Thursday , February 27 2020

Housing hope

Summary:
There is a tendency in grumpy land to view the world as heading in the wrong direction. But a believer in our system must be optimistic that it is eventually capable of reform, that we will do the right thing in the end if only after we try everything else, as the saying goes.This thought ...

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There is a tendency in grumpy land to view the world as heading in the wrong direction. But a believer in our system must be optimistic that it is eventually capable of reform, that we will do the right thing in the end if only after we try everything else, as the saying goes.

This thought comes to mind in reading the Horrible Housing blunder in the Economist. The Economist calls housing "The west's biggest policy mistake." And, the ray of hope, even the progressive left in California is beginning to wake up and think about somewhat sensible reform.
 ...just as pernicious is the creeping dysfunction that housing has created over decades: vibrant cities without space to grow; ageing homeowners sitting in half-empty homes who are keen to protect their view; and a generation of young people who cannot easily afford to rent or buy and think capitalism has let them down. ... much of the blame lies with warped housing policies that date back to the second world war and which are intertwined with an infatuation with home ownership. They have caused one of the rich world’s most serious and longest-running economic failures. A fresh architecture is urgently needed.
At the root of that failure is a lack of building, especially near the thriving cities in which jobs are plentiful. From Sydney to Sydenham, fiddly regulations protect an elite of existing homeowners and prevent developers from building the skyscrapers and flats that the modern economy demands. The resulting high rents and house prices make it hard for workers to move to where the most productive jobs are, and have slowed growth. Overall housing costs in America absorb 11% of gdp, up from 8% in the 1970s. If just three big cities—New York, San Francisco and San Jose—relaxed planning rules, America’s gdp could be 4% higher. That is an enormous prize.
To put that into perspective, the worst-case scenarios from climate change, now called the "climate crisis" are 10% of GDP in the year 2100. 4% is a lot!

The economist places much blame on subsidies for (highly leveraged) homeownership, and points out the lack of evidence that it has the civic and political benefits alleged. It does not go on, that highly leveraged homeownership is likely a part of reduced dynamism. People do not get up and move from bad areas, because they own an underwater house there. Renting is a fine contract for mobile people, who change jobs more than in the 1950s, and an economy with shifting opportunities. Landlords also have incentives to keep up property, and often do a better job than indebted homeowners who can send the keys to the bank.
s it possible to escape the home-ownership fetish? Few governments today can ignore the anger over housing shortages and intergenerational unfairness. Some have responded with bad ideas like rent controls or even more mortgage subsidies. Yet there has been some progress. America has capped its tax break for mortgage-interest payments. Britain has banned murky upfront fees from rental contracts and curbed risky mortgage lending. A fledgling yimby—“yes in my backyard”—movement has sprung up in many successful cities to promote construction. 
Yes, even in San Francisco. Of course we are also the land of rent control, subsidized housing, impossible zoning and permitting. But there are cracks in the wall. That the Economist, generally center-left consensus, has caught on is good news.

John H. Cochrane
In real life I'm a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I'm also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. I'm not really grumpy by the way!

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