New York Example: What Happens When Housing Supply Increases? Prices Go Down!

Remember my frustrating conversation with a legislator about there not being any guarantee that builders and landlords wouldn’t just pocket the difference if costs created by regulation went down? I pointed out that if costs went down and supply went up competition would ensue and prices would fall; it’s called the invisible hand. Well here’s a long quote from a story about the housing market in New York City.

Manhattan landlords offered concessions on 27 percent of all new leases signed in September, almost double the share from a year earlier, Miller Samuel and Douglas Elliman said. That’s helped keep rents relatively steady, with the monthly median falling only 0.4 percent to $3,334 after incentives are subtracted.

In Brooklyn, 20 percent of new leases came with concessions. But there, the deals weren’t enough to contain a slide in rents. The median last month dropped 5.6 percent, the most since March 2015, to $2,757.

There were 2,467 apartments listed for rent in Brooklyn at the end of September, which is 37 percent more than the monthly average for the last five years, Miller Samuel and Douglas Elliman said. Manhattan’s inventory of 7,363 units was 21 percent higher than the five-year monthly average. The vacancy rate in the borough climbed last month to 2.63 percent from 2.38 percent a year earlier.

The added supply eased the search for Garrett Barnard, who returned to New York last month after almost a year in San Francisco. The 27-year-old web designer set a rent budget of $4,500 for a two-bedroom apartment in the vicinity of Greenwich Village, to share with a roommate who’s attending New York University (emphasis mine).

There really isn’t much more to say, it’s right there in black and white. Not only to prices go down and landlords compete with landlords over tenants rather than tenants competing with tenants, but those tenants don’t need subsidies of any kind. When market prices fall, the ratio of lots of people’s income reaches the governments normative standard of 30 percent or less spend on housing as being “affordable.” While I don’t think this measure helps very much, it does drive out subsidy dollars. Part of what is frustrating is the ongoing disbelief here in Seattle that increased supply will lower prices, period. When those prices go down, more demand is absorbed by the market and subsidies for truly struggling families go a longer way.

This is not an oversimplification. But ideology and mythology die slow and painful deaths. What we need now is an analysis of what happens when market prices fall like they are in New York to waiting lists for subsidies. My guess is that the pressure on the housing authority and non-profit waiting lists drops, and more people are able to get into those apartments. But this won’t happen if we keep stifling supply with a growing list of impediments to building housing.

Seattle Times is More Incoherent on Housing than Ever

I’ve tried. I really have. But I think the Seattle Times is officially hopeless. Here’s what they said in their endorsement of Jenny Durkan last week:

On housing, both candidates should be more cautious about upzoning single-family neighborhoods. That can decrease affordability by making houses and older buildings more valuable to speculators. Housing policy should be guided by data and collaboration with residents, not special interests, backroom deals and divisive rhetoric.

Rental supply is rapidly increasing in Seattle with nearly 37,000 apartments being built now or in the pipeline. But the supply of houses to own is at risk. City plans say there is enough capacity for projected growth without rezoning.

Single-family neighborhoods are essential to Seattle’s livability and appeal as a place to start careers, companies and families.

Buying homes is hard in today’s market but remains an important path to the middle class for immigrants, millennials and others. This opportunity shouldn’t be further diminished.

First of all, and those goes to the Times and to “urbanists” who have been distracted by single-family upzones, there are not going to be any upzones to single-family zones. It’s not going to happen. Furthermore, it’s a red herring. Builders are struggling to build housing in the low-rise zones because of overreaching regulation. The so called missing middle (which I wrote about a long time ago) is already being built, but it’s slowly being stomped out by the Council.

Second, a much more rational City Council than the current one decided to eliminate most new single-family housing in single-family zones! As Mugatu would say, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.” It’s as if our long battle to save small-lot development and our total defeat at the hands of the Council never happened.

I’ve used the graphic above as a reminder. Our proposal was totally rational and proportional. We wanted to build small houses on small lots with set backs on the front, back, and side along with height limits. You can see that the small-lot housing we were talking about legalizing would have been smaller than what the code already allows for single-family housing. Furthermore, lots in our proposal would only be buildable if they were no smaller than the average size of all the lots on the block face. This proposal was totally and completely rejected and ended small-lot development as a source of housing supply in single-family.

Do you get it now?

And no, allowing more housing in single-family zones doesn’t make it more valuable to speculators; it makes it more valuable to the owners of existing single-family lots! 

Hello? Can you hear me?

