Planning for a Wetter Future

 

picture by Charly W. Karl

Enterprise has issued Safer and Stronger Cities: Strategies for Advocating for Federal Resilience Policy. The report

offers a menu of federal recommendations organized into five chapters focusing on infrastructure, housing, economic development and public safety. Each chapter includes a set of strategies, background on the issue, explanations of the role of the Federal Government, listing of potential allies in advocating for the recommendations, and relevant examples of current or previous local, state, and federal actions.

To better support city resilience, these recommendations include high level proposals for cities to coordinate with federal government for both legislative and agency actions, which cities can drive forward. Policy and program changes will increase or leverage investment from the private sector are highlighted. (2)

The report recommends, among other things, that the federal government should

  1. Create a National Infrastructure Bank that supports private-public investments in resilient infrastructure, including retrofits.
  2. Align cost-benefit analyses across federal agencies and require agencies to consider the full life cycle costs and benefits of infrastructure over the asset’s design life and in consideration of future conditions.
  3. Cultivate partnerships between cities and the Defense Department to promote resilience of city assets that are critical to national security and military installations.
  4. Implement a system that scores infrastructure based on its resilience to better prioritize scarce federal funds.
  5. Coordinate Federal Government grant-making and permitting related to hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. (10)

These are good proposals, no question about it. I am not too optimistic that the current leadership in Washington will heed any of them. Local partnerships with the Defense Department might have some legs in today’s environment though, particularly given recent news reports about foreign hacking into the electrical grid.

Even those who discount the global risks arising from climate change should acknowledge the need to bolster the resiliency of our coastal cities. Let’s hope we start planning for a wetter future sooner rather than later.

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).

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.

Consumer Protection Changes in 2017

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Business News Daily quoted me in 6 Big Regulatory Changes That Could Affect Your Business in 2017. It reads, in part,

It’s a new year and there’s a new incoming administration. That means there are likely some big-time regulation changes in the pipeline, not to mention changes that were already on the agenda. Some proposals will fail, while others will pass, but all of them could significantly affect your business in 2017 and beyond.

Top of the list this year are the potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the currently suspended change in Department of Labor overtime regulations, and minimum wage or paid sick leave efforts at local and state levels. However, there are a bevy of other potential changes on the horizon that the savvy entrepreneur should be aware of as well.

Here are some of the proposals we’re keeping an eye on this year, and how they might affect small businesses.

*     *     *

3. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) arbitration rules

Proposed rules from the federal CFPB would prohibit what are known as mandatory arbitration clauses in financial products. Those clauses essentially prevent consumers from filing class-action lawsuits against the company in the event that something goes wrong. The rules would instead leave people to litigate on their own, a time-consuming, costly endeavor that often has very little payoff in the end.

“It is expected that the Obama administration will issue the final rule before President-elect Trump’s inauguration,” David Reiss, research director of the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at the Brooklyn Law School, said. “Entrepreneurs with consumer credit cards should expect that they could join class actions involving financial products. They should also expect that credit card companies will be more careful in setting the terms of their agreements, given this regulatory change.”

Reiss added that the final adoption or rejection of these rules is also subject to the Congressional Review Act, which empowers Congress to invalidate new federal regulations. Even if the rules were adopted, Congress could ultimately reject them.

“Republicans have been very critical of the proposed rule, which they see as anti-business,” Reiss said.

Two Cheers for Obama’s Housing Development Toolkit

photo by Daniel Schwen

As the Obama Administration nears the end, the White House released a Housing Development Toolkit. It opens,

Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified, particularly in the high-growth metropolitan areas increasingly fueling the national economy. The accumulation of such barriers – including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes – has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions. By modernizing their approaches to housing development regulation, states and localities can restrain unchecked housing cost growth, protect homeowners, and strengthen their economies.

Locally-constructed barriers to new housing development include beneficial environmental protections, but also laws plainly designed to exclude multifamily or affordable housing. Local policies acting as barriers to housing supply include land use restrictions that make developable land much more costly than it is inherently, zoning restrictions, off-street parking requirements, arbitrary or antiquated preservation regulations, residential conversion restrictions, and unnecessarily slow permitting processes. The accumulation of these barriers has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand.

