The “affordable housing” movement advocated by politicians on both sides of the political isle, contributed, in part, to the housing bust of 2008. Aside from the use of the nebulous phrase by federal government politicians of “affordable housing”—making an exact definition elusive—also created a national problem where one did not exist. Moreover, the blame was placed on the market, rather than a myriad local laws in specific housing markets that restricted land use and perverted the economic incentives for people to create more housing.
Based on the subjectivity of the term “affordable housing,” reduces it to an arbitrary term by eliding any sort of individual scale. For example, what is affordable to some is not necessarily affordable to others. Taken in the aggregate, the general accepted measurement for calculating the affordability of the housing marking in a specific geographic area, is by comparing what percentage of an average income one must pay towards their average rent or monthly mortgage payment. By this measurement, around one-fourth to thirty percent of income could be considered “affordable” (Demographia , 2008, p. 30 ).
Another way to tabulate affordability is by comparing the total cost of an average house in a given market with the average annual income of the people who live there. These measurements exist to create a broader relative picture of what markets are more affordable compared to other markets throughout the country. Noted economist Thomas Sowell interprets the data in order to create this picture:
…The median home price in Youngstown, Ohio, has been found to be roughly double the median income in Youngstown. The median home price in Las Vegas has been about six times the median income in that city and, in Sand Diego, the median home price has been ten times the median income.”
2009, p. 32)
This type of measurement is very useful to gauge what is, and what is not affordable in the aggregate because, as noted earlier, to the individual, affordability is subjective. Regardless of what the median home price is in a given area, there are cheaper alternatives for those who cannot afford even the most affordable homes by comparison. In short, those who cannot afford a home can rent, rent with one or more roommates/relatives, or can rent a room.
Historically speaking, at turn of the 20th century (1901), housing in the US has typically been about one-fourth (23 percent) of total consumer spending and increased to about 33 percent of a much higher portion of consumer expenditures in 2003 (Dolfman, McSweeney, 2006). This hardly presents housing as unaffordable when the 50 states are taken as a whole. This is not to discredit the fact that housing in some local markets were/are less affordable than others, this is just to make evident that the need for “affordable housing” was not a national phenomena. In reality, housing prices were in fact falling, not rising. The New York Times, in late 2005 reported that despite the prevailing wisdom that “real estate has never been more expensive,” it was now possible to purchase a home for a smaller share of one’s income only a “generation ago” (Leonhardt, 2005). The article goes on further to elaborate on the areas where the housing prices were lower as a percentage of income, including “almost every place outside of New York, Washington, Miami and along the coast of California” (Leonhardt, 2005).
Other studies have found that since 1985, the country as a whole, homebuyers have never paid more than the accepted 25 percent of their incomes for housing (The state, 2008). Moreover, a comparison of the median income as a multiple of the median priced home in the United States of 3.6 was more affordable than that of Britain, Australia and New Zealand at 5.5, 6.3 and 6.3 times the median income, respectively (Demographia, 2008 pg. 11).
The contributing factor to exorbitant home prices in specific areas—not only in the United States—can be summed up by Dr. Donald Brash, former Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, in his conclusion of the 4th annual Demographia International Affordable Housing Survey in 2008, “the affordability of housing is overwhelmingly a function of… the extent to which government place artificial restrictions on the supply of residential land” (Demographia, 2008 p. 1). The economic principles of this conclusion are fairly basic. The increased values of the homes create market incentives, through prices, for developers and investors to build and invest in housing in these specific areas, increasing the supply and bringing down the prices. Home prices become more “affordable” as the market itself pushes the prices towards equilibrium. This market mechanism is perverted by land use restrictions, creating an artificial dearth that inevitably always leads to higher prices.
One of the areas, coastal California, which was mentioned earlier, is a lucid example of how the artificial scarcity of land can drive up the prices of existing homes at the expense of those that do not already own one. Among the “growth-management” restrictions attributed to the artificial scarcity of land were promulgated for the purpose of preserving “open space,” “saving farmland,” “protecting the environment,” and “historical preservation,” these, among other local zoning laws with the same effects. Further evidence on how land use restrictions affect price is the rate at which home prices have risen in California since the 1970s, the decade that saw a sharp increase in laws restricting the use of land for housing (Fischel, 1995 pg. 232-234). In San Francisco for example, the median home price was 765,000 dollars, more than three times the national average (Johnson, 2005). In San Mateo County, adjacent to San Francisco, home prices in March 2005, were rising at a rate of 2,000 dollars per day, and peaked at over one million dollars for homes less than 2,000 square feet in 2007 (Simmers, 2007). Prior to the 1970s, a home in San Jose, CA was 2.2 times the median income, in 2005 the median price of a home was 7.5 times median family income there.
