Cities With the Worst Rent

photo by Alex Lozupone

Realtor.com quoted me in Cities With the Worst Rent: Is This How Much You’re Coughing Up? It opens,

Sure, rents are too dang high just about everywhere, but people living in Los Angeles really have a right to complain: New analysis by Forbes has found that this city tops its list of the Worst Cities for Renters in 2018.

To arrive at these depressing results, researchers delved into rental data and found that people in L.A. pay an average of $2,172 per month.

Granted, other cities have higher rents—like second and third on this list, San Francisco (at $3,288) and New York ($3,493)—but Los Angeles was still deemed the worst when you consider how this number fits into the bigger picture.

For one, Los Angeles households generally earn less compared with these other cities, pulling in a median $63,600 per year. So residents here end up funneling a full 41% of their income toward rent (versus San Franciscans’ 35%).

Manhattanites, meanwhile, fork over 52% of their income toward rent, but the saving grace here is that rents haven’t risen much—just 0.4% since last year. In Los Angeles, in that same time period, rent has shot up 5.7%.

So is this just a case of landlords greedily squeezing tenants just because they can? On the contrary, most experts say that these cities just aren’t building enough new housing to keep up with population growth.

“It is fundamentally a problem of supply and demand,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “Certain urban centers like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York are magnets for people and businesses. At the same time, restrictive local land use regulations keep new housing construction at very low levels. Unless those constraints are loosened, hot cities will face housing shortages and high rents no matter what affordable housing programs and rent regulation regimes are implemented to help ameliorate the situation.”

Micro Apartments and The Housing Crisis

photo by BalazsGlodi

The NYU Furman Center has posted 21st Century SROs: Can Small Housing Units Help Meet the Need for Affordable Housing in New York City? The policy brief opens,

Throughout much of the last century, single-room occupancy (SRO) housing was a commonly available type of low-rent housing in New York City, providing housing to people newly arrived in the city, low-income single New Yorkers, and people needing somewhere to live during life transitions. SRO units typically consisted of a private room with access to full bathroom and kitchen facilities that a renter shared with other building occupants. As the city fell onto hard times, so did SRO housing. During the second half of the last century, many SROs came to serve as housing of last resort, and policymakers enacted laws limiting their construction and discouraging the operation of SRO units. Many SROs were converted to other forms of housing, resulting in the loss of thousands of low-rent units in the city.

New research and analysis from the NYU Furman Center addresses the question of whether small housing units (self-contained micro units and efficiency units with shared facilities) can and should help meet the housing need previously served by SROs. In this policy brief, we present a summary of the paper, 21st Century SROs: Can Small Housing Units Help Meet the Need for Affordable Housing in New York City? We provide an overview of the potential demand for smaller, cheaper units, discuss the economics of building small units, analyze the main barriers to the creation of small units that exist in New York City, and suggest possible reforms that New York City can make to address these barriers. (1)

The policy brief makes a series of recommendations, including

  • reducing density limitations for micro units near transit hubs
  • permitting mixed-income and market-rate efficiency units
  • creating a government small unit program to promote the construction of micro apartments

There is no doubt that the lack of supply is a key driver of the affordable housing crisis across the country. Small units should be part of the response to that crisis, not just in New York City but in all high-cost cities.

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)

High Rents and Land Use Regulation

photo by cincy Project

The Federal Reserve’s Devin Bunten has posted Is the Rent Too High? Aggregate Implications of Local Land-Use Regulation. It is a technical paper about an important subject. It has implications for those who are concerned about the lack of affordable housing in high-growth areas. The abstract reads,

Highly productive U.S. cities are characterized by high housing prices, low housing stock growth, and restrictive land-use regulations (e.g., San Francisco). While new residents would benefit from housing stock growth in cities with highly productive firms, existing residents justify strict local land-use regulations on the grounds of congestion and other costs of further development. This paper assesses the welfare implications of these local regulations for income, congestion, and urban sprawl within a general-equilibrium model with endogenous regulation. In the model, households choose from locations that vary exogenously by productivity and endogenously according to local externalities of congestion and sharing. Existing residents address these externalities by voting for regulations that limit local housing density. In equilibrium, these regulations bind and house prices compensate for differences across locations. Relative to the planner’s optimum, the decentralized model generates spatial misallocation whereby high-productivity locations are settled at too-low densities. The model admits a straightforward calibration based on observed population density, expenditure shares on consumption and local services, and local incomes. Welfare and output would be 1.4% and 2.1% higher, respectively, under the planner’s allocation. Abolishing zoning regulations entirely would increase GDP by 6%, but lower welfare by 5.9% because of greater congestion.

