The Antiplanner has spent the last week in Britain, and everywhere I went people were talking about Brexit: the vote in June on whether Britain should leave the European Union. Britain originally joined the union when it was a free-trade area, but since then it has grown increasingly intrusive on the economies of its member states.
While those intrusions are costly to Britain, the country’s biggest economic problem is self-inflicted: the housing crisis that makes Britain one of the least-affordable housing markets in the world. That crisis directly results from land-use laws passed to contain urban growth within specified boundaries. Since passing the first of these laws, the Town & Country Planning Act of 1947, British housing has not only grown more expensive, the nation has experienced four housing bubbles and collapses.
Until 1860 or so, all of the land in Britain was owned by an aristocracy that made up less than 4.5 percent of the population. Today, more than 60 percent of families nominally own the land they live on, though I use the word “nominally” because the official position of the government remains that “The Crown is the ultimate owner of all land in England and Wales.” This probably refers to alloidal title, while individuals may own a fee-simple title or freehold.
The Antiplanner recently listed more than half a dozen academic papers that concluded that growth management makes housing more expensive. To this number might be added a paper (really a lengthy blog post with some neat graphics) by economist Issi Romem, who works for the real-estate web site BuildZoom. Romem finds that urban areas with unaffordable housing haven’t expanded geographically to match their population growth, while areas that have expanded geographically remain affordable.
An article in the Wall Street Journal breathlessly reports this as news, when it is only news to those who have drunk the kool-aide of urban planning. The writer of the article, Laura Kusisto, has apparently listened to too many urban planners herself, for she reports that urban “sprawl” has a “tendency to lead to oversupply that can lead home prices to crash.”
This is completely wrong; the cities that Romem reports have grown geographically did not bubble and crash in the 2000s. Instead, the urban areas that saw housing prices crash are the ones that tried to contain sprawl. Too bad the WSJ can’t afford to hire reporters who understand a smattering of economics, such as the fact that restricting supply makes a good inelastic which in turn makes its price more volatile.
A new report from Hawaii’s Grassroot Institute argues that Hawaii’s land-use laws must be repealed because they discriminate against low-income minorities. Hawaii was the first state to pass a land-use law in 1961, and not coincidentally it has the least affordable housing in the nation.
The 2014 American Community Survey found that median home prices in Hawaii were 6.7 times median family incomes, compared with the national average of 2.7. These high prices had pushed low-income minorities to leave the state: while urban Honolulu had grown by 12 percent between 2000 and 2010, the urban area’s black population declined by 4 percent.
Hawaii’s 1961 land-use law divided lands in the state into urban, agriculture, and conservation (later a fourth category, rural, was added). While the supposed purpose was to protect Hawaii’s agricultural sector, in fact it destroyed it because high housing prices increased labor costs and plantations and canneries can’t compete with those in places like Fiji and Costa Rica.
In the minds of Australians, the term “Australian dream” is even more firmly associated with homeownership than the term “American dream” is in the minds of Americans. For more than a century, Australia has enjoyed higher homeownership rates than the United States.
Yet now the Australian dream is nearly dead thanks to state land-use restrictions that have made Australian housing some of the most expensive in the world. According to Wendell Cox’s housing survey of English-speaking countries, Sydney, Australia is the second-least affordable urban area, with only Hong Kong being less affordable. Hong Kong at least has an excuse of somewhat limited land area.
Some blame the housing crisis on the “concentration of wealth,” when in fact the opposite is true: by making housing expensive, the government has concentrated wealth in the hands of existing homeowners at the expense of renters and recent and aspiring homeowners. Others suggest that Australians should dream about something else, as if there is little anyone can do to ever make housing affordable again.
Like the apocryphal story of the state legislature that passed a law dictating that pi equals 3, the Oregon state legislature has passed two laws that pretend the laws of supply & demand don’t exist. The difference is that, in reality, no state legislature ever did pass a law saying that pi equals 3, but Oregon’s legislature is totally ignoring basic economic principles.
First, earlier this week, the legislature passed a new minimum wage law increasing the minimum to as high as 14.75 per hour in the Portland area by 2022 (with lower minima for other parts of the state). This will supposedly be the highest in the nation, but only in the unlikely event that no other state raises its minimum wage in the next six years. However, after adjusting for the cost of living, Oregon’s new minimum wage probably is the highest in the nation even before 2022.