The last two paragraphs have left many people in town slack jawed. What? With single-family housing prices reaching into the low $600,000 range in Seattle how in the hell is anyone supposed to “start a career” or find a path to homeownership. Immigrants? Huh? If anything what I just said ensures that the prices will keep climbing. We’re not building anymore but the demand isn’t going to diminish.

And as if it wasn’t obvious enough how confused and upside down the Seattle Times editorial board and their reporters are, here’s what Seattle Fair Growth, an anti-growth single-family protectionist group, said in response to the editorial:

We appreciate the above statement from the Seattle Times editorial board.

Will a Carbon Tax in Washington State Raise Housing Prices?

My first answer to the question in the headline is, “Of course!” Taxation, especially indirect taxation of the fuel that is used in trucks and equipment used in the construction process, would boost costs that would have to be passed on to consumers. The more honest answer is, “I have no idea, only a guess.” What do the experts say? It’s difficult to tell because after looking around the Internets I found very little in terms of answer the exact question in the headline. Why bring this up? Well, Washington state could be on the verge of passing a carbon tax, especially if Democrats take over the state senate with a win in a hotly contested election on the eastside of Lake Washington, Legislative District 45. What are the questions I’d ask economist on this topic?

(I’m not going to have a discussion about the history of the carbon tax in Washington, but here’s a good post about where things stand currently).

This post is really a think-out-loud post, not a treatise, but I should start by restating my rule of thumb on taxation. Taxes

  1. Raise revenue for things considered to be beneficial to the wider community but that the market may not produce efficiently. For example, parks are not likely going to ever be the highest and best use of a piece of urban property. Therefore, we pay taxes to buy and hold that land for the broader benefit of the community.
  2. Encourage or discourage behavior. We ought to tax things that we want less of and tax in reverse (subsidize) things we want more of. For example, we want less consumption of scarce resources like fossil fuels that also add to pollution and carbon emissions, but we subsidize, in many ways, homeownership by granting tax exemptions.
  3. Redistribute wealth. Taxation can capture and move money around the economy. For example, a single-family homeowner has a lot of wealth in the form of equity in their home. Taxing that equity to support a housing voucher program for a renter with less money is redistributive; so would upzoning the single-family neighborhood to increase supply, although zoning is not taxation.

A carbon tax, therefore, is, in my view, a “good” tax in that it is aimed at reducing the use of a product that contributes to climate change. But back to what it might do to housing prices.

Does taxation lead to inflation?

Here’s a pretty good answer from the Internets:

In Keynesian economics framework, taxes are determinants of aggregate demand. So, increases in taxes lead to lesser demand (as consumers will have less money to spend) and, hence, their impact tend to be deflationary. Similarly, it can be argued that tax cuts will lead to more consumer spending and their impact tend to be inflationary. But aggregate supply remains completely unaffected by changes in taxes.

On the other hand, those who discard the above framework, believe that from a supply side perspective, increases in taxes tend to increase the production cost and the burden is passed on from the producers to the consumers in the form of indirect taxes. So, the prices of goods and services will rise leading to inflation. Therefore there is no perfect equation between taxation and inflation.

I think that says it all. It depends on the assumptions made on how the market will react to a tax; less spending and lower demand, or higher costs passed on through higher prices.

What about indirect taxation?

This question is more complicated, of course. This whole question has a lot to do with elasticity, that is, how high can a price for something go before people just quit buying it. Things that people can’t live without can rise in price a lot before they stop buying it or find substitutes. Milk can probably increase in price a lot before people switch to drinking their coffee black or eating cereal with orange juice. Gasoline and housing really don’t have very many substitutes, but people can take transit or move to an area with lower housing prices.

We do have in the United States from all levels of government, indirect taxes. Europe and other countries have often used a Value Added Tax or VAT. This is a tax that is on the incremental increases in value of the production of a product from raw materials to point of sale to the consumer. Theoretically, these kinds of taxes mean the final price of the product reflects all the taxes paid a long the way. A study by the Bank of Greece looking at whether these taxes contributed to inflation led them to conclude that, “in general, although the importance of indirect taxes as a factor influencing inflation is indisputable.” But they also found that,

The contribution of indirect taxes to inflation for the year 2012 came mainly from the rise in the special consumption tax on heating oil in the last quarter of the year and from the changes in VAT (mostly moves to different rates) carried out in 2011 and fully reflected in prices in 2012. This carry-over effect was 0.19 percentage point from the VAT increase and 0.29 percentage point from SCTs. In total, indirect taxes contributed 0.48 percentage point to inflation

Do carbon taxes boost inflation?

