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.


Inclusionary Housing: Fact and Fiction

photo by Bart Everson

The Center for Housing Policy has issued a policy brief, Separating Fact from Fiction to Design Effective Inclusionary Housing Programs. I am not sure fact was fully separated from fiction when I finished reading it.  It opens,

Inclusionary housing programs generally refer to city and county planning ordinances that require or incentivize developers to build below-market-rate homes (affordable homes) as part of the process of developing market-rate housing developments. More than 500 local jurisdictions in the United States have implemented inclusionary housing policies, and inclusionary requirements have been adopted in a wide variety of places—big cities, suburban communities and small towns.

Despite the proliferation of inclusionary housing programs, the approach continues to draw criticism. There have been legal challenges around inclusionary housing requirements in California, Illinois, Idaho, Colorado and Wisconsin, among others. In addition to legal questions, critics have claimed inclusionary housing policies are not effective at producing affordable housing and have negative impacts on local housing markets.

While there have been numerous studies on inclusionary housing, they unfortunately do not provide conclusive evidence about the overall effectiveness of inclusionary housing programs. These studies vary substantially in terms of their research approaches and quality. In addition, it is difficult to generalize the findings from the existing research because researchers have examined policies in only a handful of places and at particular points in time when economic and housing market conditions might have been quite different. Given these limitations, however, the most highly regarded empirical evidence suggests that inclusionary housing programs can produce affordable housing and do not lead to significant declines in overall housing production or to increases in market-rate prices. However, the effectiveness of an inclusionary housing program depends critically on local economic and housing market characteristics, as well as specific elements of the program’s design and implementation. (1, endnotes omitted and emphasis in the original)

The brief concludes that, in general, ” mandatory programs in strong housing markets that have predictable rules, well-designed cost offsets, and flexible compliance alternatives tend to be the most effective types of inclusionary housing programs.” (11, emphasis removed)

I have to say that this research brief does not give me a great deal of confidence that mandatory inclusionary zoning programs are going to be all that effective.  Indeed, the conclusion suggests that many ducks need to line up before we can count on them to make a real dent in affordable housing production. While this by no means should imply that they should be curtailed, we should continue to evaluate them carefully to see if they live up to their promise.