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)

The Economic Implications of the Housing Supply

Ed Glaeser and Joe Gyourko posted The Economic Implications of the Housing Supply which is forthcoming in The Journal of Economic Perspectives. In it, they

review the basic economics of housing supply and the functioning of U.S. housing markets to better understand the impacts on home prices, household wealth and the spatial distribution of people across markets. Section II documents the state of housing affordability in the U.S., and begins with three core facts about housing supply. First, when building is unrestricted by regulation or geography, housing supply curves seem relatively flat, meaning that we can approximate reality by referring to a single production cost. Second, both geography and regulation severely restrict the ease of building in some parts of the country. These constraints raise building costs both directly, by increasing time delays and reducing the amount of available land, and indirectly, by ensuring the homes are produced more on a one-by-one basis rather than in bulk. Third, the supply of housing is kinked and vertical downwards because housing is durable. (2, citation omitted)

These are themes that Glaeser and Gyourko have touched on before, but this essay does a service by updating them ten years after the financial crisis.

Glaeser and Gyourko have consistently hit on some important points that can garner attention at the national level , but there has been no real action on them as of yet:

  • where supply is regulated, housing costs more;
  • heavy land use regulation in places like NYC and SF reduces the nation’s overall economic output; and
  • existing homeowners tend to oppose new projects, which is consistent with their financial self-interest.

Glaeser and Gyourko do not give up hope that policymakers can craft solutions that deal with the political economy of housing construction. One first step would be to develop a toolkit of carrots and sticks that can be employed at the national and state level to incentivize local governments to take actions that are in the interest of their broader communities and the nation as a whole.

We know we need more housing in highly productive regions. We just need to figure out how to build it.

Two Cheers for Obama’s Housing Development Toolkit

photo by Daniel Schwen

As the Obama Administration nears the end, the White House released a Housing Development Toolkit. It opens,

Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified, particularly in the high-growth metropolitan areas increasingly fueling the national economy. The accumulation of such barriers – including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes – has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions. By modernizing their approaches to housing development regulation, states and localities can restrain unchecked housing cost growth, protect homeowners, and strengthen their economies.

Locally-constructed barriers to new housing development include beneficial environmental protections, but also laws plainly designed to exclude multifamily or affordable housing. Local policies acting as barriers to housing supply include land use restrictions that make developable land much more costly than it is inherently, zoning restrictions, off-street parking requirements, arbitrary or antiquated preservation regulations, residential conversion restrictions, and unnecessarily slow permitting processes. The accumulation of these barriers has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand.

Accumulated barriers to housing development can result in significant costs to households, local economies, and the environment. (2, emphasis in original)

Glaeser & Gyourko identified the tension between local land use policies and federal affordable housing policies a long time ago, but the federal government has never really done much about it. To its credit, the Obama Administration had touched on it recently, but never in this much depth. So one cheer for the toolkit’s focus on local land use policy as an issue of national concern.

And a second cheer for highlighting actions that states and local governments can take to promote more dynamic housing markets. They include,

  • Establishing by-right development
  • Taxing vacant land or donate it to non-profit developers
  • Streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines
  • Eliminate off-street parking requirements
  • Allowing accessory dwelling units
  • Establishing density bonuses
  • Enacting high-density and multifamily zoning
  • Employing inclusionary zoning
  • Establishing development tax or value capture incentives
  • Using property tax abatements (3)

I withhold the last cheer because the toolkit spends no time discussing how the federal government could use its immense set of incentives to encourage state and local governments to take steps to increase the housing supply in high-growth areas. The federal government used such incentives to raise the drinking age and it did it to lower the speed limit. Isn’t the nation’s affordable housing crisis important enough that we should use incentives (such as preferred access to HUD funds) to spur development that is good for Americans collectively as well as for so many Americans individually?

Does Historic Preservation Destroy Affordable Housing?

Spencer Means

The Real Estate Board of New York released a report about Rent Regulated Units in Landmark Districts. The report opens,

This analysis was conducted to examine the frequent assertion that landmarking helps preserve existing affordable housing. It is based on data that recently became publicly available that provides a snapshot of the number of rent-stabilized units in 2007 and again in 2014.

Contrary to statements made by advocates, affordable housing is not preserved at higher levels in NYC’s historic districts. The data shows that properties located within New York City’s historic districts showed a greater net loss of rent regulated apartments than those located in non-landmarked parts of the City.


An analysis of the data found that, from 2007 to 2014, the decline in the number of rent regulated apartments located within New York City’s landmarked properties was four times higher than in non-landmarked parts of the City.

Citywide, landmarked properties showed a much greater decrease in the number of rent stabilized units (-22.5%) than non-landmarked properties (-5.1%). At the end of this seven year period, there was a net loss of nearly 10,000 rent-stabilized units in landmarked districts in the City.

The Manhattan and Brooklyn numbers are particularly startling. Manhattan landmarked properties lost 24.5% of their rent-stabilized units compared to a loss of 11.5% in nonlandmarked properties. And Brooklyn landmarked properties lost 27.1% of their rent-stabilized units compared to 3.4% in non-landmarked properties.

The historic districts that had the highest net loss of rent stabilized units were Greenwich Village (-1432 units) and the Upper West Side/Central Park West (-2730 units). Combined, these two historic districts showed a decrease of 30% in rent stabilized units during this seven-year period. (1, footnotes and references omitted)

This study has been criticized for conflating causation with correlation. I think the criticism is warranted. The relevant question appears to be whether landmarking causes an increase or decrease in the number of rent stabilized units. The REBNY study does nothing to demonstrate causation.

Intuitively, it would seem that residents of hot neighborhoods like Greenwich Village would both seek to keep out new, large developments (which landmarking would achieve) and see higher and higher rents over time (which would lead to a reduction in rent-regulated units through a variety of mechanisms). It is not obvious how landmarking itself would lead to a reduction in rent stabilized units.

It is a shame that the REBNY study is so flawed. It raises important questions, but just leaves us more confused than before. There are serious arguments that historic preservation reduces affordable housing overall. If REBNY wants to take a meaningful position in this debate, it should produce a serious study.

Housing, Out of Reach


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.)

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.

Housing Affordability Across The Globe

The 11th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey: 2015 has been released. The survey provides ratings for metropolitan markets in Australia, Canada, China, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S. There are some interesting global trends:

Historically, the Median Multiple has been remarkably similar in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, with median house prices from 2.0 to 3.0 times median household incomes. However, in recent decades, house prices have been decoupled from this relationship in a number of markets, such as Vancouver, Sydney, San Francisco, London, Auckland and others. Without exception, these markets have severe land use restrictions (typically “urban containment” policies) that have been associated with higher land prices and in consequence higher house prices (as basic economics would indicate, other things being equal).
Virtually no government administering urban containment policy effectively monitors housing affordability. However, encouraging developments have been implemented at higher levels of government in New Zealand and Florida, and there are signs of potential reform elsewhere. (1-2)
These findings are consistent with Glaeser and Gyourko’s research on U.S. housing markets. Not too many local politicians seem to acknowledge the tension between land use policies that limit residential density on the one hand and housing affordability on the other. The de Blasio Administration in NYC is a refreshing exception to that general rule.
The explicit bias of the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey “is that domestic public policy should, first and foremost be focused on improving the standard of living and reducing poverty.” (2) Those who favor policies that create more affordable housing should take to heart the call for greater density and less restrictive zoning for residential uses. Otherwise, we are left with subsidy programs that can only help a small percentage of those in need of affordable housing and a lot of empty promises about affordable housing for all. Subsidies have a place in an affordable housing agenda, but so does density.