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.

 

Expanding Access to Homeownership

New homeowners Lateshia, Sylvia, and Tyrell Walton stand in front of their new home.  U.S. Navy photograph by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Shamus O’Neill

Christopher Herbert et al. has posted Expanding Access to Homeownership as a Means of Fostering Residential Integration and Inclusion. It opens,

Efforts to enable greater integration of communities by socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity have to confront the issue of housing affordability. Cities, towns and neighborhoods that offer access to better public services, transportation networks, shopping, recreational opportunities, parks and other natural amenities have higher housing costs. Expanding access to these communities for those with lower incomes and wealth necessarily entails some means of bringing housing in these areas within their financial reach. While households’ financial means are central to this issue, affordability intersects with race/ethnicity in part because minorities are more likely to be financially constrained. But to the extent that these areas are also disproportionately home to majority-white populations, discrimination and other barriers to racial/ethnic integration must also be confronted along with affordability barriers.

Enabling greater integration also entails some means of fostering residential stability by maintaining affordability in the face of changing neighborhood conditions. This issue is perhaps most salient in the context of neighborhoods that are experiencing gentrification, where historically low-income communities are experiencing rising rents and house values, increasing the risk of displacement of existing residents and blocking access to newcomers with less means. More generally, increases in housing costs in middle- and upper-income communities may also contribute to increasing segregation by putting these areas further out of reach of households with more modest means.

It is common to think of subsidized rental housing as the principal means of using public resources to expand access to higher-cost neighborhoods and to maintain affordability in areas of increasing demand. But for a host of reasons, policies that help to make homeownership more affordable and accessible should be included as part of a portfolio of approaches designed to achieve these goals.

For example, survey research consistently finds that homeownership remains an important aspiration of most renters, including large majorities of low- and moderate-income households and racial/ethnic minorities. Moreover, because owner-occupied homes account for substantial majorities of the existing housing stock in low-poverty and majority-white neighborhoods, expanding access to homeownership offers the potential to foster integration and to increase access to opportunity for low- income households and households of color. There is also solid evidence that homeownership remains an important means of accruing wealth, which in turn can help expand access to higher-cost communities. Owning a home is associated with greater residential stability, in part because it provides protection from rent inflation, which can help maintain integration in the face of rising housing costs. Finally, in communities where owner-occupied housing predominates, there may be less opposition to expanding affordable housing options for homeowners.

The goal of this paper is to identify means of structuring subsidies and other public interventions intended to expand access to homeownership with an eye towards fostering greater socioeconomic and racial/ethnic integration. (1-2, footnotes omitted)

The paper gives an overview of the barriers to increasing the homeownership rate, including affordability, access to credit and information deficits and then outlines policy options to increase homeownership. The paper provides a good overview for those who want to know more about this topic.

 

The Republican Housing Platform

photo by DonkeyHotey

The Republican Party adopted its platform earlier this week.  The short housing platform is worth reading in its entirety:

Responsible Homeownership and Rental Opportunities

Homeownership expands personal liberty, builds communities, and helps Americans create wealth. “The American Dream” is not a stale slogan. It is the lived reality that expresses the aspirations of all our people. It means a decent place to live, a safe place to raise kids, a welcoming place to retire. It bespeaks the quiet pride of those who work hard to shelter their family and, in the process, create caring neighborhoods.

The Great Recession devastated the housing market. U.S. taxpayers paid billions to rescue Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the latter managed and controlled by senior officials from the Carter and Clinton Administrations, and to cover the losses of the poorly-managed Federal Housing Administration. Millions lost their homes, millions more lost value in their homes.

More than six million households had to move from homeownership to renting. Rental costs escalated so that today nearly 12 million families spend more than 50 percent of their incomes just on rent. The national homeownership rate has sharply fallen and the rate for minority households and young adults has plummeted. So many remain unemployed or underemployed, and for the lucky ones with jobs, rising rents make it harder to save for a mortgage.

There is a growing sense that our national standard of living will never be as high as it was in the past. We understand that pessimism but do not share it, for we believe that sound public policies can restore growth to our economy, vigor to the housing market, and hope to those who are now on the margins of prosperity.

Our goal is to advance responsible homeownership while guarding against the abuses that led to the housing collapse. We must scale back the federal role in the housing market, promote responsibility on the part of borrowers and lenders, and avoid future taxpayer bailouts. Reforms should provide clear and prudent underwriting standards and guidelines on predatory lending and acceptable lending practices. Compliance with regulatory standards should constitute a legal safe harbor to guard against opportunistic litigation by trial lawyers.

