Promoting Equitable Transit-Oriented Development

graphic by USGAO

Enteprise has released a report, Promoting Opportunity through Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (eTOD): Navigating Federal Transportation Policy. It opens,

Transportation, housing and land use decisions that form the foundation of our development patterns are made at every level of government. While the local regulatory environment significantly impacts the amount and type of development that occurs, the federal government plays a major role in local development in both overt and hidden ways. Federal funding is the most obvious source of influence. However, this funding comes with a catch, as the incentives and regulations that govern funding programs can have a significant impact – both positive and negative – on the type of housing and transportation infrastructure that is built and how it is maintained over time.

The federal ability to influence development patterns gives it both direct and indirect influence on a community’s strength and composition. Individual families, the local economy, municipal governments and the environment all benefit when well-located housing, jobs and other necessary resources are connected by efficient transportation and infrastructure networks. Equitable transit-oriented development (eTOD, see sidebar for definition) is an important approach to facilitating these connections. eTOD supports the achievement of multiple cross-sector goals, including regional economic growth, enhanced mobility and access, efficient municipal and transportation network operations, improved public health and decreased cost of living. For a full discussion of the benefits of eTOD, read Promoting Opportunity through eTOD: Making the Case.

In recent years, the federal government has taken several actions that are more conducive to fostering eTOD. Notable examples include the adoption of incentives for creating and preserving affordable housing near transit, the provision of planning and technical assistance resources to support eTOD, and the reduction of barriers to producing affordable housing on federally-funded property. However, a wide range of policies and incentives that do not explicitly address eTOD can also support or detract from the conditions that make such development possible.

Navigating Federal Transportation Policy is the third report in our Promoting Opportunity through eTOD research series. This report seeks to assist stakeholders involved in achieving eTOD, such as public entities, developers and practitioners, as they work to navigate the federal policy landscape, with a focus onFederal Transit Administration (FTA) policies and programs. These policies and programs generally offer several funding and technical assistance opportunities that can address eTOD (among a range of other uses), but housing practitioners may be less familiar with these resources and how to access them. (2, footnote omitted)

While the report explicitly acknowledges the changed environment since President Trump’s election, it does not seem to fully integrate those changes into its recommendations. While there are a lot of good ideas in the report, I am afraid that it will take a few years, or longer, for them to find a sympathetic ear in the Executive Branch.

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.

Zoning and Housing Affordability

Vanessa Brown Calder has posted Zoning, Land-Use Planning, and Housing Affordability to SSRN. It opens,

Local zoning and land-use regulations have increased substantially over the decades. These constraints on land development within cities and suburbs aim to achieve various safety, environmental, and aesthetic goals. But the regulations have also tended to reduce the supply of housing, including multifamily and low-income housing. With reduced supply, many U.S. cities suffer from housing affordability problems.

This study uses regression analysis to examine the link between housing prices and zoning and land-use controls. State and local governments across the country impose substantially different amounts of regulation on land development. The study uses a data set of court decisions on land use and zoning that captures the growth in regulation over time and the large variability between the states.

The statistical results show that rising land-use regulation is associated with rising real average home prices in 44 states and that rising zoning regulation is associated with rising real average home prices in 36 states. In general, the states that have increased the amount of rules and restrictions on land use the most have higher housing prices.

The federal government spent almost $200 billion to subsidize renting and buying homes in 2015. These subsidies treat a symptom of the underlying problem. But the results of this study indicate that state and local governments can tackle housing affordability problems directly by overhauling their development rules. For example, housing is much more expensive in the Northeast than in the Southeast, and that difference is partly explained by more regulation in the former region.

Interestingly, the data show that relatively more federal housing aid flows to states with more restrictive zoning and land-use rules, perhaps because those states have higher housing costs. Federal aid thus creates a disincentive for the states to solve their own housing affordability problems by reducing regulation. (1)

This paper provides additional evidence for an argument that Edward Glaeser and others have been making for some time now.

Local governments won’t make these changes on their own. Nonetheless, local land-use decisions have a large negative impact on many households and businesses who are not currently located within the borders of the local jurisdictions (as well as some who are). As a result, the federal government could and should take restrictive land use regulation into account when it allocates federal aid for affordable housing.

The Obama Administration found that restrictive local land-use regulations stifled GDP growth in the aggregate. Perhaps reforming land-use regulation is something that could garner bipartisan support as it is a market-driven approach to the housing crisis, a cause dear to the hearts of many Democrats (and not a few Republicans).

Storm-Induced Delinquencies

The Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center has released its November 2017 Housing Finance at a Glance Chartbook. The Introduction looks out how this summer’s big storms have pushed up delinquency rates:

