A new paper with the above title by urban economists Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko provides more evidence to back up the Antiplanner’s recent paper on the New Feudalism. One of the major points of that paper was that the Obama administration’s plan to force suburbs to relax zoning codes to allow higher density housing is not the solution to housing affordability problems.
Glaeser and Gyourko point out that housing is affordable in most of the country despite zoning. In some parts of the country, however, “property rights have essentially been reassigned from existing land owners to wider communities, which have chosen to substantially reduce the amount of new building.” The result is that the supply curve for housing, which is nearly horizontal (meaning changes in demand have little effect on prices) in communities with traditional zoning, becomes very steep in the overly regulated communities (meaning small changes in demand can result in large changes in prices, i.e., prices will be more volatile).
Glaser & Gyourko make one interesting point that I had not raised. One of the impediments to housing production in California is a state environmental quality act that requires developers to assess the local environmental impacts of new housing. The result is that little new housing has been built in California, forcing people to move to places like Arizona and Texas. But California’s temperate climate means that greenhouse gas emissions there are far lower than in interior states. “If California’s restrictions induce more building in Texas and Arizona, which require far more artificial cooling,” says the paper, “then their net environmental [effects] could be negative in aggregate.”
The New York Times reported on the paper, but I think the writer misstates one of the main points. Instead of viewing homes as an investment, suggested the reporter, Americans should view them as consumer goods and accept that prices will fall. Americans need to “open our eyes to the negatives of the national obsession of owning a home, expecting its value to rise, and using the levers of local government to keep neighborhoods as they are,” says the Times.
Yet homeownership isn’t an “obsession”; it is a natural, worldwide desire to have a predictable, stable home life. Nor does “using the levers of local government to keep neighborhoods as they are” make housing unaffordable: instead, it is using the levers of state or regional government to keep rural areas as they are. While the Antiplanner prefers the Houston model of deed restrictions over zoning, city zoning really isn’t a major problem for affordability so long as there is plenty of unzoned land outside the cities.
In such areas, people don’t buy homes expecting to get rich from rising prices. But they do see the equity they build in their homes as a store of wealth that they can borrow against to start small businesses, put their children through college, or retire on.
The one thing missing from the Glaeser/Gyourko paper and the Times article is a way out of the housing affordability mess. Glaeser/Gyourko suggest a federal program of building large numbers of homes in unaffordable areas, but considering the kind of homes federal bureaucrats are likely to build, this is likely to do more harm than good. The Times falls back on the Obama solution of building higher densities, but that’s not how most Americans want to live, and it seems silly to demand higher densities in states like California and Oregon that are at least 95 percent rural. The best solution to the conundrum, the Antiplanner has suggested, is through the courts, not legislation.
Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute specializing in land use and transportation policy. He has written several books demonstrating the futility of government planning. Prior to working for Cato, he taught environmental economics at Yale, UC Berkeley, and Utah State University.