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.

The Housing Market Under Trump

photo by http://401kcalculator.org

TheStreet.com quoted me in Interest Rates Likely to Rise Under Trump, Could Affect Confidence of Homebuyers. It opens,

Interest rates should increase gradually during the next four years under a Donald Trump administration, which could dampen growth in the housing industry, economists and housing experts predict.

The 10-year Treasury rose over the 2% threshold on Wednesday for the first time in several months, driving mortgage rates higher with the 30-year conventional rate rising to 3.73% according to Bankrate.com. Mortgage pricing is tied to the 10-year Treasury.

Housing demand will remain flat with a rise in interest rates as many first-time homebuyers will be saddled with more debt, said Peter Nigro, a finance professor at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I.

“With first-time homebuyers more in debt due to student loans, I don’t expect much growth in home purchasing,” he said.

Interest rates will also be affected by the size of the fiscal stimulus since additional infrastructure spending and associated debt “could push interest rates up through the issuance of more government debt,” Nigro said.

Even if interest rates spike in the next year, banks will not benefit, because there is a lack of demand, said Peter Borish, chief strategist with Quad Group, a New York-based financial firm. The economy is slowing down, and consumers have already borrowed money at very “cheap” interest rates, he said.

The policies set forth by a Trump administration will lead to contractionary results and will not spur additional growth in the housing market.

“I prefer to listen to the markets,” Borish said. “This will put downward pressure on the prices in the market. Everyone complained about Dodd-Frank, but why is JPMorgan Chase’s stock at all time highs?”

An interest rate increase could still occur in December, said Jonathan Smoke, chief economist for Realtor.com, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based real estate company. With nearly five weeks before the December Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting, the market can contemplate the potential outcomes.

“While the market is now indicating a reduced probability of a short-term rate hike at that meeting, the Fed has repeatedly indicated that they would be data-driven in their decision,” he said in a written statement. “If the markets calm down and November employment data look solid on December 2, a rate hike could still happen. The market moves yesterday are already indicating that financial markets are pondering that the Trump effect could be positive for the economy.

“The Fed is likely to start increasing the federal funds rate at a “much faster pace starting next year,” said K.C. Sanjay, chief economist for Axiometrics, a Dallas-based apartment market and student housing research firm. “This will cause single-family mortgage rates to increase slightly, however they will remain well below the long-term average.”

Since Trump has remained mum on many topics, including housing, predicting a short-term outlook is challenging. One key factor is the future of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who are the main players in the mortgage market, because they own or guarantee over $4 trillion in mortgages, remain in conservatorship and “play a critical role in keeping mortgage rates down through the now explicit subsidy or government backing which allows them to raise funds more cheaply,” Nigro said.

It is unlikely any changes will occur with them, because “Trump has not articulated a plan to deal with them and coming up with a plan to deal with these giants is unlikely,” he said.

Trump could attempt to take on government sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, said Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist for Trulia, a San Francisco-based real estate website.

“If he does, it’s going to be a hairy endeavor for him, because he’ll need bipartisan support to do so,” he said.

Since he has alluded to ending government conservatorship and allowing government sponsored enterprises to “recapitalize by allowing retention of their own profits instead of passing them on to the Treasury,” the result is that banks could have their liquidity and lending activity increase, which could help boost demand for homes, McLaughlin said.

“We caution President-elect Trump that he would also need to simultaneously help address housing supply, which has been at a low point over the past few years,” he said. “The difficulty for him is that most of the impediments to new housing supply rest and the state and local levels, not the federal.”

Even on Trump’s campaign website, there is “next to nothing” about his ideas on housing, said David Reiss, a law professor at the Brooklyn Law School in New York. The platform of the Republican Party and Vice President-elect Mike Pence could mean that the federal government will have a smaller footprint in the mortgage market.

“There will be a reduction in the federal government’s guaranty of mortgages, and this will likely increase the interest rates charged on mortgages, but will reduce the likelihood of taxpayer bailouts,” he said. “Fannie and Freddie will likely have fewer ties to the federal government and the FHA is likely to be limited to the lower end of the mortgage market.”

