The Hunger Games: Amazon Edition

photo by SounderBruce

The New York Law Journal published commentary of mine, The Hunger Games: Amazon Edition. It opens,

Last week Amazon finally announced that New York and Northern Virginia would be the sites of its planned major expansion. While many are caught up in the excitement of Amazon bringing 25,000 high-paid jobs to both metropolitan areas, it is worth thinking through the costs that beauty contests like this one impose on state and local governments. Amazon extracted billions of dollars in concessions from the winners and could have extracted even more from some of the other cities courting them.

It is economically rational for companies to create such Hunger Games-type competitions among communities. These competitions reduce their costs and improve their bottom lines. But is it economically rational for the cities? As long as governments are acting independently, yes, it is rational for them to race to the bottom to secure a win. So long as they are a bit better off by snagging the prize than they would have been otherwise, they come out ahead. But the metrics that politicians use are unlikely to be limited to a hard-nosed accounting of costs and increased tax revenues. Positive buzz may be enough to satisfy them.

Consider Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s deal with Foxconn. Just over a year ago, he was touting the $3 billion state subsidy for FoxConn’s manufacturing plant. This was the year leading up to his hard fought election fight, a fight he ultimately lost. His public statements focused on Foxconn’s promise to create 13,000 jobs. While that was a lot of jobs, it was a hell of a lot of subsidy—more than $230,000 per job, more than six times the largest amount Wisconsin had ever paid to subsidize a promised job. Walker got his campaign issue, FoxConn got its $3 billion and Wisconsin residents got … had. The $3 billion dollar subsidy has grown to over $4 billion at the same time that Foxconn is slowing down its investment in Wisconsin. So now taxpayers are subsidizing each job by well over $300,000 each. Nonpartisan analysts have determined that it will take decades, at the earliest, for Wisconsin to recoup its “investment.”

Likewise, hundreds of millions of dollars are thrown at stadiums and arenas even though economists have clearly demonstrated that those investments do not generate a positive financial return for the governments that provide these subsidies. Fancy consultants set forth all of the supposed benefits: job creation, direct spending by all of the people drawn to the facility, indirect spending by those who service the direct spenders. This last metric is meant to capture the increase in restaurant staff, Uber drivers and others who will cater to the new employees, residents and visitors to the facility. But as has been shown time and time again, these metrics are vastly overstated and willingly accepted at face value by politicians eager to generate some good headlines. They also ignore the opportunity cost of the direct subsidies—monies spent on attracting a company is money that can’t be spent on anything else. While we don’t know what it would have been spent on, it is likely to have been public schools, mass transit, roads or affordable housing in many communities.

 

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).

Cracked Foundation for American Households

photo by shaireproductions.com

President Trump’s budget claims to lay A New Foundation for American Greatness. Whatever else it does, when it comes to housing it leads down a path to ruin for many an American family.

Here is just some of what he proposes: cutting housing choice vouchers by almost $1 billion; cutting support for public housing by nearly $2 billion; and getting rid of the entire $3 billion budget for Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). These are all abstract numbers, so it is worth breaking them down to a more human scale.

Vouchers.  Housing choice vouchers help low-income families afford a home. Republicans and Democrats have long supported these vouchers because they help tenants afford apartments that are rented by private landlords, not by public housing agencies. Vouchers are effectively an income subsidy for the poor that must be used for housing alone. The landlord is paid the subsidy and the tenant pays the difference between the subsidy and the rent. These vouchers are administered by local public housing agencies.

Nearly half of vouchers go to families with children, nearly a quarter go to the elderly and another fifth go to disabled adults. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has found that voucher dramatically reduce homelessness. It also found that voucher holders were likely to be in the workforce unless they were elderly or disabled. While vouchers are a very effective subsidy, the federal budget has only provided enough funds for about a quarter of eligible households. Trump’s proposed cuts would cut funding for more than 100,000 families. That’s 100,000 families that may end up homeless as a result.

