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)

State of the Nation’s Housing 2017

photo by woodleywonderworks

Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies has released its excellent State of the Nation’s Housing for 2017, with many important insights. The executive summary reads, in part,

A decade after the onset of the Great Recession, the national housing market is finally returning to normal. With incomes rising and household growth strengthening, the housing sector is poised to become an important engine of economic growth. But not all households and not all markets are thriving, and affordability pressures remain near record levels. Addressing the scale and complexity of need requires a renewed national commitment to expand the range of housing options available for an increasingly diverse society.

National Home Prices Regain Previous Peak

US house prices rose 5.6 percent in 2016, finally surpassing the high reached nearly a decade earlier. Achieving this milestone reduced the number of homeowners underwater on their mortgages to 3.2 million by year’s end, a remarkable drop from the 12.1 million peak in 2011. In inflation-adjusted terms, however, national home prices remained nearly 15 percent below their previous high. As a result, the typical homeowner has yet to fully regain the housing wealth lost during the downturn.

*     *     *

Pickup In Household Growth

The sluggish rebound in construction also reflects the striking slowdown in household growth after the housing bust. Depending on the government survey, household formations averaged just 540,000 to 720,000 annually in 2007–2012 before reviving to 960,000 to 1.2 million in 2013–2015.

Much of the falloff in household growth can be explained by low household formation rates among the millennial generation (born between 1985 and 2004). Indeed, the share of adults aged 18–34 still living with parents or grandparents was at an all-time high of 35.6 percent in 2015. But through the simple fact of aging, the oldest members of this generation have now reached their early 30s, when most adults live independently. As a result, members of the millennial generation formed 7.6 million new households between 2010 and 2015.

*     *     *

Homeownership Declines Moderating, While Rental Demand Still Strong

After 12 years of decline, there are signs that the national homeownership rate may be nearing bottom. As of the first quarter of 2017, the homeownership rate stood at 63.6 percent—little changed from the first quarter two years earlier. In addition, the number of homeowner households grew by 280,000 in 2016, the strongest showing since 2006. Early indications in 2017 suggest that the upturn is continuing. Still, growth in renters continued to outpace that in owners, with their numbers up by 600,000 last year.

*     *     *

Affordability Pressures Remain Widespread

Based on the 30-percent-of-income affordability standard, the number of cost-burdened households fell from 39.8 million in 2014 to 38.9 million in 2015. As a result, the share of households with cost burdens fell 1.0 percentage point, to 32.9 percent. This was the fifth straight year of declines, led by a considerable drop in the owner share from 30.4 percent in 2010 to 23.9 percent in 2015. The renter share, however, only edged down from 50.2 percent to 48.3 percent over this period.

With such large shares of households exceeding the traditional affordability standard, policymakers have increasingly focused their attention on the severely burdened (paying more than 50 percent of their incomes for housing). Although the total number of households with severe burdens also fell somewhat from 19.3 million in 2014 to 18.8 million in 2015, the improvement was again on the owner side. Indeed, 11.1 million renter households were severely cost burdened in 2015, a 3.7 million increase from 2001. By comparison, 7.6 million owners were severely burdened in 2015, up 1.1 million from 2001.

*     *     *

Segregation By Income on The Rise

A growing body of social science research has documented the long-term damage to the health and well-being of individuals living in high-poverty neighborhoods. Recent increases in segregation by income in the United States are therefore highly troubling. Between 2000 and 2015, the share of the poor population living in high-poverty neighborhoods rose from 43 percent to 54 percent. Meanwhile, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods rose from 13,400 to more than 21,300. Although most high-poverty neighborhoods are still concentrated in high-density urban cores, their recent growth has been fastest in low-density areas at the metropolitan fringe and in rural communities.

At the same time, the growing demand for urban living has led to an influx of high-income households into city neighborhoods. While this revival of urban areas creates the opportunity for more economically and racially diverse communities, it also drives up housing costs for low-income and minority residents. (1-6, references omitted)

One comment, a repetition from my past discussions of Joint Center reports. The State of the Nation’s Housing acknowledges sources of funding for the report but does not directly identify the members of its Policy Advisory Board, which provides “principal funding” for it, along with the Ford Foundation. (front matter) The Board includes companies such as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Zillow which are directly discussed in the report. In the spirit of transparency, the Joint Center should identify all of its funders in the State of the Nation’s Housing report itself. Other academic centers and think tanks would undoubtedly do this. The Joint Center for Housing Studies should follow suit.