We call for a comprehensive review of federal regulations, especially those dealing with the environment, that make it harder and more costly for Americans to rent, buy, or sell homes.

For nine years, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been in conservatorship and the current Administration and Democrats have prevented any effort to reform them. Their corrupt business model lets shareholders and executives reap huge profits while the taxpayers cover all loses. The utility of both agencies should be reconsidered as a Republican administration clears away the jumble of subsidies and controls that complicate and distort home-buying.

The Federal Housing Administration, which provides taxpayer-backed guarantees in the mortgage market, should no longer support high-income individuals, and the public should not be financially exposed by risks taken by FHA officials. We will end the government mandates that required Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and federally-insured banks to satisfy lending quotas to specific groups. Discrimination should have no place in the mortgage industry.

Zoning decisions have always been, and must remain, under local control. The current Administration is trying to seize control of the zoning process through its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulation. It threatens to undermine zoning laws in order to socially engineer every community in the country. While the federal government has a legitimate role in enforcing non-discrimination laws, this regulation has nothing to do with proven or alleged discrimination and everything to do with hostility to the self-government of citizens. (4)

Here are some of the policy proposals that I think it gets right: abolishing Fannie and Freddie in their current form as hybrid public/private corporations; implementing regulation that promotes responsible underwriting and protects against predatory lending; and banning discrimination in the credit markets.

There is a lot of coded language in the platform, however. And that coded language may be inconsistent with some of those goals. For instance, the opposition to the Obama Administration’s attempts to reduce de facto segregation in the housing markets through such initiatives as the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulation undercuts the claim that the party opposes discrimination in the housing market.

It will be a long, strange trip to the November election. The direction of federal housing policy must be counted as one of important issues at stake.

Bold New Housing Plan?

photo by Cybershot800i

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

Enterprise Community Partners has released An Investment in Opportunity: A Bold New Vision for Housing Policy in the U.S. I thought it would be useful to highlight its specific proposals to make rental housing affordable for low-income households:

I. ENSURE BROAD ACCESS TO HIGH-OPPORTUNITY NEIGHBORHOODS

  1. Improve the Section 8 program and expand regional mobility programs to help more families with rental assistance vouchers access high-opportunity neighborhoods 
  2. Establish state and local laws banning “source of income” discrimination by landlords and property owners 
  3. Balance the allocation of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and other federal subsidies to both high-opportunity neighborhoods and low-income communities, while creating more opportunities for mixed-income developments 
  4. Establish inclusionary zoning rules at the state and local levels 
  5. Establish state and local regulations that encourage innovation and promote the cost-effective development of multifamily housing 
  6. Incorporate affordable housing considerations into local and regional transportation planning through equitable transit-oriented development

II. PROMOTE COMPREHENSIVE PUBLIC AND PRIVATE INVESTMENTS IN LOW-INCOME NEIGHBORHOODS

  1. Make the public and private investments necessary to preserve existing affordable housing while creating mixed-income communities 
  2. Build capacity of public, private and philanthropic organizations at the local level to pursue cross-sector solutions to the problems facing low-income communities 
  3. Create state and local land banks and other entities to return vacant and abandoned properties to productive use 
  4. Make permanent and significantly expand the New Markets Tax Credit 
  5. Create a new federal tax credit for private investments in community development financial institutions and other community development entities 
  6. Establish federal regulations that encourage “impact investments” in low-income communities by individual and institutional investors

III. RECALIBRATE OUR PRIORITIES IN HOUSING POLICY TO TARGET SCARCE SUBSIDY DOLLARS WHERE THEY’RE NEEDED MOST

  1.  Reform the Mortgage Interest Deduction and other federal homeownership subsidies to ensure that scarce resources are targeted to the families who are most in need of assistance 
  2. Gradually double annual allocations of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and provide additional gap financing to support the expansion 
  3. Significantly expand funding to Section 8 vouchers to ensure that the most vulnerable households in the U.S. have access to some form of rental assistance 
  4. Expand funding to the Housing Trust Fund and the Capital Magnet Fund as part of any effort to reform America’s mortgage finance system 
  5. Break down funding silos to encourage public investments in healthy and affordable housing for recipients of Medicaid 
  6. Create permanent funding sources at the state and local level to support affordable housing

IV. IMPROVE THE OVERALL FINANCIAL STABILITY OF LOW-INCOME HOUSEHOLDS

  1. Establish minimum wages at the federal, state and local levels that reflect the reasonable cost of living for each community 
  2. Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit and other essential income supports to America’s low-wage workers 
  3. Create a new federal fund to help test and scale innovative financial products that encourage low-income households to save, with a primary focus on unrestricted emergency savings 
  4. Help more low-income families build strong credit histories 
  5. Establish strong protections against predatory financial products

Not sure if I could really categorize this as “bold.” “Unrealistic” seems more apt in today’s political environment. Indeed, it reads like a wishlist drafted by a committee.