The important sentence from the abstract is that “Welfare and output would be 1.4% and 2.1% higher, respectively, under the planner’s allocation.” Those are significant effects when we are talking about  real people and real places. The introduction provides a bit more context for the study:

Neighborhoods in productive, high-rent regions have very strict controls on housing development and very limited new housing construction. Home to Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area is the most productive and most expensive metropolitan region in the country, and yet new housing construction has been very slow, especially in contrast to less-productive large cities like Houston, Texas. The evidence suggests that this slow-growth environment results from locally determined regulatory constraints. Existing residents justify these constraints by appealing to the costs of new development, including increased vehicle traffic and other types of congestion, and claim that they see few, if any, of the benefits from new development. However, the effects of local regulation extend beyond the local regulating authorities: regions with highly regulated municipalities experience less-elastic housing supply. (2, footnotes omitted)

The bottom line, as far as I am concerned, is that localities that are attempting to deal with their affordable housing problems have to directly address how they go about their zoning. If the zoning does not support housing construction, then no amount of affordable housing incentives will address the demand for housing in high growth places like NYC and San Francisco.

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.

Supply and Demand in a Hot Market

photo by Subman758

The Asheville Citizen-Times quoted me in Apartment Occupancy Dropping, but Rents Not Budging Yet. It reads, in part,

Tell Marie Kerwin the city’s apartment vacancy rate has dropped a few notches – meaning a lot more units should be available – and she may beg to differ.

“There’s not a lot of options,” said Kerwin, “It took me months to find an apartment. I actually was calling every complex, every day.”

Kerwin and her husband, Christian, relocated to Asheville a year ago from Jacksonville, Florida, both taking jobs with the Earth Fare supermarket. Kerwin said they “got lucky” in finding a place at The Palisades, a 224-unit complex off Mills Gap Road in Arden that opened last summer.

For renters like the Kerwins, it might not seem like it, but the city’s apartment vacancy rate — famously pegged at 1 percent in a consultant’s report published a year-and-a-half ago that looked at Buncombe and three other counties — is dropping, meaning more units are available. That also should mean, theoretically, rents will decline, but that hasn’t happened.

A tight apartment market has dominated local discussions about affordable housing and livability in the Asheville area for nearly two years. But while that vacancy rate is dropping to a more livable range of around 6 percent, rents likely won’t fall over the next couple of years, experts say.

‘A very tight market’

“Typically, Asheville is a very tight market,” said Marc Robinson, vice chairman of Cushman & Wakefield, a global company that tracks apartment trends, including occupancy and rents.

Whether rents will drop with new apartments being built is “a hard call,” he added, “because on the one hand there is a supply entering the system, and that market has really seen lot of supply at one time — more supply than it would have historically seen. But in many markets, including Raleigh, Charlotte and Atlanta, absorption (of new units) has been better than expected.”

Robinson’s company, Multi Housing Advisors, now part of Cushman & Wakefield, issues quarterly reports on the apartment market. Its “MHA Market Insight” first quarter report for Asheville noted:

• “Properties built from the 1980s to the 2000s are maintaining an average vacancy rate in the 6 percent range, compared to 3 percent for properties built in 1970s or earlier.”

• “The average vacancy for properties built after 2009 is approximately 19 percent, which is skewing the vacancy rate upward,” in part because in a smaller market “additions to supply have an amplified effect.”

Robinson said his company’s figures from about two months ago show the Asheville area has “about a 3 percent vacancy, and in real time it may be a little higher.” In North Carolina, the rental vacancy in the first quarter stood at 8.2 percent, according to U.S. Census data.

By some estimates, the Asheville area, including surrounding Buncombe County and Fletcher, has had or will have in coming months about 2,200 new units coming online, well short of the 5,600 units the consultant recommended be built to meet demand.

“The pipeline of new construction (of rental properties) over the next three to five years will still not meet the forecasted demand so for the short-term we can expect to see the rental rates remain high, vacancy rates to remain at record lows,” said Greg Stephens, chief appraiser and senior vice president of compliance for Detroit-based Metro-West Appraisal Company.