Minority Homeownership During the Great Recession

photo by Daniel X. O'Neil

Print by Andy Kane

Carlos Garriga et al. have posted The Homeownership Experience of Minorities During the Great Recession to SSRN. The paper concludes,

The Great Recession wiped out much of the homeownership gains attained during the housing boom. However, the homeownership experience was very different across racial and ethnic groups. Black and Hispanic borrowers experienced substantial repayment difficulties that ultimately led to a greater share of homes in foreclosure.

Given that home equity often represents a substantial share of household wealth, these foreclosure events severely damaged the balance sheets of minority families. The dynamics of delinquency and foreclosure functioned differently across the income distribution within racial and ethnic groups.

For the majority, higher income was associated with lower delinquency rates and fewer foreclosures as a group. However, for Hispanic families this relationship was surprisingly reversed. Hispanics with the highest incomes fared worse than those with the lowest incomes. This counterintuitive finding suggests how college-educated Hispanic families may have had worse wealth outcomes than their non-college-educated peers: Hispanic families with high income (potentially the result of high educational attainment) had a greater share of home equity lost in foreclosure than lower-income Hispanic families.

Logit regressions suggest that underwriting standards and loan structure explain a significant amount of the greater likelihood of foreclosure among Black and Hispanic borrowers. However, underwriting standards explained more of the gap for Black borrowers, while loan structure was a stronger factor among Hispanic borrowers. Regional concentration and variation in housing markets explained more of the Hispanic-White foreclosure gap than any other group. This is understandable given that Hispanic borrowers in our sample were heavily concentrated in housing markets that experienced some of the largest volatility. Despite accounting for these important factors, sizable gaps remain in foreclosures among Blacks and Hispanics relative to Whites. Incorporating measures of labor market outcomes into the analysis may offer further insights.

In sum, the homeownership experience during the Great Recession proved to be inimical for many families, but far more so for Black and Hispanic families. For these families, financially destructive foreclosure events delayed and potentially derailed the dream of homeownership. (164-65)

I am not sure what this all means for housing finance policy other than the obvious: consumer protection in the mortgage market is a good thing as it ensures that underwriting standards evaluate ability-to-repay and loan structures exclude abusive terms like teaser rates (thanks to the ATR and QM rules and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). There are probably other policies that we should consider to reduce the depths of our busts, but they do not seem likely to gain traction in the current political environment.

Homeownership in NYC

photo by Nathan Hart

Brooklyn’s Charles Millard Pratt House

NYU’s Furman Center and Citi have released their joint Report on Homeownership & Opportunity in New York City. It opens,

In New York City, the notoriously high costs of rental housing are well documented. But becoming a homeowner in the New York City real estate market is also a considerable challenge for low- to middle-income households. Households earning less than $114,000 face a severely constrained supply of homeownership opportunities in New York City.

This report seeks to shed light on the extreme variation in homeownership rates among New Yorkers and quantify the homeownership options that exist at different income levels. We do this by analyzing 2014 home sales prices and examining the potential purchasing power of households at various income levels in New York City, as well as in the nearby counties of Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester.

We use five income categories for this analysis—Low-Income, Moderate-Income, Middle-Income, NYC-Middle-Income, and High-Income. These income bands are based on percentages of Area Median Family Income (AMFI) for the New York City metropolitan statistical area established by the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) and are based on data from the 2006-2010 American Community Survey. This report includes an additional middle-income band (NYC-Middle-Income), given that affordable housing programs in New York City serve households up to 165 percent of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) area median income (AMI). (3)

You’re all wondering, of course, what NYC-Middle Income is, so the report provides the following explanation of the income categories:

“Low-Income” households have an annual income of $34,000 or less, or 50 percent of AMFI;

“Moderate-Income” households have an annual income between $34,001-$55,000, or 50 percent to less than 80 percent of AMFI;

“Middle-Income” households have an annual income of $55,001-$83,000, or 80 percent to less than 120 percent of AMFI;

NYC-Middle-Income” households have an annual income of $83,001-$114,000, or 120 percent to less than 165 of AMFI; and

“High-Income” households have an annual income above $114,001, or 165 percent of AMFI or greater. (3, emphasis added)

The report finds that

the purchasing power of most New York City households is limited, largely due to growing housing prices and stagnating incomes since 1990. In addition, while New York City had a relatively low share of homeowners compared to the U.S. in 2014, it was disproportionately low for Low-Income and Moderate-Income households relative to their U.S. counterparts.