Accumulated barriers to housing development can result in significant costs to households, local economies, and the environment. (2, emphasis in original)

Glaeser & Gyourko identified the tension between local land use policies and federal affordable housing policies a long time ago, but the federal government has never really done much about it. To its credit, the Obama Administration had touched on it recently, but never in this much depth. So one cheer for the toolkit’s focus on local land use policy as an issue of national concern.

And a second cheer for highlighting actions that states and local governments can take to promote more dynamic housing markets. They include,

  • Establishing by-right development
  • Taxing vacant land or donate it to non-profit developers
  • Streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines
  • Eliminate off-street parking requirements
  • Allowing accessory dwelling units
  • Establishing density bonuses
  • Enacting high-density and multifamily zoning
  • Employing inclusionary zoning
  • Establishing development tax or value capture incentives
  • Using property tax abatements (3)

I withhold the last cheer because the toolkit spends no time discussing how the federal government could use its immense set of incentives to encourage state and local governments to take steps to increase the housing supply in high-growth areas. The federal government used such incentives to raise the drinking age and it did it to lower the speed limit. Isn’t the nation’s affordable housing crisis important enough that we should use incentives (such as preferred access to HUD funds) to spur development that is good for Americans collectively as well as for so many Americans individually?

The Land Use Report of the President

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The Economic Report of the President contains an important analysis of local land use policies in a section titled “Constraints on Housing Supply:”

Supply constraints provide a structural challenge in the housing market, particularly in high-mobility, economically vibrant cities. When housing supply is constrained, it has less room to expand when demand increases, leading to higher prices and lower affordability. Limits on new construction can, in turn, impede growth in local labor markets and restrain aggregate output growth. Some constraints on the supply of housing come from geography, while others are man-made. Constraints due to land-use regulations, such as minimum lot size requirements, height restrictions, and ordinances prohibiting multifamily housing, fall into the man-made category and thus could be amended to support more inclusive growth. While these regulations can sometimes serve legitimate purposes such as the protection of human health and safety and the prevention of environmental degradation, land-use regulations can also be used to protect vested interests in housing markets.

Gyourko and Molloy (2015) argue that supply constraints have worsened in recent decades, in large part due to more restrictive land-use regulations. House prices have risen faster than construction costs in real terms, providing indirect evidence that land-use regulations are pushing up the price of land.

According to Gyourko and Molloy (2015), between 2010 and 2013, real house prices were 55 percent above real construction costs, compared with an average gap of 39 percent during the 1990s. Several other studies note that land-use regulations have been increasing since roughly 1970, driving much of the real house appreciation that has occurred over this time (Glaeser, Gyourko, and Saks 2005; Glaeser and Ward 2009; Been et al. 2014). This pattern is noteworthy because of the positive correlation between cities’ housing affordability and the strictness of their land use regulations, as measured by the Wharton Residential Land Use Regulation Index (Gyourko et al. 2008). Cities to the lower right of the figure which include Boston and San Francisco, have stringent land-use regulations and low affordability. Cities at the upper left, which include St. Louis and Cleveland, have low regulation and high affordability. Supply constraints by themselves do not make cities low in affordability. Rather, the less responsive housing supply that results from regulation prevents these cities, which often happen to be desirable migration destinations for workers looking for higher-paying jobs, from accommodating a rise in housing demand.

In addition to housing affordability, these regulations have a range of impacts on the economy, more broadly. Reduced housing affordability—whether as an ancillary result of regulation or by design—prevents individuals from moving to high productivity areas. Indeed, empirical evidence from Molloy, Smith, and Wozniak (2012) indicates that migration across all distances in the United States has been in decline since the middle of the 1980s. This decreased labor market mobility has important implications for intergenerational economic mobility (Chetty et al. 2014) and also was estimated in recent research to have held back current GDP by almost 10 percent (Hsieh and Moretti 2015).