Climate Change and Residential Real Estate

By U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.

Freddie Mac posted an Economic & Housing Research Insight, Life’s A Beach, that addresses the impact of climate change on residential real estate. It discusses the limitations of our potential responses:

Even with significant and coordinated global action like that outlined at the Paris climate conference, some of the projected impacts of climate change appear to be unavoidable. Governments and private organizations are working on plans to mitigate impacts where possible and to adapt to changes that are inevitable. Many are taking notes from the experience of the Netherlands, which has prospered for centuries despite lying below sea level.

However, the dikes and sea walls used by the Dutch may not solve the problems of South Florida. Florida sits on a substrate of porous limestone that holds Florida’s supply of fresh water. As the sea level rises, it infiltrates the limestone underground and contaminates the freshwater supply. A sea wall might stop storm water surges on the surface, but it can’t prevent the underground incursion of salt water.

While technical solutions may stave off some of the worst effects of climate change, rising sea levels and spreading flood plains nonetheless appear likely to destroy billions of dollars in property and to displace millions of people. The economic losses and social disruption may happen gradually, but they are likely to be greater in total than those experienced in the housing crisis and Great Recession. That recent experience illustrated the difficulty of allocating losses between homeowners, lenders, servicers, insurers, investors, and taxpayers in general. The delays in resolving these differences at times exacerbated the losses. Similar challenges will face the nation in dealing with the impact of climate change. (5-6)

The report also highlights a bunch of concrete problems that homeowners and taxpayers will need to confront as climate change wreaks greater havoc:

  • Will the federal government continue to subsidize flood insurance?
  • Will property values in flood zones drop over time?
  • Will climate change increase social dislocation as the landscape of coastal areas is permanently altered by rising sea levels?

The federal government has dropped the ball in taking a leadership role in this area and many states have done so as well. It will likely take a tragedy (likely to be a preventable one) to get them to focus on this in any meaningful way.

Housing Affordability in NYC

Jacob Riis, Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement

The Citizens Budget Commission has released Whose Burden Is It Anyway? Housing Affordability in New York City by Household Characteristics. The CBC produced some interesting and counterintuitive policy briefs last year, in which it

examined housing affordability across large U.S. cities to assess New York’s situation in a broader context. Using federal data sources, CBC found that while many New Yorkers face high rents, and the share of households who are “rent burdened” (paying more than 30 percent of income toward rent) grew between 2000 and 2012, the city ranks near the middle among 22 large cities in the share of rent-burdened households. A second analysis revealed New York has the lowest transportation costs among the 22 cities studied due to the large proportion of residents who commute via mass transit. When housing and transportation costs are combined, the city rises from 13th to 3rd place in affordability. The average New York household pays 32 percent of its income towards housing and transportation costs, well within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) affordability guideline of 45 percent. CBC also examined how some “typical” households (as defined by HUD) fared in terms of housing and transportation costs in the same group of cities. In this analysis, low income households in New York also ranked relatively well despite facing serious rent burdens. (1)

The current CBC report looks at NYC rent burdens in greater detail. Key findings include,

  • Forty-two percent of New York City’s renter households are “rent burdened;” that is, adjusting for actual rent paid by each household (“out-of-pocket contract rent” plus utility costs) and food stamp benefits, they pay more than 30 percent of income in rent. „
  • Half of rent burdened households are severely rent burdened, paying more than 50 percent of income in rent. Ninety-four percent of these severely rent-burdened households are low income. „
  • Low-income severely burdened households are disproportionately comprised of singles and seniors. They are also disproportionately households with children and located in the outer boroughs. (2)

CBC adjusts rent to take into account subsidies and familial support. Some will disagree with adjustments of this type, but I think it is a pretty reasonable approach. When combined with the adjustments it made for transportation costs, CBC has produced a textured portrait of the state of housing affordability in NYC.