Public Housing. Public housing has been starved of resources for nearly forty years. While some believe that public housing has been a failure overall, it remains a vital source of housing for the very poor. Trump’s proposed cuts to public housing operating and capital expenses means that these tenants will see their already poorly maintained homes descend deeper into decrepitude. Unaddressed leaks lead to mold; deferred maintenance on boilers leads to no heat in the winter – every building needs some capital repairs to maintain a baseline of habitability.

We must ask ourselves how bad will we allow this housing stock to get before we are overcome by a sense of collective shame. If a private landlord provided housing that was as poorly maintained as much of the public housing stock, it would be on a worst landlords list in local newspapers. The fact that the landlord is the government does not redeem the sin.

CDBG. The Community Development Block Grant funds affordable housing and anti-poverty programs along with community development activities engaged in by local governments. CDBG has broad support from Republicans and Democrats because it provides funds that allow local governments to respond more nimbly to local conditions. Local governments use these funds for basic infrastructure like water and sewer lines, affordable housing and the soft costs involved in planning for their future.

While these expenditures are somewhat abstract, recent press stories have highlighted that CDBG also funds Meals on Wheels for the elderly. While this is not a big portion of the CDBG budget, it does make concrete how those $3 billion are being allocated each year by local communities seeking to help their neediest residents.

*     *     *

Trump’s budget proposal is honest in that it admits to making “substantial changes to the policies and spending priorities of the previous administration . . .” Members of Congress from both parties will now have to weigh in on those substantial changes. Are they prepared to make Trump’s cuts to these housing and community development programs that provide direct aid to their neighbors and local governments? Are they prepared for the increase in homeless that will follow? In the increase in deficits for state and local governments? If not, they should reject President Trump’s spending priorities and focus on budget priorities that support human dignity and compassion as well as a commitment to local responses to address local problems.

Trump, Homelessness and the General Welfare

photo by Jay Black

The Hill published my column, Trump’s Budget Proposal Is Bad News for Housing Across the Nation. It opens,

The White House unveiled its much anticipated budget proposal today. It shows deep cuts to important agencies, including a more than $6 billion decrease in funding to the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). More than 75 percent of the agency’s budget goes to helping families pay their rent. Thus, these cuts would have a negative impact on thousands upon thousands of poor and working class households.

Many years ago, Congress enshrined the “goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family” within its Declaration of National Housing Policy. This goal was not just justified by the basic needs of those with inadequate housing, but also because “the general welfare and security of the nation” required it. As our nation’s leading cities grapple with rapidly growing homeless populations, this additional justification takes on added weight today.

Click here to read the rest of it.

Expectations for Carson at HUD

photo by Gage Skidmore

Dr. Ben Carson

The Christian Science Monitor quoted me in What Could US Cities Expect From Ben Carson as HUD Secretary?

Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon and erstwhile rival of Donald Trump, was nominated Monday by the president-elect to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

If confirmed by the Senate to be secretary of HUD, Carson would oversee a department dedicated to developing and enacting policies on housing, focusing on building community in lower-income neighborhoods, providing financial assistance for homeowners, and preventing racial discrimination in local housing policies.

Reactions to the nomination have fallen largely along party lines, with many Democrats criticizing Carson’s lack of experience, having never held public office before – inexperience that also makes it hard to predict his potential priorities in a Trump administration. But he has been a frequent critic of social welfare programs, saying that church- and community-based initiatives are a better vehicle than government programs for assisting Americans in poverty.

“I am thrilled to nominate Dr. Ben Carson as our next secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development,” Trump said in a statement released by his transition team. “Ben Carson has a brilliant mind and is passionate about strengthening communities and families within those communities. We have talked at length about my urban renewal agenda and our message of economic revival, very much including our inner cities.”

