Tearing Down American Dream Boundaries: An Imperative


Donald Trump’s election victory has been widely credited attracting households who have been “left behind,” by stagnating or declining income and lost jobs. But the left-behind also includes many households whose    standards of living are being reduced by the rising cost of housing. This is not about affordable housing for low-income households, itself very important, but a crisis among  middle-income households  no longer able to afford their own homes in some parts of the nation.

Indeed, the lack of middle-income housing affordability has been associated with migration from more expensive to less expensive areas. Moreover, more people have been fleeing the states that supported Secretary Clinton, with their inferior housing affordability, and moving to those that supported Donald Trump (a net 1.45 million gain  in just  the last five years), where housing affordability is generally better.

The differences in house prices are stunning. Between 1969 and 2014, the gap between the highest and lowest cost major metropolitan (over 1,000,000 population) housing markets had expanded 260 percent. This increase has been largely driven by markets that have become more restrictively regulated. In the more lightly regulated rental market the gap between the highest and lowest expanded only 30 percent, just one-ninth the change in the house price gap.

In some highly regulated markets, notably California, it has become all but impossible to build the consumer-favored detached housing in the suburbs associated with the “American Dream.”

In recent decades, California house prices have risen to as much as triple the costs relative to household incomes that exist in much of the rest of the country. A dense mesh of environmental regulation has been implemented,   far stronger than EPA regulations. Large parts of metropolitan areas are now off-limits for efficient housing tract construction, prohibited by “urban growth boundaries,” which can be characterized as “American Dream Boundaries.”

Progressive politicians, dominant in California, talk incessantly about housing affordability, but blindly pursue policies that will make things even worse. It should not be surprising that the housing-cost adjusted poverty rate in California is the worst in union, underperforming even Mississippi. It should also not be surprising that Californians of every age group, including Millennials, are leaving state in larger numbers than they are being attracted.

The San Francisco Bay Area’s two large metropolitan areas (San Jose and San Francisco) are the most unaffordable in the nation and rank fourth and seventh most unaffordable in the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey among major metropolitan areas in nine nations. House prices have more than tripled relative to incomes since radical land-use regulation began. The problem is not a shortage of land. The Bay Area has more than enough developable land to accommodate up to four times the population. The shortage is in the amount of land governments allow to be developed. As a result, the Bay Area has become a rigged market that excludes many middle-income households by making housing unaffordable. This may be a boon for older property owners, but the burden falls most heavily on households that are minority or young. California’s housing affordability crisis is a profound public policy failure.

The problem extends beyond California, especially to places like Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Colorado, Maryland, and northern Virginia. The net effect is that households pay much more the necessary for housing and have a lower standard of living that is necessitated by government policy. It is no wonder that people think the future is less bright for their children.

Moreover, no one should be misled by planning fantasies that backyard “Granny flats” or high-rise apartment towers are the answer. They have their market, but it does not include most aspiring households. Government has no business lowering living standards by forcing house prices up.

A mortgage on a median priced house requires a qualifying income approximately double the median household income in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose (10 percent down payment assumption). In much of the country, by contrast, housing remains affordable, as in the past. A median income household can comfortably afford the median priced house in metropolitan areas like Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and Kansas City.

More Jobs and Economic Growth

But beyond the lower standards of living attributable to American Dream Boundaries, building fewer detached houses than households demand has an important economic cost.

Research by Chang-Tai Hseih of the University of Illinois, Chicago and Enrico Moretti at the University of California indicates that the gross domestic product was $2 trillion less than would have been expected in 2009, largely due to housing regulation. Matthew Rognlie of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the widening inequality gap found by French economist Thomas Piketty was largely due to housing and suggested expanding the housing supply and re-examining land-use regulation.

Jason Furman, President Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors has shown that single family houses make 2.5 times the contribution of apartment units to the gross domestic product. This fact eluded President Obama’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has spent years roaming the country inducing local officials to implement the policies like those noted above that make housing less affordable.

But, as Furman’s data indicates, the detached housing Americans overwhelmingly prefer is better for the economy. This means more good jobs in building homes, economic ripple effects and additional revenues for local governments.

Yet, seven years after the  Great Recession, California’s detached house construction rate is barely one half the national average.

Much of this has to do with a planning philosophy called “smart growth,” often accompanied by prohibitions on new housing on the urban fringe. But there is nothing smart about policies that raise the price of houses for struggling families. Nor is there anything smart about reducing people’s standards of living. The more important priorities of facilitating better standards of living and reducing poverty are turned on their head by such myopic policies.

It is time to restore priorities that put people first. Building the housing that people want would not only improve living standards, but would also boost the economy. The American Dream Boundaries need to be torn down.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Photograph: Suburban Kansas City (by author)