In a letter to The Wall Street Journal (February 6) defending California’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions policies, Governor Arnold Shwarzenegger’s Senior Economic Advisor David Crane noted that California’s high unemployment is the result of “a bust of the housing bubble fueled by easy money.” He is, at best, half right.
The “bust of the housing bubble” occurred not only because of “easy money,” but also because of the very policies California has implemented for decades and is extending in its battle against GHG emissions.
The nation has never had a housing bubble like occurred in California. The Median Multiple (median house price divided by median household income) in California’s coastal metropolitan areas had doubled and nearly tripled over a decade. Housing costs relative to incomes reached levels twice as high as those experienced in the early 1990s housing bubble, which was bad enough.
This is all the more remarkable because even before the bubble the Median Multiple in the Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose metropolitan areas was already elevated at 1.5 times the historic norm.
“Easy money,” by itself, does not explain what caused the unprecedented housing bubble in California. If “easy money” were the sole cause, then similar house price escalation relative to incomes would have occurred throughout the country.
Take, for example, Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston. These are the three fastest growing metropolitan areas in the developed world with more than 5,000,000 population. Since 2000, these metropolitan areas have grown from three to 15 times as fast as Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose. While 1,800,000 people have moved out of the four coastal California metropolitan areas to other parts of the country, 700,000 have moved to Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston from other parts of the country. This is where the demand would have been expected to produce the bubble. But it did not. House prices remained at or near historic norms and average house prices rose one-tenth that of the California coastal metropolitan areas.
These three metropolitan areas were not alone. Throughout much of the nation, in metropolitan areas growing both faster and slower in population than coastal California, house prices simply did not explode relative to household incomes.
In touting “smart land use” as a strategy for greenhouse gas emissions, Crane misses the other half of the equation. Indeed, it is so-called “smart land use” (“smart growth”) that intensified the housing bubble in California. “Smart land use” involves planners telling the market where development will and will not occur. In the process it ignores the price signals of the market. Owners of land on which development is permitted naturally and rationally raise their asking prices, while owners of land not so favored can expect little more than agricultural value when they sell. The result is that the land element of housing prices exploded, fueling the unprecedented bubble. Restrictions on supply naturally lead to higher prices, whether in gasoline, housing or anything else.
California has placed restrictions on development with a vengeance. For nearly four decades, California has woven a tangled web of land use restrictions that have made the state unaffordable. When the demand rose in response to the “easy money” the land use planning systems were unable to respond and a rapid escalation in housing prices followed. The same thing occurred in other areas with excessive land use regulation, such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland, New York, Washington and Miami, though the house price escalation was not so extreme as in coastal California.
On the other hand, where land use still allowed a free interplay of buyers and seller (consistent with rational environmental requirements), the housing bubble was largely avoided. Average house prices in Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston rose only one-tenth that of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose.
When the bubble burst, the far higher house prices naturally tumbled more than in other areas. The price was paid well beyond California and the other “smart land use” markets around the nation. From Washington to Wall Street to Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Wen at Davos, everyone knows that the international finance crisis was precipitated by the US mortgage meltdown.
It all might not have occurred if there had been no “smart land use” markets with their exorbitant and concentrated losses. Overall, the “smart land use” markets represent little more than 30 percent of the nation’s owned housing stock, yet produce more than 85 percent of the housing bubble values at their peak. California style “smart land use” intensified the overall mortgage losses by more than five times. If the losses had been more modest, there might not have been anything like the current mortgage meltdown. With more modest losses, the world financial system might have been able to handle the damage without catastrophe, just as it did with the “dot-com” bubble earlier in the decade. The many households that have lost much of their life savings or retirement income would not be facing the future with fear. And even personally frugal taxpayers of the world would not be the principal stockholders in failing banks.
California needs to wake up and face the reality. The intensity of the housing bubble was of its own making. More “smart land use” is just what California does not need. This is the lesson the rest of the nation needs to learn rather than repeat.
David Crane letter to the editor: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123381050690451313.html
Domestic migration data: http://www.demographia.com/db-metmic2004.pdf
Analysis of the housing bubble: http://www.heritage.org/Research/Economy/wm1906.cfm
House price losses by peak Median Multiple: http://www.demographia.com/db-usahs2008y.pdf
Las Vegas Land Market Analysis: http://www.demographia.com/db-lvland.pdf
Phoenix Land Market Analysis: http://www.demographia.com/db-phxland.pdf
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”