Trump and Carson had discussed the job before Thanksgiving, but Carson initially expressed reluctance to take a position on the cabinet, despite his campaign for the US presidency, because of his lack of experience in a political office. Since then, Carson has evidently overcome those reservations.

“I feel that I can make a significant contribution particularly by strengthening communities that are most in need,” Carson said in the statement.

Carson is the first African-American pick for Trump’s cabinet, and would likely be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Carson’s communication skills give him “the ability to bring the message of poverty alleviation to people nationwide and I hope he would quickly learn the importance of HUD and would try to make it better, stronger, more efficient” Robert C. Moss, the national director of government affairs at CohnReznick, a public accounting firm, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email.

“Carson is a very skilled speaker, maybe one of the best we’ll see in this role,” writes Mr. Moss, who specializes in affordable housing, “and if he hits on the right direction and takes the message around the country, he could help make the case for affordable housing.”

Trump’s campaign did not focus much on housing or urban development, other than to describe the state of poor “inner city” African-Americans and Hispanics as “disastrous” on multiple occasions. Many critics of Carson say that the former Republican presidential candidate ran on a platform of shrinking the role of government agencies like HUD, putting him at philosophical odds with the very department he will be in charge of.

HUD was created in 1965 in order to build stronger communities and create affordable housing for Americans with low incomes. The department was given the responsibility of enforcing the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed most forms of housing discrimination, including racial, religious, or based on family status.

African-Americans, in particular, have experienced decades of housing discrimination, says Professor Reiss.

“Redlining, the practice of refusing to provide credit in minority communities, was implemented on a national scale since the beginning of the New Deal, by government agencies like the Federal Housing Administration,” he says. “Such policies continued on for decades. These policies led, in part, to the disinvestment in cities through the 1960s that impacted African-American communities most of all.”

But some of the HUD’s recent rules have come under criticism for “social engineering.” One particular policy Carson has publicly opposed is the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule adopted by the Obama administration, which requires cities to monitor and report on any housing patterns of racial bias, in an effort to promote less segregated neighborhoods.

“The purpose of the AFFH rule is to reduce segregation which had been caused in part by the federal government’s own actions,” David Reiss, the academic program director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship
 at Brooklyn Law School, tells the Monitor in an email. The secretary of HUD “can signal that fair housing allegations and violations will be taken seriously or not. If Carson is confirmed, it will send a strong signal that local governments do not need to worry about the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule for the foreseeable future.”

Miami Vice?

by Roberlan Borges

REFinBlog has been nominated for the second year in a row for The Expert Institute’s Best Legal Blog Competition in the Education Category.  Please vote here if you like what you read.

The BNA Banking Report quoted me in BofA, Wells Fargo Try to Squelch High-Risk City Bias Suits (behind a paywall). It opens,

Bank of America and Wells Fargo are hoping an Election-Day U.S. Supreme Court argument will help them sidestep allegations of biased lending practices and the massive liability that could follow (Bank of Am. Corp. v. Miami, U.S., No. 15-cv-01111, argument scheduled 11/8/16).

At issue is a 2015 federal appeals court ruling that reinstated a Fair Housing Act lawsuit by the city of Miami. The suit said Bank of America and Wells Fargo made discriminatory home loans that spurred widespread foreclosures while driving tax revenues down and city expenditures skyward.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Nov. 8, with a focus on two questions – whether Miami has the right to assert such claims, and whether it can establish the critical “causal link” by tracing its problems to actions by the banks.

The case is high on the “must-watch” list of banks and consumer advocates. The court’s decision will affect a series of separate lawsuits against Bank of America and Wells Fargo by other cities that are now on hold and awaiting a decision in this case, as well as lawsuits against JPMorgan, Citigroup, and HSBC.

“There are suits all over the country raising these issues,” said Karen McDonald Henning, associate professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. “The potential exposure to banks could be enormous.”

The case also could clarify how the law is applied to address societal wrongs, Henning added in an assessment echoed by Mehrsa Baradaran, associate professor of law at the University of Georgia School of Law in Athens, Ga.