Housing out of Thin Air

NYU’s Furman Center has posted a policy brief, Creating Affordable Housing out of Thin Air: The Economics of Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning in New York City. It opens,

In May 2014, New York City’s new mayor released an ambitious housing agenda that set forth a multi-pronged, ten-year plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. One of the most talked-about initiatives in the plan was encapsulated in its statement, “In future re-zonings that unlock substantial new housing capacity, the city must require, not simply encourage, the production of affordable housing in order to ensure balanced growth, fair housing opportunity, and diverse neighborhoods.” In other words, the city intends to combine upzoning with mandatory inclusionary zoning in order to increase the supply of affordable housing and promote economic diversity. (1)
Inclusionary zoning, “using land use regulation to link development of market-rate housing units to the creation of affordable housing,” is seen by many as a low-cost policy to support a broader affordable housing approach. (2) There is a limit to the reach of such a program because developers will only build if the overall project pencils out, including any units of mandatory inclusionary zoning.
The policy brief’s conclusions are important:
In many neighborhoods, including some that the city has already targeted for the new program, market rents are too low to justify new mid- and high-rise construction, so additional density would offer no immediate value to developers that could be used to cross-subsidize affordable units. In these areas, inclusionary zoning will need to rely on direct city subsidy for the time being if it is to generate any new units at all regardless of the income level they serve.
Where high rents make additional density valuable, there is capacity to cross-subsidize new affordable units without direct subsidy, but the development of a workable inclusionary zoning policy will be complex. The amount of affordable housing the city could require without dampening the rate of new construction or relying on developers to accept lower financial returns or landowners to be willing to sell at lower prices will vary widely depending on a neighborhood’s market rent, the magnitude of the upzoning, and, to a lesser extent, on the level of affordability required in the rent-restricted units. Where developers must provide the required affordable housing, and whether they can instead pay a fee directly to the city, also bears heavily on the number of affordable units a mandatory inclusionary zoning policy has the potential to generate, but raises other difficult issues. (14-15)
The de Blasio Administration’s housing and land use team is very sophisticated (including the Furman Center’s former director, Vicki Been, now Commissioner at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development), so the City will be well aware of these constraints on a mandatory inclusionary housing program. Nonetheless, it will be of great importance to design a flexible program that can adapt to changing market conditions to ensure that such a program is actually a spur to new development and not merely a well-intentioned initiative.

Housing Vouchers for Landlords

Collinson and Ganong have posted The Incidence of Housing Voucher Generosity to SSRN. The abstract of this important paper is a little technical for non-economists. It reads:

What is the incidence of housing vouchers? Housing voucher recipients in the US typically pay their landlord a fixed amount based on their income and the government pays the rest of the rent, up to a rent ceiling. We consider a policy that raises the generosity of the rent ceiling everywhere, which is equivalent to an income effect, and a policy which links generosity to local unit quality, which is equivalent to a substitution effect.

Using data on the universe of housing vouchers and quasi-experimental variation from HUD policy changes, we analyze the incidence of these policies. Raising the generosity of the rent ceiling everywhere appears to primarily benefit landlords, who receive higher rents with very little evidence of medium-run quality improvements. Setting ZIP code-level rent ceilings causes rent increases in expensive neighborhoods and decreases in low-cost neighborhoods, with little change in aggregate rents. The ZIP code policy improves neighborhood quality as much as other, far more costly, voucher interventions.

The eye-catching part is that raising “the generosity of the rent ceiling everywhere appears to primarily benefit landlords, who receive higher rents with very little evidence of medium-run quality improvements.” The paper itself fleshes this out more: “a $1 increase in the rent ceiling raises rents by 41 cents; consistent with this policy change acting like an income effect, we find very small quality increases of around 5 cents, meaning that as much as 89% of the increase in government expenditure accrues to landlords.” (20-21)

Given the inelasticity of the supply in many housing markets, this is not such a surprising result. That is, if demand increases because of an increase in income but supply does not, the producer (landlords) can capture more of that income just by raising prices. This finding should give policymakers pause as they design and implement voucher programs. The question that drives them.should be — how can they maximize the portion of the subsidy that goes to the voucher recipient?