Policy

Economic Force Alone Won't Fix What Ails Housing Affordability

Land entitlement -- and residual property values -- hold crucial keys to solving for the 'most important question facing the housing field.'

Policy

Economic Force Alone Won't Fix What Ails Housing Affordability

Land entitlement -- and residual property values -- hold crucial keys to solving for the 'most important question facing the housing field.'

November 22nd, 2022
Economic Force Alone Won't Fix What Ails Housing Affordability
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A moment – coming up on Thanksgiving – to reflect.

In "The U.S. Needs More Housing Than Anyone Can Imagine," writer Annie Lowrey had a question she and her editors at The Atlantic felt deserved a "straightforward" answer.

How many homes must the United States’ expensive coastal cities build to become affordable for middle-class and working-poor families again?"

The premise being that greater supply for the same demand would bend cost curves downward, expanding access to homes for a bigger pool of would be owners and renters in those markets.

Pursuit of a "straightforward" response sets Lowrey on an odyssey of logic-defying past and current U.S. housing realities that wedge themselves between what might make perfect supply-and-demand economic sense and the way things are and are likely to continue to be.

After a tour through various sources' estimates of "the gap" between current stock of housing supply and the constrained production levels of the past decade-plus compared with growth rates in demand measures such as job-, household-, and family-formation as well as household incomes, The Atlantic's Lowrey dutifully reports estimates for "the gap" as ranging from 3.8 million to 7 million.

Unsatisfied and undeterred, Lowrey's journey continued to focus on her original – straightforward – query, which is what would it take to make it so that "working poor" and "middle-class" households could attain access to housing near job centers in coastal urban metros. The path led to the work author Enrico Moretti of UC Berkeley and Chang-Tai Hsieh of the University of Chicago have done on a soundly proposed economic estimate of what we lose – in GDP, mobility, and household wherewithal – as a result of homes not being in adequate, attainable supply near where people go to work.

Lowrey was looking for an answer to the question "how many." Here – staggering as it may strike us – is a straightforward response she was after:

In a blockbuster 2019 paper, they found that if New York, San Jose, and San Francisco—just those three cities—had the permitting standards of Atlanta or Chicago over the previous several decades, the U.S. economy would have been roughly $2 trillion bigger in 2009. American households would have earned an average of $3,685 more a year.
To come up with that estimate, the two economists built a complicated model that assumed Americans could move wherever their wages allowed and the housing supply would adjust as it would in a place with typical permitting standards. In such a world, they estimated in some associated work, 53 percent of Americans would not live where they are currently living. San Francisco would have an employed population 510 percent bigger than it does today—implying an overall population of something like 4 million, rather than 815,000, with 2 million housing units instead of 400,000. The Bay Area as a whole would be five times its current size, the economists estimated. The average city would lose 80 percent of its population. And New York would be a startling eight times bigger. Some back-of-the-envelope math (mine, not theirs) suggests that the United States would have—deep breath here—perhaps 75 million more housing units in its productive cities than it currently has.

In so many words, that's "how many" it would take to both bend downward the cost curves and bend upward the payment-power curves to match attainable housing with household wages and incomes to liberate housing's business, development, and investment community from a vicious-circle trap. This feedback-loop trap forever keeps a tight lid on supply to more or less intentionally price people out of participating in the marketplace.

Lowrey's parting conclusion zeroes in on the rub.

It's not about 75 million more housing units. It's about one piece of property, and it says so much about the challenge those who champion more housing development and battle those who are against it likely will continue to face indefinitely.

Moretti, a longtime San Francisco resident, is horrified by the city’s land-use policies and home prices. 'This is something that is not just intellectual for me but very, very real, very present,' he said. He described walking by an empty lot in his neighborhood and being bothered over and over again that it never became an apartment building or even a single-family home. 'It is inexcusable, not building on an empty lot. There is no way that having an empty lot in a place like San Francisco makes any sense.'”

The through-line of Lowrey's article leads to a higher-level take-away. By all rights, economic necessity should force change in the block-to-block, local, county, state, regional, and national land entitlement traps that seal off private sector residential real estate development and construction from so many working households. The opportunity costs, the dimmer future outlook, the bleaker self-perpetuating cycles of larger and larger universes of people priced out of local housing options would seem to be cause enough for such change.

But, time and again, economic forces – only by working together with political will among the land-holder voters in any given jurisdiction, and together with industrialized, modern manufacturing in the production of new homes and apartments in all of their variations – are a necessary one-of-three equally essential conditions to create sufficient supply so that prices would extend back within reach to working households.

The truest housing innovation of all would be one that fuses capital, policy, and building technology together in a single solution that public-private-and-community partnerships share, from both first-costs to residual values..

To get to the 75 million number Annie Lowrey's math suggests the U.S. needs, it will first mean solving for that single property near where Professor Enrico Moretti lives in San Francisco.

Here's a piece that begins to address out to get out of the vicious-circle trap, by looking at more than a supply and demand gap in housing. Brookings Institution fellow Jenny Schuetz writes:

Understanding how state and local policy changes impact the availability and affordability of housing is the most important question facing the housing field today. The current burst of policy experimentation offers unique opportunities for qualitative and quantitative research across a range of academic disciplines, including economics, planning, policy, and political science. A few guidelines can help make the resulting research more usable for policymakers and advocates:
Build on local institutional knowledge. The complex, hyperlocal nature of housing and land use policies—and the interactions between policies and market conditions—make it particularly important for researchers to have a solid understanding of local institutions and data sources. It may be more efficient to have multiple research teams with local expertise focusing in-depth on small geographic areas (cities, metro areas, or states) and sharing results with one another to draw broader lessons.
Look at the full range of places undertaking policy reforms. The earliest or best-known policy reforms will likely draw more attention, but it is important to understand how policy changes play out across a range of housing market conditions as well as political and institutional settings. If, five years from now, there are dozens of studies of California and Minneapolis but none of Raleigh, N.C. and Montana, that will be a missed opportunity. A particularly important set of places to study are metro areas where housing has historically been abundant and relatively affordable, but are quickly becoming more expensive, such as Austin, Texas, Denver, Nashville, Tenn., and Boise, Idaho. Some early coordination across research teams to discuss geographic focus would be useful.
Learn from both successes and failures. Pro-housing advocates and policymakers may be tempted to focus on success stories. While developing a set of potentially replicable “best practices” should be one goal of research, we can also learn important lessons from policy changes and political strategies that don’t work exactly as planned: What features of that policy design or advocacy tactics need to be tweaked or altered to be effective in boosting housing supply? Zoning reforms to encourage abundant housing are still very new; there isn’t a template for how state and local policymakers should design and implement these programs, and it’s unlikely that all reforms will get everything right on the first iteration. Being honest about what works and what doesn’t is the best way to learn.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John McManus

John McManus

President and Founder

John McManus, founder and president of The Builder’s Daily, is an award-winning editorial, programming, and digital content strategist. TBD's purpose is a community capable of constant improvement.

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President and Founder

John McManus, founder and president of The Builder’s Daily, is an award-winning editorial, programming, and digital content strategist. TBD's purpose is a community capable of constant improvement.

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