Our neighbor to the north, Canada has a carbon tax, and it has been identified as a cause for an increase in overall inflation:

Canadian inflation spiked to its highest rate in more than two years in January, as new carbon taxes in Alberta and Ontario fuelled a surge in gasoline prices.

Statistics Canada reported that the consumer price index was up 2.1 per cent year over year in January, the fastest pace since October, 2014, and up sharply from 1.5 per cent in December. It said gasoline prices were up 20.6 per cent from a year earlier, the biggest increase since September, 2011. The increase reflected the introduction of a carbon tax in Alberta and a cap-and-trade carbon pricing system in Ontario, both of which came into effect on Jan. 1, as well as higher crude-oil prices, which lifted fuel costs nationwide.

However, the same article offers that

Economists said generally rising inflation numbers reflect the pickup in Canada’s economy over the past six months, although they have been tempered by a generally rising Canadian dollar, which cools costs for imported goods.

So when carbon taxes kick in, they boost fuel prices that contribute to the overall measure of inflation. But that addition to aggregate price increase is a contribution doesn’t mean inflation is attributable to a carbon tax.

Does taxation boost the price of housing?

Well, it’s a complicated and tangled issue because most of the literature considers “housing” almost as the same as “mortgage;” that is, people, even researchers and economists think of housing as single-family housing purchased with a loan as an investment in an appreciating asset, not an apartment paid with a rent check once a month. And our tax code strongly favors mortgages (remember my #2 rule of thumb above). So an analysis by the Brookings Institution found

As capital gains taxes go up, so does the value of the capital gains exclusion on housing. (To put it another way, if capital gains and dividend tax rates were 100 percent, all investors would put their money in tax-favored investments like housing and municipal bonds.) Like the increase in ordinary income tax rates, a higher capital gains rate makes housing more valuable.

This comment is about 7 years old and is looking at a proposal on increase capital gains taxes. But because exemptions on mortgages would be exempt, then people subject to those taxes would push money there. So, the researcher said,

In recent research, I’ve found that increases in rates on both capital gains and ordinary income would boost metropolitan housing prices by between 7 and 10 percent, with larger hikes for cities on the coasts.

That doesn’t help us learn very much about how increased costs of production impact all housing prices, including rentals. It does show how we’ve slanted our tax structure to favor and incentivize ownership of single-family homes.


My guess is that a carbon tax in Washington State would increase overall inflation since the tax will eventually get passed on to the consumer in higher fuel prices, and fuel prices are always part of the calculation of the inflation rate. Producing housing does rely significantly on vehicles and equipment that use fuel, and that means those costs will end up in the price tag of housing. How much additional cost? It’s hard to say. Most carbon tax proposals have provisions to help poorer families with the additional costs associated with the tax. How would this ameliorate higher costs of living associated with a carbon tax? I don’t know.

As of today, my big concern is that along with impact fees, Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning (MIZ), proposed increase to the Real Estate Excise Tax (REET), design review requirements, and the myriad of other fees, regulations, and rules already choking supply, a carbon tax would be yet another log on the inflationary fire. Does that mean the legislature shouldn’t pass a carbon tax? Not necessarily. But it does mean that proponents of more housing supply need to lean on state and local government to stop taxing new housing and slowing its production. Pass a carbon tax, but not before we ensure that we’ve reduced all the other bad taxes that are adding to people’s struggle to make ends meet.



Moon and Durkan: Neither Candidate Has What We Need for More Housing

I’ve got some good news and some bad news. We’ve looked at 21 resumes, done the interviews, and winnowed it down to two candidates. The bad news is that when it comes to housing, neither of the finalist are qualified. We’re gonna have to open up the position again. That’s what I’d do if I was the hiring manager bringing on a new Mayor after watching the two final candidates, Jenny Durkan and Cary Moon, answer questions about housing in a recent debate on KOMO. The Seattle Times has the whole debate on line. Let’s look at two key answers to see why we have to go back to the drawing board.

The question is what would you do about housing prices?

Here’s part of Durkan’s answer:

We could make almost every single-family lot into a triplex over night. But we’re having impediments. We need to make it a priority and the Mayor needs to say to the zoning and housing people we’re gonna speed up affordable housing, we’re gonna give people the ability to have density and then we’ll move forward.

