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)

Leverage in a Tight Market

photo by Rex Pe

TheStreet.com quoted me in Home Shoppers Seeking Leverage in a Tight Market. It opens,

Homebuyers have faced tight supply issues this year, and obtaining leverage in this market has been challenging.

The lower inventories pushed sales in July down by 3%, according to the National Association of Realtors, a Chicago-based trade organization. The decline has resulted in sales falling back to levels in March and April with an annualized pace of 5.39 million, bringing the sales pace down by 2% from July 2015. The level of inventory of homes for sale has declined by 6%.
As the faster summer buying pace has moved into the fall phase when there are fewer buyers, consumers have a greater advantage as homes are on the market longer. For both May and June, the listings stayed on Realtor.com a median of 65 days. By July, that figure rose to 68 days and August brings even more options and should end at 72 days. The reduction of inventory has occurred for 47 consecutive months, helping sellers, but restricting options for buyers.

For homebuyers who want to nab their dream house in the neighborhood they have been eyeing, they still have leverage, but here are some tips to improve the process.

Home Buying Tips

Before consumers start shopping, they should work on improving their finances and avoid making any large purchases such as a car. After finding out your FICO score, the goal is to find ways for it to rise above 700, which means you will qualify with more lenders and obtain a lower interest rate, saving you thousands of dollars, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for realtor.com, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based real estate company.

Determine how much you can carve out of your savings for a down payment, but still maintain six months of emergency funds, especially if you are buying an older home which may have unexpected repairs.

The average down payment in 2016 is 11% across the U.S., but it depends vastly on the market and loan you are seeking.

“If you are struggling to come up with a down payment necessary for your market or type of mortgage, research down payment assistance programs,” he said. “Get all of your financial records organized, including recent bank and financial statements, the last two years of income tax filings and pay statements.”

There are many opportunities available since mortgage rates remain near historic lows and are unlikely to see substantial moves soon.

“The buying opportunity is still substantial and now the annual cycle means you will face less competition on homes that are on the market,” Smoke said.

Sellers want to see serious buyers, so getting pre-approved from a lender is important.

“A pre-approval letter as part of an offer will communicate to the seller that you have the ability to close,” he said.

Sellers still have an advantage and even though there are fewer potential buyers with fall right around the corner, the existing inventory remains low, so getting a house under contract can still be problematic, Smoke said.

“Don’t expect sellers to feel desperate,” he said. “Sellers may still act like it is the spring. Listen to the advice of your realtor on the composition of the initial offer so that you are more likely to keep the conversation going rather than face complete rejection.”

While you continue to search for another home, maintain your savings and increase the amount of your down payment and keep paying down your credit cards and student loans. Consumers who will be receiving a bonus in December should include these funds it into their down payment. If the interest rates for your credit card rates are fairly low, consider bulking up your down payment since mortgage rates are very low, said Colby Sambrotto, president of USRealty.com, a New York-based online real estate broker. said. These measures will help increase your odds as you house hunt.

“Ask your lender to recalculate your loan preapproval to reflect your updated debt-to-income ratio and the greater amount you can put down,” he said. “That can reframe your search parameters.”

Down payment assistance is available through employer and community group programs. Some companies will offer loans if you remain employed there for a certain number of years, said Sambrotto. A good source for more information about various programs is Down Payment Resource.

“The loans are usually geared to encourage employees to buy around a certain area, usually within walking distance of the employer,” he said.

Location is Key

Transportation can emerge as a “hidden cost” if your commute includes costly tolls or you want quicker access to cultural and sporting events, schools for children, shopping districts and professional education opportunities.

“Narrow your search to neighborhoods that offer economical options for commuting and routine errands,” Sambrotto said. “Look for neighborhood groups on Facebook and ask to join the conversation so you can quiz current residents about the true cost of living in that area.”

While homeowners might prefer a standard standalone house, a two-family duplex might be a better option, said David Reiss, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School in New York. These homes have a clear advantage because they generate investment income along with various financing, tax and capital gains advantages which the traditional single-family house does not have.

“Think through your preferences and then take a fresh look at the market,” he said. “You might have that idealized picket-fenced house in mind, but a duplex will expand the number of houses you can look at. They also bring along all sorts of additional maintenance responsibilities with them, so they are not right for everyone.”

New Housing and Displacement

Lsanburn

The Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley has issued a research brief, Housing Production, Filtering and Displacement: Untangling the Relationships. It opens,

Debate over the relative importance of subsidized and market-rate housing production in alleviating the current housing crisis continues to preoccupy policymakers, developers, and advocates. This research brief adds to the discussion by providing a nuanced analysis of the relationship between housing production, affordability, and displacement in the San Francisco Bay Area, finding that:

• At the regional level, both market-rate and subsidized housing reduce displacement pressures, but subsidized housing has over double the impact of market-rate units.