The vast majority of home sales in New York City in 2014 were at prices unaffordable to Low-Income and Moderate-Income households, which comprised 51 percent of New York City households. Of the nine percent of sales in the city affordable to these households, three percent were affordable to Low-Income households and an additional six percent were affordable to Moderate-Income households. Home sales with prices that were affordable to Low-Income and Moderate-Income households in 2014 were, for the most part, concentrated outside of Manhattan.

Prospects for homeownership were not much better for Middle-Income households. In 2014, Middle-Income households, which comprise 15 percent of New York City households, could afford an additional 13 percent of sales (based on a total purchase price of up to $364,000), leaving 78 percent of sales out of reach for households with incomes of less than $83,000 annually. Less than half of sales in 2014 (42%) were affordable to 77 percent of New York households, including those characterized as NYC-Middle-Income.

Moving outside of New York City does not necessarily improve a New York City household’s potential to buy a home. In Westchester County, only two percent of sales were affordable to New York City Low-Income and Moderate-Income homebuyers combined in 2014. In Nassau County, only 24 percent of sales were affordable to New York City Low-Income, Moderate-Income, and Middle-Income homebuyers in 2014. In Suffolk County, 42 percent of sales were affordable to New York City Low-Income, Moderate-Income, and Middle-Income households. (4)

New Yorkers, and a lot of non-New Yorkers, are going to eat up the graphs in this report (what IS the median sales price in Brooklyn?!?), so it is worth a read for the real estate obsessed (yes, you). But it also has policy implications about the housing stock of the City and the surrounding region. The report itself does not make any policy recommendations, but it offers a stark reminder of how important rental housing policy is to any effort to maintain socio-economic diversity in the City.


What Makes NYC Crowded

"Manhattan from Weehawken, NJ" by Dmitry Avdeev

NewsDocVoices quoted me in What Makes NYC Become More and More Crowded. It reads, in part,

Yuqiao Cen, a graduate engineering student at NYU, makes sure to shower before 10pm every night, otherwise she is criticized for making too much noise in her apartment. She lives with her landlord and his family of five in a 3-bedroom apartment on 11th Avenue in Brooklyn.

Similar to Cen, Yanjun Wu, a newly admitted graduate student at Fordham University, barely stays in his living room because she feels uneasy wearing pajamas while her male roommates are around. She lives with 4 roommates in a 4-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side.

Cen and Wu are not the only ones forced to share an apartment. Many of their classmates and friends living in New York are also doing the same thing. In fact, a recent study conducted by the New York City Comptroller Office suggested that NYC has become much more crowded in the past 10 years with the crowding rate being more than two and a half times the national average.

The study “Hidden Households” was conducted by Scott Stringer, New York City Comptroller, highlighting the growing crowding rate in housing in NYC. According to the study, New York City’s crowding rate has rose from 7.6 percent in 2005 to 8.8 percent in 2013. The number of crowded housing units grew from 228,925 in 2005 to 272,533 in 2013, representing an increase of 19 percent.

The increase in the crowding rate is city-wide. The Comptroller’s study indicates that the proportion of crowded dwelling units increased in all of the five boroughs except Staten Island during this time period. Brooklyn has the largest increase with 28.1 percent, Queens has 12.5 percent and 12.3 percent in the Bronx.

*     *     *

“Fundamentally, this is a story about supply and demand,” said David Reiss, professor of Law in Brooklyn Law School, and research director of Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship. “The increase of the housing supply has been very slow, while the increase of the population was very fast, and that is the recipe for crowding. Because people can’t afford to live where they want to live, their choices would be continuing to live where they want to live and be crowded, or to switch to location with more space for your dollar.”

