Housing Supply and The Housing Crisis

By James Cridland from Brisbane, AU - Crowd, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74365875

Opportunity Now interviewed me about how limited housing construction impacts the housing crisis:

Dynamic metropolitan areas like the Bay Area, LA, and New York City suffer from longstanding mismatches between the supply of housing and demand for it. Local communities control the zoning, and local voters (typically existing homeowners) have little incentive to increase the supply of housing. After all, more supply will likely increase the tax burden as new residents increase the demand for services (more schools, more infrastructure, more public safety). Homeowners are already in the market and generally like the way things are, notwithstanding their political views about the high cost of living for others and the epidemic of desperate homelessness that plagues all of these areas. The result of all of these local land use decisions is that very few units of housing are built in these communities, given the size and growth of the population.

Many coastal cities are high-opportunity areas, offering jobs to immigrants, young adults, and strivers of all stripes. They drive up the demand for housing even hours from urban centers, living in overcrowded units in many cases.

When demand outpaces supply, prices rise. Government can try to limit the effect of this pressure through a variety of means: rent controls, housing subsidies, right-to-shelter legislation. All of these interventions can assist certain segments of the housing burdened — current renters, new renters, homeless people — but to a large extent, they just reallocate scarce housing from one burdened group to another. That is not necessarily bad public policy given the current political realities, but it does not address the fundamental problem these communities face: There is not enough housing for all of the people who live in them. A broad coalition of decision-makers needs to face this reality and develop long-term strategies to build a lot more housing where all of these people want to live — for access to economic opportunity, for proximity to family, for all of the reasons that people want to relocate and build a life for themselves and their loved ones.

Rethinking The Federal Home Loan Bank System

photo by Tony Webster

Law360 published my column, Time To Rethink The Federal Home Loan Bank System. It opens,

The Federal Housing Finance Agency is commencing a comprehensive review of an esoteric but important part of our financial infrastructure this month. The review is called “Federal Home Loan Bank System at 100: Focusing on the Future.”

It is a bit of misnomer, as the system is only 90 years old. Congress brought it into existence in 1932 as one of the first major legislative responses to the Great Depression. But the name of the review also signals that the next 10 years should be a period of reflection regarding the proper role of the system in our broader financial infrastructure.

Just as the name of the review process is a bit misleading, so is the name of the Federal Home Loan Bank system itself. While it was originally designed to support homeownership, it has morphed into a provider of liquidity for large financial institutions.

Banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Citibank NA and Wells Fargo & Co. are among its biggest beneficiaries and homeownership is only incidentally supported by their involvement with it.

As part of the comprehensive review of the system, we should give thought to at least changing the name of the system so that it cannot trade on its history as a supporter of affordable homeownership. But we should go even farther and give some thought to spinning off its functions into other parts of the federal financial infrastructure as its functions are redundant with theirs. 

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.

Comparing Rental Housing Across the Atlantic

photo by Tiago Fioreze

The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies has released a working paper, Rental Housing: An International Comparison. The abstract reads,

This report compares rental housing in 12 countries in Europe and North America, using individual records from household surveys. Differences in housing characteristics, conditions, and costs across countries reflect a number of factors, including demographics, geography, culture, and government policies. A lack of comparable data can make international comparisons difficult to execute, but such analysis is valuable for understanding and contextualizing differences in affordability and other characteristics of renter households and housing.

The analysis revealed the US, along with Spain, as notably unaffordable for renter households, based on a number of measures. The greater apparent cost burdens reflected a variety of factors, including differences in characteristics of the housing stock and differences in tax burdens, as well as measurement problems.

However, two major influences – differences in the size and availability of housing allowances and the degree of income inequality – emerged as the main drivers of differences in housing affordability. The effects of supply-side factors such as the extent of social housing supply, supply subsidies, and rent controls were unclear, due to problems with the identification and description of below-market rentals in the household survey data. (1)

The housing stock and political context is so different among countries, but this type of analysis is still very useful and can offer valuable lessons to the United States:

One factor that appears to contribute to the pervasive affordability problems in the US is the degree of income inequality. That is not a feature of the housing market per se, but there may be opportunities to address the consequences of income inequality through appropriate housing policies.

Other countries have devoted more resources to ameliorating the problems of unaffordable housing. The US provides fairly generous housing benefits to only a small share of needy households. In the UK, a broadly available system of housing allowances offsets what would otherwise be a much more severe affordability problem than exists in the US. In other countries, affordable rental housing supplied by governments or nonprofits helps to address affordability issues, although the efficiency of that practice, relative to the provision of housing allowances, has been questioned, as it has been in the US. The EU-SILC data used in this analysis did not adequately identify or describe below-market-rate housing, making it impossible to adequately assess the effects of such housing.

The somewhat larger size and perhaps higher quality of units in the US rental stock also affects relative affordability, although relative quality and its effect on cost differences are difficult to assess using the available data. The large share of single-family detached rentals in the US reflects preferences, the demographic mix among renters, land availability, etc., but it could also reflect zoning and other regulations limiting the supply of less expensive multifamily rentals. It is hard to imagine that regulations are more stringent in the US than in some of the more dirigiste nations of Europe, but regulations elsewhere may dictate, rather than constrain, density and cost reductions. The size and quality of the housing occupied by low-income renters in the US reflect the fact that most of those units were originally built for owner occupancy or for higher-income renters. That’s probably true in other countries as well. Whether the extent of such filtering is greater or less in various countries is perhaps worth exploring in the future. (37-38)

Income inequality, housing subsidies and land use reform — the report hits on a trifecta of key issues that housing policy should be dealing with. While I do not see much of an appetite for major reform of the first two items in today’s political climate, there might be support for some loosening of land use restrictions on housing construction. I wonder if there is some room for movement on that third front. Can local jurisdictions be incentivized by the federal government to build more housing?