• Market-rate production is associated with higher housing cost burden for low-income households, but lower median rents in subsequent decades.

• At the local, block group level in San Francisco, neither market-rate nor subsidized housing production has the protective power they do at the regional scale, likely due to the extreme mismatch between demand and supply.

Although more detailed analysis is needed to clarify the complex relationship between development, affordability, and displacement at the local scale, this research implies the importance of not only increasing production of subsidized and market-rate housing in California’s coastal communities, but also investing in the preservation of housing affordability and stabilizing vulnerable communities. (1)

This brief takes on an important subject — the relationship between new housing and displacement — and concludes,

There is no denying the desperate need for housing in California’s coastal communities and similar housing markets around the U.S. Yet, while places like the Bay Area are suffering from ballooning housing prices that are affecting people at all income levels, the development of market-rate housing may not be the most effective tool to prevent the displacement of low-income residents from their neighborhoods, nor to increase affordability at the neighborhood scale.

Through our analysis, we found that both market-rate and subsidized housing development can reduce displacement pressures, but subsidized housing is twice as effective as market-rate development at the regional level. It is unclear, however, if subsidized housing production can have a protective effect on the neighborhood even for those not fortunate enough to live in the subsidized units themselves.

By looking at data from the region and drilling down to local case studies, we also see that the housing market dynamics and their impact on displacement operate differently at these different scales. Further research and more detailed data would be needed to better understand the mechanisms via which housing production affects neighborhood affordability and displacement pressures. We know that other neighborhood amenities such as parks, schools, and transit have a significant impact on housing demand and neighborhood change and it will take additional research to better untangle the various processes at the local level.

In overheated markets like San Francisco, addressing the displacement crisis will require aggressive preservation strategies in addition to the development of subsidized and market-rate housing, as building alone won’t protect specific vulnerable neighborhoods and households. This does not mean that we should not continue and even accelerate building. However, to help stabilize existing communities we need to look beyond housing development alone to strategies that protect tenants and help them stay in their homes. (10-11, footnote omitted)

The brief struggles with a paradox of housing — how come rents keep going up in neighborhoods with lots of new construction? The answer appears to be that the broad regional demand for housing in a market like the Bay Area or New York City overwhelms the local increase in housing supply. The new housing, then, just acts like a signal of gentrification in the neighborhoods in which it is located.

If I were to criticize this brief, I would say that it muddies the waters a bit as to what we need in hot markets like SF and NYC: first and foremost, far more housing units. In the absence of a major increase in supply, there will be intense market pressure to increase rents or convert units to condominiums. Local governments will have a really hard time overcoming that pressure and may just watch as area median income rises along with rents. New housing may not resolve the problem of large-scale displacement, but it will be hard to address displacement without it. Preservation policies should be pursued as well, but the only long-term solution is a lot more housing.

I would also say that the brief elides over the cost of building subsidized housing when it argues that subsidized housing has twice the impact of market-rate units on displacement. The question remains — at what cost? Subsidized housing is extremely expensive, often costing six figures per unit for new housing construction. The brief does not tackle the question of how many government dollars are needed to stop the displacement of one low-income household.

My bottom line: this brief begins to untangle the relationship between housing production and displacement, but there is more work to be done on this topic.

High and Low Property Taxes

photo by JRPG

Newsmax quoted me in Lowest Property Tax Is Hawaii and the Highest Is New Jersey. It reads, in part,

The average American household spends $2,089 on real estate property taxes each year and residents of the 27 states with vehicle property taxes shell out another $423, according to the National Tax Lien Association.

However, some states cost more than others when it comes to the American Dream and its staples of a house and car.

“Different parts of the country have different levels of taxation and amenities paid for by the tax receipts,” said David Reiss, professor of law and research director with the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.

The state with the lowest real estate property taxes is Hawaii where residents pay only $482 per household, which is the least average amount typically shelled out by a taxpayer, according to a 2016 WalletHub study, ranking states with the highest and lowest property taxes.

“High property taxes tend to be correlated with high income and high income tends to be correlated with Blue States, so it is not surprising that high property taxes are correlated with Blue States,” Reiss said.

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“Local property taxes can help pay for all sorts of municipal services, including schools, road maintenance and emergency services,” Reiss said.

Alabama, Louisiana and Delaware, D.C. and South Carolina follow Hawaii among the states with the lowest property taxes.

High tax localities, such as Westchester County in New York, could have annual taxes that easily are in the tens of thousands of dollars a year range but such areas also have some of the best schools in the nation.

The WalletHub report further found that in Blue states, real estate property taxes are 39% higher at $2,250 a year than homeowners in Red states who pay $1,613.

The yearly burden weighs far more heavily on taxpayers in some states than in others based on region.

For example, communities in the Northeast typically have higher property taxes than many of those in the rest of the country.