Proponents claim the minimum-wage law will improve Oregon’s economy by putting more money in the hands of its residents that they will spend in Oregon businesses. The new minimum wage “is going to be good for Oregon families and is going to add to consumer purchasing power that will benefit our small businesses,” Oregon’s labor commissioner told a reporter. That’s like warming the bed by cutting off one end of a blanket and sewing it on to the other end. If increasing the minimum wage does so much good, why not increase it to $15 right away? Or $50? Or $500?
Will the Oregon legislature pass an affordable housing bill that is more symbolic than effective? (And in fact is likely to do more harm than good.) Or should it do something that will truly fix the regions’ housing markets?
“The only real solution for Oregon’s housing crisis is to eliminate the growth boundaries. Until then, everything else is just window dressing.”
Last week, the Federal Housing Finance Agency released its quarterly home price indices for the fourth quarter of 2015, so we now have a 41-year time series for every state and many metropolitan areas. The numbers show that, even after adjusting for inflation, housing prices in the San Francisco Bay Area have exceeded prices during the peak of the housing bubble.
The data show that prices are also rising for some metro areas, such as Houston and Dallas, that didn’t bubble in the 2000s (see chart below). However, this increase is due to higher incomes in those areas; the home value-to-income ratios have remained about the same, while those for the metro areas in the above chart have increased from the post-bubble crash. Austin’s increase is partly caused by strict regulation in the city, though many of its suburbs remain affordable.
Many signs indicate that the economy is headed into another recession. The stock market is dropping. China’s growth is slowing. The Baltic Dry Index is at its lowest level in history, which means there is less international trade. Many predict that housing prices are about to collapse again.
While progressives such as Naomi Klein blame capitalism for these problems, the reality is that our current economic doldrums are the fault of too much government. As investment analyst Lacy Hunt points out, all of the economic tinkering since the 2008 crash has failed to spur the economy.
Some of it has done more harm than good. Remember when Chrysler and General Motors were taken over by the government to prevent them from going bankrupt–and then the government immediately forced them into bankruptcy? In a normal corporate reorganization, bond holders have first claim on the assets of the company. But the Obama Administration zeroed out Chrysler’s bonds in favor of its labor unions. That meant automakers would have to pay a premium for any future bond sales. Inconsistent government policies make investments risky and drive investors to less productive areas of the economy.
Usually, The Economist lives up to its name in analyzing important issues. But it misses the point in its latest article on housing affordability. The article notes that the British government has set a target of building enough homes so that real housing prices rise only 1 percent faster than inflation.
That’s an idiotic target. First, why should housing prices rise faster than inflation at all? In a market unhampered by government regulation, housing prices will rise and fall with incomes, and rising incomes lead to higher prices because people buy bigger or more luxurious homes, not because homes themselves rise in price faster than inflation.
Second, the idea that government planning can control housing prices is as bad as the idea that government should plan housing in the first place. The government’s plan is to relax some housing regulation, which is good, and to subsidize new homes, which just transfers the burden from one group of people to another. What the government should do is get out of the way entirely.
Paul Krugman asks, “Is vast inequality necessary?” His answer is that some inequality is “inevitable,” but “the rich don’t have to be as rich as they are.”
But maybe the problem isn’t the rich are too rich. Maybe the problem is the poor aren’t rich enough. Like Bernie Sanders, who accuses Trump of being a demagogue and then spends most of his speeches lambasting the wealthy, Krugman wants to blame the wealthy for being rich. But the wealthy aren’t the ones who put policies in place that keep the poor oppressed.
The Antiplanner recently met Alan Graham, who helps homeless people in Austin. He says the homeless have too many health problems to make good employees, but they are very entrepreneurial. But the only entrepreneurial activity they are legally allowed to engage in is begging, because the courts have ruled that begging is a First Amendment right. Anything else they would like to do, even just open a lemonade stand, requires fees they can’t afford and permits from a bureaucracy they can’t understand. These rules were made by middle-class bureaucrats and progressive elected officials, not the wealthy.