That being said, I think that Enterprise’s vision is helpful in a variety of ways. First, it offers a pretty comprehensive list of policies and programs that that can be used to  make housing more affordable. Second, it recognizes income inequality is a big part of the problem for low-income households. Third, it acknowledges that current federal housing policy favors wealthy households (cf. mortgage interest deduction) over the poor. Finally, it acknowledges that restrictive local land use policies inflate the cost of housing.

I wonder if a bolder plan would be just to fully fund Section 8 so that all low-income households were able to afford a safe and well-maintained home. Probably just as unrealistic as Enterprise’s vision, but it has the virtue of being simple to understand and execute.

Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning in NYC

"East New York" by MMZach

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer issued an analysis of Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and the East New York Rezoning. It opens,

In an effort to address the City’s ongoing affordable housing crisis, the New York City Planning Commission is currently proposing a series of zoning changes, including Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) and Zoning for Quality  and Affordability (ZQA), for potential application in communities across the city. One neighborhood targeted for significant redevelopment is the East New York/Cypress Hill area of Brooklyn. While many Community Boards have already expressed a variety of concerns about the proposed rezonings, the ultimate question comes down to this: does the proposal help or hurt the existing affordability crisis — in East New York and across the five boroughs? (1)

The analysis concludes that “the City’s own data shows that the current plan could inadvertently displace tens of thousands of families in East New York, the vast majority of whom will be unable to afford the relatively small number of new units that will be built.” (1)

In place of the Mayor’s plan, the Comptroller proposes the following principles, among others:

  • target density to sites primed for affordable housing
  • ensure affordability for existing, low-income residents

While the Comptroller is right to highlight the impact of zoning changes on existing residents, his principles do not seem to lead to a better result for a city starved of new housing. Targeting density to sites primed for affordable housing will result in many fewer housing units because it applies to far fewer parcels. Ensuring affordability for existing, low-income residents will mean that subsidy dollars will have to be concentrated on fewer units of affordable housing.

This debate between the Mayor and the Comptroller highlights two key issues. First, every plan to increase affordable housing has winners and losers. Second, affordable housing policies almost always have to choose between providing moderate subsidies to many units or deep subsidies to fewer units. While the Comptroller’s analysis highlights those tensions in the Mayor’s plan, it does not acknowledge them within its own. There are no easy answers here and those who are truly committed to increasing the supply of affordable housing in NYC must make sure not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Tax Incentives for Sustainable Homeownership

Harris, Steuerle and Eng have published New Perspectives on Homeownership Tax Incentives in Tax Notes. The report presents

three tax reforms designed to promote homeownership that are fundamentally different from earlier proposals. Many of those earlier proposals would convert existing deductions into credits but would mistakenly, in our view, perpetuate flaws in the current system — namely, the failure to adequately promote the accumulation of home equity. The reforms examined here instead share the common characteristic of subsidizing homeownership through a channel other than the deductibility of mortgage interest, which is the largest tax expenditure for housing. These reforms include a first-time home buyer tax credit, a refundable tax credit for property taxes paid, and an annual flat amount tax credit for homeowners — all largely paid for by restricting the home mortgage interest deduction to a rate of 15 percent. Although far from perfect, these reforms would provide a better and more efficient allocation of housing subsidies and ultimately provide a somewhat larger incentive for wealth accumulation than current policy does. Our simulations show that relative to existing incentives, each policy would raise home prices and make the tax code more progressive. (1315)

This report has some drawbacks, such as overstating the case that empirical studies reinforce “the notion that homeownership improves American communities.” (1315) In fact, the empirical literature is decidedly ambiguous about the spillover and wealth accumulation effects of homeownership, particularly when the last few years are taken into account (I discuss these ambiguities here).

But the report also presents some creative ways to change the incentives that are found in the tax code. They argue, for instance, that it is better to incentivize the accumulation of home equity than unfettered mortgage borrowing. And they make proposals that would do just that.  Worth a read.