“This could really give the Fair Housing Act some teeth to do away with problems it was meant to remedy,” she said.

Fair Housing Act

According to Miami, Bank of America and Wells Fargo violated the Fair Housing Act in two ways. The city said the banks intentionally discriminated against minority borrowers by targeting them for loans with burdensome terms.

Miami also said the banks’ practices had a disparate impact on minority borrowers that resulted in a disproportionate number of foreclosures and exploitive loans in minority neighborhoods.

Bank of America did not immediately respond to a request for comment ahead of the argument. Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Goyda declined to comment.

Both banks have consistently defended their lending practices, citing efforts to boost community development and trying in some cases to take what Wells Fargo has called “a collaborative approach” when it comes to disputes.

But both banks say the lawsuits are off-base as a matter of law. In its petition to the U.S. Supreme Court in June, Bank of America said the plaintiffs are making demands “based on a multi-step theory of causation that would have made Rube Goldberg proud.”

Risk Goes Local

Even so, if Miami’s suit is allowed to go forward, it could expose global financial institutions to liability from local governments across the nation, said Professor David Reiss of Brooklyn Law School in New York.

That’s new, he said. Although the federal government and state attorneys general have reached multi-billion settlements with banks in the wake of the financial crisis, local governments haven’t had much of a role in those battles, Reiss told Bloomberg BNA.

But if Miami’s suit goes ahead, mortgage lenders could face significant litigation costs and monetary judgments under new theories of liability. “These new theories are independent of the theories relied upon by the federal government and the states and could therefore expand the overall liability of financial institutions from the same underlying set of facts,” Reiss said.

The State of the Union’s Housing in 2016

photo by Lawrence Jackson

The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University has released its excellent annual report, The State of the Nation’s Housing for 2016. It finds,

With household growth finally picking up, housing should help boost the economy. Although homeownership rates are still falling, the bottom may be in sight as the lingering effects of the housing crash continue to dissipate. Meanwhile, rental demand is driving the housing recovery, and tight markets have added to already pressing affordability challenges. Local governments are working to develop new revenue sources to expand the affordable housing supply, but without greater federal assistance, these efforts will fall far short of need. (1)

Its specific findings include,

  • nominal home prices were back within 6 percent of their previous peak in early 2016, although still down nearly 20 percent in real terms. The uptick in nominal prices helped to reduce the number of homeowners underwater on their mortgages from 12.1 million at the end of 2011 to 4.3 million at the end of 2015. Delinquency rates also receded, with the share of loans entering foreclosure down sharply as well. (1)
  • The US homeownership rate has tumbled to its lowest level in nearly a half-century. . . . But a closer look at the forces driving this trend suggests that the weakness in homeownership should moderate over the next few years. (2)
  • The rental market continues to drive the housing recovery, with over 36 percent of US households opting to rent in 2015—the largest share since the late 1960s. Indeed, the number of renters increased by 9 million over the past decade, the largest 10-year gain on record. Rental demand has risen across all age groups, income levels, and household types, with large increases among older renters and families with children. (3)

There is a lot more of value in the report, but I will leave it to readers to locate what is relevant to their own interests in the housing industry.

I would be remiss, though, in not reiterating my criticism of this annual report: it fails to adequately disclose who funded it. The acknowledgments page says that principal funding for it comes from the Center’s Policy Advisory Board, but it does not list the members of the board.

Most such reports have greater transparency about funders, but the interested reader of this report would need to search the Center’s website for information about its funders. And there, the reader would see that the board is made up of many representatives of real estate companies including housing finance giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; national developers, like Hovnanian Enterprises and KB Homes; and major construction suppliers, such as Marvin Windows and Doors and Kohler. Nothing wrong with that, but disclosure of such ties is now to be expected from think tanks and academic centers.  The Joint Center for Housing Studies should follow suit.