The Mortgage Bankers Association recently released the results of its National Delinquency Survey (NDS) for Q3 2017. The non-seasonally adjusted NDS data for Q3 2017 showed a significant increase in delinquency rates across all past due categories (30-59 days, 60-89 days and 90 days and over). The increase was largest–and most noteworthy–for the 30-59 day category, spiking by 57 basis points from 2.27 percent in Q2 2017 to 2.84 percent in Q3. The D60 rate increased by a much smaller 12 basis points, from 0.74 to 0.86 percent, while the D90 rate increased the least, by 9 basis points, from 1.20 to 1.29 percent. The rise in delinquencies was broad based, affecting FHA, VA and Conventional channels with FHA D30 seeing the largest increase (4.57 to 5.92 percent).
While early payment delinquency rates were expected to increase in the wake of the storms Harvey, Irma and Maria for the affected states, the magnitude of increase in the D30 rate is quite remarkable. The reported Q3 2017 D30 rate is the highest in nearly four years. The 57 basis points increase in a single quarter was also the largest in recent history. The last time D30 rate increased by more than 50 bps in one quarter was in Q4 2000, when it rose by 61 bps. In comparison, both D60 and D90 rates, while slightly higher in Q3, are well within their recent range.
MBA’s state level NDS data confirms that storms were a major driver behind the increase. For Florida, the non-seasonally adjusted D30 rate more than doubled from 2.12 to 4.64 percent, the highest ever D30 rate recorded. The D30 rate for Puerto Rico also nearly doubled from 4.98 to 9.12 percent, while Texas D30 rate increased from 5.05 to 7.38 percent. The increase in FL and PR was larger than in TX because of the statewide impact of hurricanes Irma and Maria. In contrast Harvey’s impact was limited to Houston and surrounding areas. The increase in the D90 rate is not storm-related as not enough time has elapsed since the storms made landfall (Harvey made landfall in Houston on August 25, Irma made landfall in Florida on September 9, and Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20).
Besides storms, there are other factors that are driving the D30 rate higher. As the figure shows, there is a very strong seasonal pattern associated with 30 day delinquencies. The D30 rate typically witnesses an uptick in the second half of each calendar year after declining in the first half because of tax refunds. Another reason for the Q3 increase is that the last day of September was a Saturday, which means that payments received on this day were not processed until Monday Oct 2nd and were identified as past due (mortgage payments are due on the 1st of the month; D30 rate is based on mortgages unpaid as of 30th of the month).
There is one more thing worth pointing out. Many borrowers affected by recent storms have received forbearance plans that allow them to defer mortgage payments for a few months. Under the NDS methodology, these borrowers are considered delinquent. Many will likely resume making monthly payments once they regain their financial footing or after forbearance ends. Others unable to afford payments could get a loan modification. Therefore, although it will take several quarters before the eventual impact of storms on delinquency rates becomes clear, many borrowers who are currently 30-days delinquent might not enter D60 or D90 status.
While the Chartbook does not look at the longer term impact of climate change on mortgage markets, it is clear that policy makers need to account for it in terms of mortgage servicing, flood insurance, land use and building code regulation.

Delaying Trump’s Wall

photo by Jimmysalv

USA Today cited me in No, Cards Against Humanity Can’t Delay Trump’s Border Wall. It opens,

By now you’ve played a rousing game of Cards Against Humanity or at least heard the game makers want to buy land to block the construction of President Trump’s proposed border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

The raunchy game, where people fill in the blank or complete sentences with terrible — but funny — things, pulls a holiday marketing stunt every year. Last year, Cards Against Humanity raised money to dig a hole. Before that, they mailed people boxes filled with actual bulls–t.

This year, they asked for $15 from customers to buy a large plot of land along the U.S./Mexico border for their “Cards Against Humanity Saves America” campaign. The promotion already sold out.

A marketing video implies they would separate acres of land into tiny pieces for each participant, in order to hold the government up in court for years. They want to make the push to build a wall time-consuming and expensive by hiring lawyers to keep the land tied up in court, according to the website.

The only problem is, that’s not how eminent domain works.

“This is a way for them to utilize their popularity with an audience most people assume are either indifferent toward political issues or at the very least unsophisticated about how things get done,” said Steve Silva, an eminent domain and land use attorney for Fennemore Craig law group in Reno. Silva has literally used eminent domain to build a wall.

“It’s got a lot of people literally buying into this issue of significant public importance,” he said.

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows the Federal Government to take property from people for “just compensation.” The amendment favors the government’s ability to take while also protecting an owner’s right to make money. Meaning, property owners must be paid fair-market value for the land.

Determining value is what usually ends up taking years in court, Silva said. TheCongre actual taking of the property takes very little time.

“It’s a two-step process: First thing is that the government has to prove it has the right to take the property,” he said. “Once it establishes that, it can take it immediately.”

The federal government need only establish the land will be used for the public, such as for a large wall owned by the government. Then it can basically take that acreage and start building the wall while fighting out the value in court.

“Congress can also just pass a special bill to take land,” Silva said. “They’ve done that for national parks before. Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court has noted that the U.S. can just seize land summarily by occupying it and ousting the former owner.

“I suspect this sort of move would be really unpopular,” he added.

So, Cards Against Humanity may end up fighting the government for years after the wall is finished.

Even if Cards Against Humanity spreads the ownership of the land out to lots of people — say, thousands of them — the Federal Government can still take the land all at once. But now those individual owners will need to fight each other, Cards Against Humanity and the government for their just compensation.

Since people paid $15 for land, it’s likely they would establish land value and get that $15 back unless Cards Against Humanity somehow improves the land or plans to build a museum, monument or even a parking lot on that space.

But again, that would only increase its value, not slow down the wall’s construction.

In an interview on Mashable.com, law professors David Reiss and Richard Epstein argued the court would reject Cards Against Humanity’ claim over the land because they’re using it for political purposes. But attorneys Silva and Lynn Blais disagree. The game makers are using land as a protest, which should be respected by the court, so their protest shouldn’t matter in eminent domain proceedings.

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)

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.