Does Durkan really want to turn every single-family lot into a triplex over night? I doubt it. Not even advocates for densifying single-family neighborhoods have said anything like that. And if she really did, how would she accomplish such a technically and politically ambitious goal? She acknowledges that we have “impediments.” Like deep and ugly opposition to density among single-family homeowners who have convinced the City Council, in succession, to stop development of single-family homes in single-family zones with crushing legislation ending small-lot development, legislation ending congregate microhousing, and legislation essentially downzoning low-rise zones, zones that already allow the so called “missing middle” housing in Seattle. It isn’t missing, it’s just really hard and expensive to build with growing regulatory requirements like water main extension and many others. And there is more coming, like Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning, impact fees, and more design review.

How would Mayor Durkan overcome these “impediments?” She would talk to the “zoning and housing people.” Who are the zoning and housing people? I can just imagine Mayor Durkan on her first day in office asking, “Let’s go talk with those zoning and housing people. Where are they anyway?” Well, Mayor, they work for you. And what in the world does, “speed up affordable housing” in this context mean? Putting rocket boosters on an Seattle Housing Authority high rise? Clearly Durkan is just tossing a very special housing word salad. The recipe is “affordable housing” with “duplex and triplex” and a dash of “zoning” tossed vigorously with “speed.” Durkan simply doesn’t know the housing issue and doesn’t want to get any better. But she is doing a great Casey Stengel impression.

How about Moon’s response.

This housing market with these steep price escalations, rising twice as fast as any other city in the country, is simply not natural. There’s something happening in our housing market that we need to understand and it’s speculation and we need to look at the data the shows exactly the dynamic and put in the right disincentive to stop it.

Hmmm. Something happening. Something not natural. Something terrifying. Something not of this Earth! Run for the hills!

Of course Moon is speaking of THEM, the evil cabal of foreign investors mostly from China who are pouring vast amounts of capital into Seattle, buying up lots of housing, emptying it out and leaving it empty. Except this isn’t happening. And I was profoundly disappointed first to hear Moon still rambling about this nonsense, but in such conspiratorial terms. Not natural? How bizarre. Of course it’s natural: it’s called supply and demand. See, if you have a lot of people wanting something, and there isn’t a lot of that thing, well….well. Well, forget it. Moon isn’t listening. I would have been satisfied had she spoken of the need to gather more data and to figure out if there is a “speculation” problem. But her ranking that as the first thing she’d do and her weird conspiracy take means she’s still not connected to how the housing economy works.

So on the one hand we have a candidate, Jenny Durkan who knows nothing about housing economics and is doing her best to say lots of words that make people think she does, and another candidate who seems to know about housing but has all the wrong ideas. Neither candidate has evolved or shown any interest in talking with people who actually build housing in the city. Maybe Durkan really is looking for those, “housing and zoning people.” Well, we’re here! And I suppose Moon will keep looking for Bigfoot. In either case neither candidate has demonstrated an ability to get to the main problem we have in Seattle with housing: we’re not making enough. And if we are going to be smart about subsidies we need to make sure that we don’t boost the price of market housing so high with overreaching regulation that people making $100,000 qualify for assistance. It’s actually pretty simple: build more, then build even more, then build more than that. Whoever is still struggling with housing costs after that gets lots of help.




McNellis on Housing: It’s Not About More Money but Fewer Rules

A while back at a Urban Land Institute event I had a chance to meet John McNellis who writes brilliantly on housing in California. He’s singing my song yet again in his review of a bunch of legislation recently passed by the California legislature. I didn’t need to know a lot about the legislation to know that I agree with his assessment in the headline: it is a band aid. It always will be, mostly, from west coast legislatures that are controlled by Democrats.

When you don’t believe the market works, it becomes about wringing money out of market rate development. Always. It’s what distinguishes a true believer and a market skeptic. You can read my post about worries about lowering prices resulting in higher profits not lower prices. When a person doesn’t believe that reducing costs will lower prices, they always want more money for subsidized housing. Always.

It is not about more money. It’s about too many rules and pandering to the angry neighbors. Period. McNellis says:

To solve the housing crisis, the state needs to encourage market-rate housing through streamlining the zoning process, pay for low-income housing through general taxation and stand up to all of those who would either prevent new housing or render its cost prohibitive.

And those out there who always want to throw a bone to the non-profit housing industrial complex, go ahead and throw it. But that bone should be widely distributed taxes on property, particularly taxes on inefficient use of land, like large lots of single-family housing in the city. If you want to redistribute some wealth, take it from where it is: single-family neighborhoods. Otherwise all we’re doing is making the problem worse, adding costs, slowing production and then wondering why prices keep going up.