Several firms track such information, including Real Data, a Charlotte-based real estate research firm. Using market surveys rather than sample data to compile its statistics, Real Data found the vacancy rate among apartment complexes with at least 30 units in Asheville, Buncombe County and Hendersonville was 6.9 percent in December.

Theoretically, all this should mean rents will come down, as people move from older apartments to newer ones, and apartment companies have to make concessions, such as lowering rents.

Apartments under construction has been a common sight in the Asheville area in the last two years, and that has eased vacancy rates some, experts say. This complex, the Avalon, went up in 2014 off Sweeten Creek Road and is now open.

But this is Asheville, where millennials keep moving in and retirees are drawn to great weather, arts and restaurants. From March 2015 to March 2016, Asheville saw the highest spike statewide in the average cost of renting an apartment, a 7.6 percent jump.

For the first quarter of 2016, MHA Market Insight found the average rent for one-bedroom apartments in Buncombe, Henderson, Haywood and Madison counties was $821, representing a 6.2 percent one-year growth in rent. A two-bedroom went for $964, 4.3 percent growth.

Kerwin said she and her husband are paying $1,095 a month for their two-bedroom, two-bath, 1,125-square-foot apartment. In Florida they paid $1,100 a month for an 1,800-square-foot three-bedroom.

“It’s definitely more expensive to live here,” she said.

Rising vacancy rates combined with rising rents is a national phenomenon, said Jonathan Miller, the New York-based co-founder of Miller Samuel, a residential real estate appraisal company, and the commercial valuation firm Miller Cicero.

“New development that skews to high-end rentals has been overplayed,” Miller said. But moderate rental development stock “has remained largely static.”

*     *     *

Solutions far off

That is not what some members of Asheville City Council want to hear right now. Councilman Gordon Smith, who’s on the city’s Housing and Community Development Committee, said the city has formulated a comprehensive affordable housing strategy and has talked about an “all of the above approach.”

That includes increasing zoning density to allow more units per acre and encouraging developers to use city-backed incentives to build apartments.

The city is also in the midst of calling for a voter referendum on a $74 million bond issue, with $25 million of that potentially earmarked for affordable housing. If passed, it could include a $5 million addition to the existing revolving loan fund for private developers to build affordable rental housing, and $10 million for land banking or repurposing city-owned land, which would involve offering that land to developers for construction of affordable housing.

Rusty Pulliam heads Pulliam Properties, a commercial real estate firm that has become active in the apartment industry in recent years, building the 280-unit Weirbridge Village in Skyland and the 180-unit Retreat at Hunt Hill. This year the company also received approval to build a 272-unit complex on Mills Gap Road in Arden, which will include 41 units designated as “affordable,” a number Pulliam agreed to bump up at council’s urging.

Pulliam said he can still make money at the Mills Gap site because demand is so high that he can build a “premium complex” and charge high enough rents to make it work. But in the long run, he said, solving the apartment crunch does not require a Ph.D.

“If we were building middle-of-the-road apartments, we couldn’t do it. But until we put out there, as the Bowen report stated, 5,600 units in the marketplace, I don’t see that rents are going to come down, especially when see we’ve got a (3.5) percent unemployment rate and rents went up 7.6 percent, even when a lot of units did come on line.”

Unemployment in Buncombe County dropped to 3.5 percent in May, the lowest in the state.

People have always loved moving to Asheville, a trend that essentially never abates. Our region continues to grow not because of the birth rate but because of in-migration.

The U.S. Census Bureau projects Buncombe County’s population to grow to 300,000 by 2030, up from 253,178 in 2015. While the mountains are known as a retirement haven, millennials are coming here, too, with growth in that segment over the past five years outpacing that of baby boomers, people of ages 50 to 69, and Generation X, which includes ages 35 to 49.

In short, that’s a lot of apartment demand.

Other cities the challenge facing Asheville, said David Reiss, a professor of law and the research director at the Center for Urban Business  Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School in New York.

“During the Great Recession nothing got built,” Reiss said. “The same thing happened in New York.”

Some economists believe that “when vacancy rates are below 5 percent, you have the ability to raise rents significantly,” he said.

The MHA Market Insight first quarter report noted that “fewer than 700 units are currently under construction at five properties” in Asheville, so we’re still a long way from that 5,600 units figure.

Reiss said a full-court approach such as the one Asheville is taking can be useful, but he also urged caution.

“Whatever they decide the solution is, it takes years to implement those ideas,” Reiss said. “Whether it’s a developer or the city government, it takes a long time to get a solution in place.”

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.