A Shortage of Short Sales

Calvin Zhang of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia has posted A Shortage of Short Sales: Explaining the Under-Utilization of a Foreclosure Alternative to SSRN. The abstract reads,

The Great Recession led to widespread mortgage defaults, with borrowers resorting to both foreclosures and short sales to resolve their defaults. I first quantify the economic impact of foreclosures relative to short sales by comparing the home price implications of both. After accounting for omitted variable bias, I find that homes selling as a short sale transact at 8.5% higher prices on average than those that sell after foreclosure. Short sales also exert smaller negative externalities than foreclosures, with one short sale decreasing nearby property values by one percentage point less than a foreclosure. So why weren’t short sales more prevalent? These home-price benefits did not increase the prevalence of short sales because free rents during foreclosures caused more borrowers to select foreclosures, even though higher advances led servicers to prefer more short sales. In states with longer foreclosure timelines, the benefits from foreclosures increased for borrowers, so short sales were less utilized. I find that one standard deviation increase in the average length of the foreclosure process decreased the short sale share by 0.35-0.45 standard deviation. My results suggest that policies that increase the relative attractiveness of short sales could help stabilize distressed housing markets.

The paper highlights the importance of aligning incentives in the mortgage market among lenders, investors, servicers and borrowers. Zhang makes this clear in his conclusion:

While these individual results seem small in magnitude, the total economic impact is big because of how large the real estate market is. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that having 5% more short sales than foreclosures would have saved up to $5.8 billion in housing wealth between 2007 and 2011. Thus, there needs to be more incentives for short sales to be done. The government and GSEs already began encouraging short sales by offering programs like HAFA [Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives] starting in 2009 to increase the benefits of short sales for both the borrower and the servicer, but more could be done such as decreasing foreclosure timelines. If we can continue to increase the incentives to do short sales so that they become more popular than foreclosures, future housing downturns may not be as extreme or last as long. (29)

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.

Too Many Parks?

Robert Ellickson has posted Open Space in an Urban Area: Might There Be Too Much of a Good Thing? to SSRN. The abstract reads,

Numerous policies encourage the preservation of open space in urban areas. Two of many examples are large-lot zoning and tax benefits to donors of conservation easements. These policies rest on the plausible inference that an open space can benefit nearby residents, for instance, by enhancing scenic vistas and recreational opportunities. But commentators tend to underestimate the costs of open space. The key advantage of urban living is proximity to other people. Open spaces reduce urban densities, increase commuting times, and foster sprawl. I advance the heretical view that a metropolitan area can suffer from having too much open space, and briefly suggest some reforms, particularly in zoning and conservation-easement policy.

This brief essay is thought-provoking, particularly for those of us in NYC. Mayor De Blasio is embarking on an ambitious plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing and there are all sorts of land use debates raging over the appropriate level of density in the city. This essay suggests that we should model the costs and benefits of open space in order to work toward a more optimal amount of it in each community. As Ellickson notes, “Development displaced by the setting aside of open space could be pushed in one of three directions: toward the center city, toward the periphery, and beyond the region in question.” (8) This dynamic plays out differently in a city that is built up as much as NYC. But it is reflected in our discussions about density: low density in the central city pushes development outward, one way or another.

Ellickson’s insights are also relevant to the analysis of the overall land use regimes of broader regions: “Open space provides essential relief from urban asphalt and concrete. But debates over the merits of open space tend to understate the opportunity costs and negative externalities of protecting land from development.” (19) He argues that the archetypal bedroom community near NYC is “ideally situated to house commuters. Its large-lot zoning and unstinting acquisitions of open space have contributed to the further sprawl of Greater New York. There can be too much of a good thing.” (19) The essay does not give too much guidance as to how regions such as Greater New York can best address these issues, but it does raise important questions that policy makers should seek to answer.