for borrowers and not just lenders, and prevent predatory lending by defending the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). And we will help underwater homeowners by expanding foreclosure mitigation counseling. (4-5, emphasis added)

Much of the housing platform represents a continuation of Democratic policies, such as increased funding for affordable housing, improved enforcement of the Fair Housing Act and expanded access to counseling for distressed homeowners.

But the highlighted clause seems to represent a new direction for the Democratic Party: an acknowledgement that local land use decisions in areas of economic opportunity (read: the Northeast, the Bay Area and similar dynamic regions) are having a negative impact on low- and moderate-income households who are priced out of the housing markets because demand far outstrips supply.

This is a significant development in federal housing policy, flowing from work done by Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko, among others, who have demonstrated the out-sized effect that the innumerable land use decisions made by local governments have had on the availability of affordable housing regionally and nationally.

There is a lot of ambiguity in the phrase “easing local barriers to building new affordable rental housing developments,” but the federal government has a lot of policy tools available to it to do just that. If Democrats are able to implement this aspect of the party platform, it could have a very positive impact on the prospects of households that are priced out of the regions where all the new jobs are being created.

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.

Zoning Rules and Income Inequality

Bill Fischel photo 2015

Bill Fischel

William Fischel, a preeminent land use scholar, has recently published Zoning Rules!: The Economics of Land Use Regulation. The abstract for the book reads,

Zoning has for a century enabled cities to chart their own course. It is a useful and popular institution, enabling homeowners to protect their main investment and provide safe neighborhoods. As home values have soared in recent years, however, this protection has accelerated to the degree that new housing development has become unreasonably difficult and costly. The widespread Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome is driven by voters’ excessive concern about their home values and creates barriers to growth that reach beyond individual communities. The barriers contribute to suburban sprawl, entrench income and racial segregation, retard regional immigration to the most productive cities, add to national wealth inequality, and slow the growth of the American economy. Some state, federal, and judicial interventions to control local zoning have done more harm than good. More effective approaches would moderate voters’ demand for local-land use regulation—by, for example, curtailing federal tax subsidies to owner-occupied housing.

The book engages with many other leading land use scholars like Edward Glaeser, Robert Ellickson and Vicki Been so the reader gets a good sense of what is at stake in contemporary land use debates.

I was particularly intrigued by Fischel’s discussion of the relationship between land use policies and income inequality. He writes that, “Moving to opportunity was an important source of income equalization for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. That migration trend has nearly stopped as a result of increased land use regulation in the high-productivity areas” on the coasts. (166-67). The book carefully parses out how such changes in land use regulation had such a big effect on people’s choices.

You can find the first chapter of Zoning Rules! here if you want to give the book a test run.


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 Next Urban Renaissance

"Stacked parking New York 2010" by Jérôme

The Manhattan Institute has released an electronic book, The Next Urban Renaissance: How Public-Policy Innovation and Evaluation Can Improve Life in America’s Cities. Ingrid Gould Ellen, the Faculty Director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, has a chapter on Housing America’s Cities: Promising Policy Ideas for Affordable Housing. She suggests three reforms:

First, cities could incentivize construction and development—and thereby increase the supply of housing—by more heavily taxing land than property. Such a “split-rate” tax would encourage development of underutilized land by reducing the added tax burden that standard property taxes impose on improving buildings.

Second, cities could reduce (or even eliminate) minimum parking requirements that significantly increase the cost of housing.

Finally, cities could shift some of the public funds currently spent on homeless shelters to time-limited rental subsidies for those at risk of homelessness. None of these ideas is new, but each deserves serious reconsideration as housing affordability problems mount around the country, especially in high-demand, coastal cities. (1-2)

I think the split-rate tax is worth exploring, although it may not be political feasible at this time. The property tax system in NYC is incredibly screwed up, so any proposal that involves scrapping it and replacing it with one that is more equitable is a step in the right direction.

The elimination of minimum parking requirements is a no-brainer. This is not only because they increase the cost of new housing (by increasing construction costs and by reducing square footage that would be available to other building uses). It is also because we should be trying to disincentivize people from owning cars in NYC, not incentivizing them with subsidizing parking.

The last proposal — time-limited rental subsidies — is also worth exploring although it sounds a little too good to be true. Early research indicates that program beneficiaries are unlikely to end up in shelters. If these findings are confirmed by more rigorous studies, then time-limited rental subsidies would be a brilliant policy innovation.

While none of these proposals are going to solve NYC’s affordable housing crisis, they will all have a positive impact at the margins. They are worth further study.