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.

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?

LawProfs in MERS Litigation

The Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (through Max Weinstein et al.); Melanie Leslie, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law; Joseph William Singer, Harvard Law School; Rebecca Tushnet, Georgetown University Law Center and I filed an amicus brief  (also on SSRN) in County of Montgomery Recorder v. MERSCorp Inc, et al. (3rd Cir. No. 14-4315). The brief argues,

MERS represents a major departure from and grave disruption of recording practices in counties such as Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, that have traditionally ensured the orderly transfer of real property across the country. Prior to MERS, records of real property interests were public, transparent, and provided a secure foundation upon which the American economy could grow. MERS is a privately run recording system created to reduce costs for large investment banks, the “sell-side” of the mortgage industry, which is largely inaccessible to the public. MERS is recorded as the mortgage holder in traditional county records, as a “nominee” for the holder of the mortgage note. Meanwhile, the promissory note secured by the mortgage is pooled, securitized, and transferred multiple times, but MERS does not require that its members enter these transfers into its database. MERS is a system that is “grafted” onto the traditional recording system and could not exist without it, but it usurps the function of county recorders and eviscerates the system recorders are charged with maintaining.

The MERS system was modeled after the Depository Trust Company (DTC), an institution created to hold corporate and municipal securities, but, unlike the DTC, MERS has no statutory basis, nor is it regulated by the SEC. MERS’s lack of statutory grounding and oversight means that it has neither legal authority nor public accountability. By allowing its members to transfer mortgages from MERS to themselves without any evidence of ownership, MERS dispensed with the traditional requirement that purported assignees prove their relationship to the mortgagee of record with a complete chain of mortgage assignments, in order to foreclose. MERS thereby eliminated the rules that protected the rights of mortgage holders and homeowners. Surveys, government audits, reporting by public media, and court cases from across the country have revealed that MERS’s records are inaccurate, incomplete, and unreliable. Moreover, because MERS does not allow public access to its records, the full extent of its system’s destruction of chains of title and the clarity of entitlements to real property is not yet known.

Electronic and paper recording systems alike can contain errors and inconsistencies. Electronic systems have the potential to increase the accessibility and accuracy of public records, but MERS has not done this. Rather, by making recording of mortgage assignments voluntary, and cloaking its system in secrecy, it has introduced unprecedented and perhaps irreparable levels of opacity, inaccuracy, and incompleteness, wreaking havoc on the local title recording systems that have existed in America since colonial times. (2-3)