Land-use regulations may also make it more difficult for the housing market to accommodate shifts in preferences due to changing demographics, such as increased demand for modifications of existing structures due to aging and increased demand for multifamily housing due to higher levels of urbanization (Goodman et al. 2015). A number of Administration initiatives, ranging from the Multifamily Risk-Sharing Mortgage program to the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, try to facilitate the ability of housing supply to respond to housing demand. Ensuring that zoning and other constraints do not prevent housing supply from growing in high productivity areas will be an important objective of Federal as well as State and local policymakers. (87-89, figures omitted and emphasis added)

It is important in itself that the Executive Branch of the federal government has acknowledged the outsized role that local land use policies play in the economy. But the policies that the Obama Administration has implemented don’t go very far in addressing the problems caused by myopic land use policies that favor vested interests. The federal government can be far more aggressive in rewarding local land use policies that support equitable housing and economic development goals. It can also punish local land use policies that hinder those goals.

Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko get much of the credit for demonstrating the effect that local land use policies have on federal housing policy. Now that the President is listening to them, we need Congress to pay attention too. This could be one of those rare policy areas where Democrats and  Republicans can find common ground.

California Dreamin’ of Affordable Housing

Architecturist

Just A Dream for Many

Yesterday, I blogged about the affordable housing crisis in New York City. Today, I look at a report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, How Housing Vouchers Can Help Address California’s Rental Crisis. It opens,

California’s severe shortage of affordable housing has hit low-income renters particularly hard. Nearly 1.6 million low-income California renter households paid more than half of their income for housing in 2013, and this number has risen 28 percent since 2007. While the shortage is most severe on California’s coast, many families throughout California struggle to pay the rent. A multifaceted approach with roles for local, state, and federal governments is needed to address the severe affordable housing shortage, but the federal Housing Choice Voucher program can play an outsized role.

California’s high housing costs stretch struggling families’ budgets, deepening poverty and hardship and exacerbating a host of other problems. For example, 23 percent of Californians are poor, according to Census measures that take housing costs into account, well above the poverty rate of 16 percent under the official poverty measure. California has 14 percent of the nation’s renter households but nearly 30 percent of the overcrowded renters. And California has one-fifth of the nation’s homeless people, more than any other state. A large body of research shows that poverty, overcrowding, housing instability, and homelessness can impair children’s health and development and undermine their chances of success in school and later in the workforce.

Housing vouchers help some 300,000 low-income California families afford the rent, more than all other state and federal rental assistance programs combined. Vouchers reduce poverty, homelessness, and housing instability. They can also help low-income families — particularly African American and Hispanic families — raise their children in safer, lower-poverty communities and avoid neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. Moreover, so-called “project-based” vouchers can help finance the construction of affordable rental housing in areas with severe shortages.

Yet the number of vouchers in use has fallen in recent years, even as California’s housing affordability problems have worsened. Due to across-the-board federal budget cuts enacted in 2013 (called sequestration), 14,620 fewer California families used vouchers in December 2014 than in December 2012. By restoring funding for these vouchers, Congress can enable thousands more California families to afford safe, stable housing. (1, reference omitted)

Really, the analysis here is not California-specific. The authors are arguing that low-income families benefit greatly from rental subsidies and that Congress should restore funding for housing vouchers because they provide targeted, effective assistance to their users. While California has a high concentration of voucher users, all low-income renter households would benefit from an increase in the number of housing vouchers. No argument there.

I am disappointed that the report does not address an issue that I highlighted yesterday — attractive places like NYC and California continue to draw a range of people from global elites to low-income strivers. Policymakers cannot think of the affordable housing problems in such places as one that can be “fixed.” Rather, it must be seen as, to a large extent, a symptom of success.

So long as more and more people want to live in such places, housing costs will pose a challenge. Housing costs can be mitigated to some extent in hot destinations, but they are hard to solve. And if they are to be solved, those destinations must be willing to increase density to build enough units to house all the people who want to live there.