The data confirm Reiss’s observation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, NYC’s population in 2013 was 8.43 million, increasing from t8.2 million in 2005. However, the 2014 Housing Supply Report, conducted by New York City Rent Guidelines Board, also indicates that the number of permits issued for new construction of residential units had reached its peak – 34,000 in 2008, but the number decreased greatly to 6,000 in 2009. Although the number kept gradually going up, and reached to 18,000 in 2013, the market is no longer as hot as before the financial crisis of 2008.

Contrary to common belief, income does not in itself drive crowding. Although “Hidden Households” shows that 23.6 percent of crowded households reported household incomes in the City’s bottom quartile, it also revealed that 18.5 percent of crowded households have incomes in the City’s top quartile and 5.2 percent of crowded households have incomes in the 90th percentile or higher.

In the beginning of apartment hunting, Wu and her roommates wanted to rent a five-bedroom apartment so that everyone could have their own private space. “The market is too busy in New York,” said Wu. “Once we were going to pay the [lease] for an apartment on Roosevelt Island, but someone was ahead of us by just a few minutes.”

After weeks of apartment hunting, Wu and her roommates decided to make a compromise – two of them would have to share a bedroom, in order to get a decent apartment at an acceptable price – $4,900 per month, with neither an elevator nor a laundry room.

“Land is very expensive, and there is not much left for residential development but a tremendous number of people want to live in New York,” said Albert Goldson, Executive Director of Indo-Brazilian Associates LLC, A NYC-based global advisory firm. “Real estate prices started to go up, so you have people who are middle class or who have modest salaries who can no longer afford [to pay a] mortgage. And what many of them would have done, either single people or a family, was ‘double up’. Like single people who bring in a roommate, now have several roommates in a unit.”

Most experts in the urban planning industry believe that the underlying cause of the growing crowding rate is the affordability of housing. Goldson argues that the city needs to be more available for middle-class people who are actually working here and potentially leaving the city if it is too small or uncomfortable to live here anymore.

From Reiss’ perspective, the way to solve affordability of housing is to amend its zoning code to encourage the construction of housing. Vertical construction is a trend and a solution to the crowding situation. But in the meantime, with more people living in taller buildings, the density would definitely increase. “If the city is really committed to increasing the affordability of housing, you have to be committed to increase the housing density as well,” said Reiss.

Tax Expenditure Wars: Wealthy Households v. Poor

Henry Rose has posted How Federal Tax Expenditures That Support Housing Contribute to Economic Inequality to SSRN. This short article examines “how federal income tax laws benefit more affluent owner households but provide no benefits to economically-strapped renter households.” (1) Housing policy analysts (myself included) constantly bemoan the regressive nature of federal tax policy as it relates to housing, but it is always worth looking at the topic with updated numbers. And this article contains some tables with some interesting numbers.

One table provides an overview of the estimated tax savings (in billions) in FY 2014 for five federal tax expenditures for owners of housing that they occupy:

Mortgage Interest Deduction  (MID)                                                 $66.91

Property Tax Deduction (PTD)                                                        $31.59

Capital Gains Exclusion on Sales                                                   $35.54

Net Imputed Rental Income Exclusion                                            $75.24

Discharge of Mortgage Indebtedness Exclusion                            $3.1

Total                                                                                                 $212.38

The next table provides an estimated distribution of two of these tax expenditures (FY 2014, savings in millions):

Tax-Filer AGI                PTD Tax Savings         MID Tax Savings                

Below $50,000              $693                              $1,443

$50,000-75,000             $2,190                           $4,330

$75,000-100,000           $3,478                           $6,581

$100,000-200,000         $13,648                         $27,421

$200,000+                     $11,798                         $29,340

Total                              $31,806                         $69,115                               

The article concludes by noting that despite

the great disparity in economic positions between owners and renters, federal tax expenditures lavish tax savings on primarily affluent owners and provide none for renters. The federal tax expenditures for owners are so generous that interest can be deducted on mortgage balances up to $1,000,000 and can also be taken on second homes, even yachts, as well as primary residences. It is difficult to conceive of a federal public policy that more directly promotes economic inequality than the federal tax expenditures that support owners of housing but are not available to renters. (9-10, footnote omitted)

I don’t expect this disparity to be addressed any time in the near future, given the current political environment, but it is certainly one that should stay at the top of any list of reforms for those concerned with promoting equitable federal housing policies.