These conditions for rising prices were not unique to the bay area but were causing the same hikes in prices all along the coast and to a lesser degree, in the interior valley’s as well (Sowell, 2009). Economist Dr. Thomas Sowell, concludes that affordable housing and its effect on the housing bust, was far from a national problem, and explains that, “its [the busts] origins tended to be concentrated in particular places with unusually high housing prices…” (Sowell, 2009 p. 15) While home prices rose nationwide by 13 percent from 2004-2005, the range was from 4 percent rise in Michigan to a 35 percent rise in Arizona (OFHEO, 2006, p. 1,2,15,16).
It is often mistaken that the rise in home prices is due to an increase in population (demand) alone, as coastal California is more desirable place to live. Furthermore, it may be possible that rising income may have an effect on rising home prices in some areas over others. However, during the decade of the 1970s when home prices began to dramatically increase, income was rising less in California compared to the rest of the country (Fischel, 1995 p. 232-34). Moreover, in San Francisco, population was growing nearly identical to the national average, and in Palo Alto, just south of San Francisco, home prices quadrupled while population fell by 8 percent (Hagler, 1982). Thus, an increase in income and population are inadequate explanations as to why the home prices, in these particular areas, were so disjointed compared to the national averages.
A study of housing prices across the nation conducted in 2006, concluded that overall housing prices have risen over the previous 6 or 7 years, “but this increase has not been uniform across the nation… regions with growth-management planning have seen prices increase 4 to14 percent per year. Regions without such planning have only seen an increase of 1 to 3 percent” (O’Toole, 2006 p. 6). The same study, placing most of the blame on growth-management policies, found that in areas with the most egregious land-use restrictions such as California, people paid a penalty ranging from “$70,000 per median-value home in Bakersfield to $875,000 in the San Francisco metropolitan area” (O’Toole, 2006 p. 6).
In contrast to other cities, such as Houston and Dallas, paints a clearer picture of the effects of limiting supply and perverting the economic incentives to meet demand. The housing market in Houston is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, and is a perfect counter-example to the regulations of markets in coastal California, as it does not have growth-management or zoning laws. During the period of its most rapid growth of nearly a million people from 1990 to 2000, it has also remained one the most “affordable” housing markets, by taking a smaller share of income compared to median home values (O’Toole, 2006 p. 33). In Dallas, while experiencing nearly the same growth rate over the same time period, also maintained among the most affordable housing in country (O’Toole, 2006 p. 33).
Much of the impetus for land-use restrictions and growth-management policies come from environmental groups at the local level who claim they are trying to mitigate over-development and destruction of the environment, when in actuality less than 10 percent of the land in the United States has been developed; in the US, more than six times the area of all the towns and cities in the country put together, are covered by trees (Bruegmann, 2005 p. 143). Furthermore, increased restrictions on the supply of housing also protects and benefits those that already own property, helping to maintain and increase the value of their own homes at the expense of others. Localities will utilize zoning laws in order to restrict the supply of housing for these purposes. In short, the vast majority of the country was not suffering from a lack of “affordable housing” rather, government at the state and local levels were restricting land-use without considering the economic impacts on housing costs. It was a clear cut case of the triumph of political rhetoric over economic principles, a lack of political incentive to think beyond stage one.
The misconception that the free market failed to produce affordable housing, and the political rhetoric thereof, in part, helped to spark the federal governments involvement in the housing boom and bust. The federal government was essentially trying to fix a problem created by state and local public policy/regulations with more public policies and regulations at the federal level. The hard evidence shows that where there was little government intervention, the market provided more affordable housing than those with land-use restrictions. The subsequent creative financing schemes in those areas where prices were skyrocketing only hastened the problem, leading to financial calamity. Based on the empirical evidence that has since been acquired, hopefully it’s a mistake we will not make again.
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