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.

Housing and Transportation Affordability Index

The Center for Neighborhood Technology has a Housing and Transportation Affordability Index which

provides a more comprehensive way of thinking about the true affordability of place. It presents housing and transportation data as maps, charts and statistics for 917 metropolitan and micropolitan areas—covering 94% of the US population. Costs can be seen from the regional down to the neighborhood level.

The recent focus on combined housing and transportation costs is very useful when planning affordable housing policies as total housing and transportation costs provide a better guide to housing cost burden than housing costs alone.

The Housing and Transportation Affordability Index

shows that transportation costs vary between and within regions depending on neighborhood characteristics:

  • People who live in location-efficient neighborhoods—compact, mixed-use, and with convenient access to jobs, services, transit and amenities—tend to have lower transportation costs.
  • People who live in location-inefficient places—less dense areas that require automobiles for most trips—are more likely to have higher transportation costs.

The traditional measure of affordability recommends that housing cost no more than 30% of household income. Under this view, a little over half (55%) of US neighborhoods are considered “affordable” for the typical household. However, that benchmark fails to take into account transportation costs, which are typically a household’s second-largest expenditure. The H+T Index offers an expanded view of affordability, one that combines housing and transportation costs and sets the benchmark at no more than 45% of household income.

When transportation costs are factored into the equation, the number of affordable neighborhoods drops to 26%, resulting in a net loss of 59,768 neighborhoods that Americans can truly afford. The key finding from the H+T Index is that household transportation costs are highly correlated with urban environment characteristics, when controlling for household characteristics.

A lot of housing policy rests on the definition of affordability, whether it is that housing cost should be no more than 30% of household income or that housing and transportation costs should be no more than 45% of household income. It would be useful for researchers to take a fresh look at those benchmarks to ensure that they make sense in today’s economy.