Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

Housing, Out of Reach

House_at_309_Railroad,_Las_Vegas_NM

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has released Out of Reach 2015: Low Wages & HIgh Rents Lock Renters Out. The Introduction reads,

Since its founding in 1974 by federal housing policy expert, Cushing Dolbeare, NLIHC has used data to document America’s housing affordability crisis. As part of her original analysis, Cushing observed a fundamental mismatch between the wages people earn and the price of decent housing, what we now call Out of Reach. Today, housing is still out of reach for far too many, and the gap between what people earn and the price of decent housing continues to grow.

The 2015 Housing Wage is $19.35 for a two-bedroom unit, and $15.50 for a one-bedroom unit. The Housing Wage for a two-bedroom unit is more than 2.5 times the federal minimum wage, and $4 more than the estimated average wage of $15.16 earned by renters nationwide. The Housing Wage is an estimate of the full time hourly wage that a household must earn to afford a decent apartment at HUD’s estimated Fair Market Rent (FMR), while spending no more than 30% of income on housing costs. The data in Out of Reach illustrate the gap between wages and rents across the country. In 13 states and D.C. the 2015 Housing Wage is more than $20 per hour.

Many renters earn far less than the Housing Wage in their community and struggle to find an affordable place to live. This edition of Out of Reach highlights some of the economic challenges facing low income renters, including lagging wages, inconsistent job growth, and the rising cost of living. Undoubtedly, the lack of affordable housing remains the overarching problem for low income households, a problem made worse by these economic challenges.

Expanding and preserving the supply of quality, affordable housing is essential to any strategy to end homelessness, poverty, and economic inequality. As our nation’s policymakers seek ways of overcoming these societal ills, access to affordable housing must be a cornerstone of any proposal. (1, emphasis removed)

Some of the particular findings are disturbing. For instance, “There is no state  in the U.S. where a minimum wage worker working full time can afford a one-bedroom apartment at the fair market rent.” (1) This state of affairs reflects many trends, including the fact that the minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation and is worth less today than it was a few decades ago. It is worth unpacking this finding a bit.

The report defines “affordability” as costing “no more than 30% of a household’s gross income” for rent and utilities. (2) It defines “Fair Market Rent” as “the 40th percentile of gross rents for typical, non-substandard rental units.” (2) In some ways, this report overstates the affordability crisis because minimum wage workers may be able to afford housing that falls below the 40th percentile of gross rents. Perhaps a better measure would have been to determine how many units are available to the minimum wage workers in that jurisdiction. That being said, the report does document how “rents remain out of reach for many renters.” (2) For instance, 75% of extremely low income renters spend more than 50% of their income on housing costs . . ..” (5)

Income and wealth inequality have reached extreme proportions in America today. This report highlights how this is playing out in the context of the housing market. (I would also note, however, that the report does not account for how restrictive land use policies keep the supply of new housing from growing many communities, but that may just be a subject for another report.)

Regulation and Housing Supply

Gyourko and Molloy have posted Regulation and Housing Supply to SSRN.  Unfortunately, it is behind a paywall (although it is also available at NBER if your library has access and an earlier draft can be found here). The abstract of this book chapter states that it reviews the scholarly literature on the causes and effects of local government regulation that “influences the amount, location, and shape of residential development.” The abstract continues,

We begin with a discussion of how researchers measure regulation empirically, which highlights the variety of methods that are used to constrain development. Many theories have been developed to explain why regulation arises, including the role of homeowners in the local political process, the influence of historical density, and the fiscal and exclusionary motives for zoning. As for the effects of regulation, most studies have found substantial effects on the housing market. In particular, regulation appears to raise house prices, reduce construction, reduce the elasticity of housing supply, and alter urban form. Other research has found that regulation influences local labor markets, and household sorting across communities. Finally, we discuss the welfare implications of regulation. Although the large positive externalities of some specific rules are clear, the benefits of more general forms of regulation are very difficult to quantify. On balance, a few recent studies suggest that the overall efficiency losses from binding constraints on residential development could be quite large.
Land use geeks are familiar with Gyourko’s analysis of land use regulation, but many non-economists are not.  Even if they are, they often give it short shrift. I found the extension of their analysis beyond the borders of the U.S. interesting:
In theory, the availability of buildable land might not constrain the supply of housing units if housing could be constructed as densely as necessary to meet demand. But in most places in the U.S.—and indeed around the world—local land use policy imposes limits on residential development that restrict the size and type of housing units that can be built on a given amount of land. These restrictions add extra costs to a construction project, creating a wedge between the sales price of a house and the cost of buying the land and building the structure. (3)
As communities struggle with housing affordability, the link between land use regulation and housing costs is one that should not be ignored.