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.

The Jumbo/Conforming Spread


Standard & Poor’s issued a research report, What Drives the Variation Between Conforming and Jumbo Mortgage Rates? It opens,

What drives the variation between the conforming and jumbo mortgage rates for the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) product offered in the U.S. residential housing market? While credit and interest rate risk are the main factors at play, S&P Global Ratings explores how these risks relate to capital market execution and whether this relationship translates into additional liquidity risk. In our study, we compare the historical spreads between the two average note rates over time, and we also examine the impact of certain loan credit characteristics. Our data indicate that the rate difference grows in periods for which the opportunity for securitization declines as a viable exit strategy for lenders. (1)

My main takeaways from the report are that (1) the decrease in securitization since the financial crisis has contributed to a wider spread between jumbo and conforming mortgages; (2) the high guaranty fee for conforming mortgages pushes down the spread between jumbo and conforming mortgages; and (3) the credit box appears to be loosening a bit, which should mean that jumbos will become available to more than the “super-prime” slice of the market.

Comparing Rental Housing Across the Atlantic

photo by Tiago Fioreze

The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies has released a working paper, Rental Housing: An International Comparison. The abstract reads,

This report compares rental housing in 12 countries in Europe and North America, using individual records from household surveys. Differences in housing characteristics, conditions, and costs across countries reflect a number of factors, including demographics, geography, culture, and government policies. A lack of comparable data can make international comparisons difficult to execute, but such analysis is valuable for understanding and contextualizing differences in affordability and other characteristics of renter households and housing.

The analysis revealed the US, along with Spain, as notably unaffordable for renter households, based on a number of measures. The greater apparent cost burdens reflected a variety of factors, including differences in characteristics of the housing stock and differences in tax burdens, as well as measurement problems.

However, two major influences – differences in the size and availability of housing allowances and the degree of income inequality – emerged as the main drivers of differences in housing affordability. The effects of supply-side factors such as the extent of social housing supply, supply subsidies, and rent controls were unclear, due to problems with the identification and description of below-market rentals in the household survey data. (1)

The housing stock and political context is so different among countries, but this type of analysis is still very useful and can offer valuable lessons to the United States:

One factor that appears to contribute to the pervasive affordability problems in the US is the degree of income inequality. That is not a feature of the housing market per se, but there may be opportunities to address the consequences of income inequality through appropriate housing policies.

Other countries have devoted more resources to ameliorating the problems of unaffordable housing. The US provides fairly generous housing benefits to only a small share of needy households. In the UK, a broadly available system of housing allowances offsets what would otherwise be a much more severe affordability problem than exists in the US. In other countries, affordable rental housing supplied by governments or nonprofits helps to address affordability issues, although the efficiency of that practice, relative to the provision of housing allowances, has been questioned, as it has been in the US. The EU-SILC data used in this analysis did not adequately identify or describe below-market-rate housing, making it impossible to adequately assess the effects of such housing.

The somewhat larger size and perhaps higher quality of units in the US rental stock also affects relative affordability, although relative quality and its effect on cost differences are difficult to assess using the available data. The large share of single-family detached rentals in the US reflects preferences, the demographic mix among renters, land availability, etc., but it could also reflect zoning and other regulations limiting the supply of less expensive multifamily rentals. It is hard to imagine that regulations are more stringent in the US than in some of the more dirigiste nations of Europe, but regulations elsewhere may dictate, rather than constrain, density and cost reductions. The size and quality of the housing occupied by low-income renters in the US reflect the fact that most of those units were originally built for owner occupancy or for higher-income renters. That’s probably true in other countries as well. Whether the extent of such filtering is greater or less in various countries is perhaps worth exploring in the future. (37-38)

Income inequality, housing subsidies and land use reform — the report hits on a trifecta of key issues that housing policy should be dealing with. While I do not see much of an appetite for major reform of the first two items in today’s political climate, there might be support for some loosening of land use restrictions on housing construction. I wonder if there is some room for movement on that third front. Can local jurisdictions be incentivized by the federal government to build more housing?

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup

Housing Affordability Across The Globe

The 11th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey: 2015 has been released. The survey provides ratings for metropolitan markets in Australia, Canada, China, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S. There are some interesting global trends:

Historically, the Median Multiple has been remarkably similar in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, with median house prices from 2.0 to 3.0 times median household incomes. However, in recent decades, house prices have been decoupled from this relationship in a number of markets, such as Vancouver, Sydney, San Francisco, London, Auckland and others. Without exception, these markets have severe land use restrictions (typically “urban containment” policies) that have been associated with higher land prices and in consequence higher house prices (as basic economics would indicate, other things being equal).
Virtually no government administering urban containment policy effectively monitors housing affordability. However, encouraging developments have been implemented at higher levels of government in New Zealand and Florida, and there are signs of potential reform elsewhere. (1-2)
These findings are consistent with Glaeser and Gyourko’s research on U.S. housing markets. Not too many local politicians seem to acknowledge the tension between land use policies that limit residential density on the one hand and housing affordability on the other. The de Blasio Administration in NYC is a refreshing exception to that general rule.
The explicit bias of the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey “is that domestic public policy should, first and foremost be focused on improving the standard of living and reducing poverty.” (2) Those who favor policies that create more affordable housing should take to heart the call for greater density and less restrictive zoning for residential uses. Otherwise, we are left with subsidy programs that can only help a small percentage of those in need of affordable housing and a lot of empty promises about affordable housing for all. Subsidies have a place in an affordable housing agenda, but so does density.

Regulation and Housing Supply

Gyourko and Molloy have posted Regulation and Housing Supply to SSRN.  Unfortunately, it is behind a paywall (although it is also available at NBER if your library has access and an earlier draft can be found here). The abstract of this book chapter states that it reviews the scholarly literature on the causes and effects of local government regulation that “influences the amount, location, and shape of residential development.” The abstract continues,

We begin with a discussion of how researchers measure regulation empirically, which highlights the variety of methods that are used to constrain development. Many theories have been developed to explain why regulation arises, including the role of homeowners in the local political process, the influence of historical density, and the fiscal and exclusionary motives for zoning. As for the effects of regulation, most studies have found substantial effects on the housing market. In particular, regulation appears to raise house prices, reduce construction, reduce the elasticity of housing supply, and alter urban form. Other research has found that regulation influences local labor markets, and household sorting across communities. Finally, we discuss the welfare implications of regulation. Although the large positive externalities of some specific rules are clear, the benefits of more general forms of regulation are very difficult to quantify. On balance, a few recent studies suggest that the overall efficiency losses from binding constraints on residential development could be quite large.
Land use geeks are familiar with Gyourko’s analysis of land use regulation, but many non-economists are not.  Even if they are, they often give it short shrift. I found the extension of their analysis beyond the borders of the U.S. interesting:
In theory, the availability of buildable land might not constrain the supply of housing units if housing could be constructed as densely as necessary to meet demand. But in most places in the U.S.—and indeed around the world—local land use policy imposes limits on residential development that restrict the size and type of housing units that can be built on a given amount of land. These restrictions add extra costs to a construction project, creating a wedge between the sales price of a house and the cost of buying the land and building the structure. (3)
As communities struggle with housing affordability, the link between land use regulation and housing costs is one that should not be ignored.