“Monthly mortgage payments are usually much higher than monthly real property tax payments, measuring in the high hundreds in low-cost metros like Pittsburgh to the thousands in a high-cost metro like San Francisco so it is hard to put default rates squarely on the shoulders of real property taxes,” said Reiss.

Silicon Valley’s Housing Crisis

photo by Smitha Murthy

Drop in the Bucket?

Realtor.com quoted me in Could There Really Be Relief Ahead for Silicon Valley’s Housing Crisis? It opens,

Finally! A glimmer of hope has appeared in Silicon Valley’s housing crisis. Amid gloomy and downright terrifying stories about astronomical home prices and tighter-than-tight inventories forcing well-paid tech workers to live in vans, pay $2 million for a tear-down shack, or ponder commuting to work from Las Vegas, there seems to be some good news for a change: City Council members in Mountain View, CA, approved plans to build 10,250 new homes in the area.

Given that Mountain View has only about 32,000 homes total, this will increase its housing inventory by a whopping 32%—all purportedly within “walking distance” (possibly a bit of a long walk) of tech giant Google, which has long been lobbying on this front and will no doubt break out the Champagne once developers break ground. Sure, it may be years before these homes become a reality, but even the idea of them may have many locals (or those moving there) daring to dream. Might this new influx of housing cause home prices to drop within reasonable reach?

As logical as this renewed optimism about Silicon Valley’s housing market might seem, experts aren’t so sure home prices will budge all that much.

“This news in itself will not drive down prices much,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “While a 10,000-unit commitment is significant, Silicon Valley as a whole has about 3 million people living there.”

So if you consider the population of the entire area—many of whom would likely kill to move to Mountain View—10,000 new houses would house only 0.3% of these people. For you math-challenged, that’s less than a measly half-percent! 

And even though the number of homes may be edging upward, so are the number of people moving there.

“Silicon Valley remains a booming economy, so it’s likely that the population will continue to grow, further driving up prices,” Reiss continues.

As further evidence that more homes doesn’t necessarily lead to cheaper home prices, Florida Realtor® Cara Ameer points to another historically hot market: New York City.

“In New York, more new buildings has had no impact on housing prices or rents,” she says. If anything, the only change New Yorkers noticed is their neighborhood got a lot more cramped. The same will likely be true for picture-perfect Mountain View.

“The biggest thing people will see is increased congestion,” says Amer, “with many more residents, cars, and the need for schools and additional services.”

In fact, fears of overcrowding might even galvanize current homeowners in the area to show up en force at future City Council meetings to fight the greenlighting of additional developments—that is, unless they’re out-muscled by employee-hungry firms such as Google.

“As key businesses realize that the lack of housing is hurting their ability to recruit and retain good employees, it is possible that Mountain View’s decision is a harbinger for more pro-development decisions throughout Silicon Valley,” Reiss explains. “Current homeowners, called ‘homevoters,’ tend to make their anti-growth views known to local officials, but once the interests of local businesses focus on the lack of workforce housing, it can change the dynamics.

“These are powerful companies. The result is that those decisions can become more pro-growth than is typical for suburban communities.”

Reiss on Homes as Investments

US News and World Report quoted me in Is Your Home a Sound Investment? It reads in part,

Whether it’s beautiful new construction or a rehabbed fixer-upper, the place we call home demands time, attention and upkeep over the years. All this can enhance its value, and to be sure, Rich Arzaga inhabits a fabulous residence in San Ramon, California. The founder and CEO of Cornerstone Wealth Management estimates that its value approaches $1.9 million. The 5,400 square-foot abode boasts a swimming pool and a built-in barbecue, and has undergone more than a half-million dollars in improvements since he purchased it in 2005.

He considers the money well-spent: But does his home a double as a sound financial investment? As much as Arzaga loves his lodgings, he’d also argue that homeownership doesn’t translate into a smart addition to his portfolio – or anyone else’s, for that matter.

“We have seen many scenarios where a family would be much better off today, and in the future, renting,” Arzaga says. “Most people who insist that owning is a great investment are purely emotional on the matter and have not done any serious overall calculation. They are blinded by a feeling.”

Arzaga says he’s got the statistical analyses to back up his assertions. Yet expert opinion varies greatly as to whether a home represents a great investment. No single answer reflects a one-size-fits-all scenario any more than a cute brick bungalow resembles a sprawling suburban mansion.

*     *     *

Still, others pit themselves on both sides of the debate over the value of homeownership from an investment angle. “My view is that a home is not an investment, but it can certainly be a profitable noninvestment,” says David Reiss, a professor of law and research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.

Reiss maintains that the notion of “value” should revolve around financially intangible factors, although certainly, those could increase a home’s value over time. “Are there good schools and playgrounds for your kids? Is it near your job and your social network? If the answer is no, that’s a good reason to pass on a house that seems like a good deal,” he says.