We Lack The Will Not The Way
There isn’t much disagreement on why we lack housing of every type in the Unted States today.
There is simply not enough new building to replace existing housing units that are obsolete, destroyed, and to accommodate our increased population. Economists are not in disagreement that we need to have more, not fewer, dwelling units constructed. Then why is it so hard to accomplish it?
From NIMBYism to a human tendency to want to keep everything the same, throughout the country we see continued resistance to what is obvious to anyone willing to look at the statistics. Yet to quote Jonathan Swift, “There are none so blind as those that will not see.”
In 2018, Freddie Mac estimated that the nation had a deficit of 2.5 million housing units. Last year, the deficit had increased to 3.8 million. The United States is structurally undersupplied, and it is becoming worse. Now with interest rates rising, single family home starts declined by 93,000 in June alone.
If the unit deficit is coupled with the rise in the cost of material and labor to build new units, then supply will never meet demand. We are producing fewer units than we did in 2000. This drives up the cost of housing to a high not seen at any other time in our history.
With more and more single-family homes out of the reach of homebuyers, most new family formations may have to live in rentals. Even in the rental market, the costs of land, materials, labor, and development including government fees and requirements, demand that there needs to be more units in each project. This has resulted in low vacancy rates for multi-family housing unseen since the early 1950s.
After World War II, the federal and state governments realized that thousands of returning veterans had no place to call home. They and their families shared dwelling units with others. The government saw the need to initiate a variety of programs to stimulate housing construction from FHA and veterans’ loans to programs to build affordable rentals.
Sometime beginning in the 1960s as the great migration from city to suburb occurred, we began seeing subsidized housing as minority housing. Great swaths of cities became slums because of the deterioration of neighborhoods left by the move to the suburbs commonly known as “white flight.” It lessened the constituency willing to support these housing programs. That was 60 years ago. At this point, we need to again re-examine the role of government in the creation and maintenance of the housing supply.
Government must re-enter the housing market by stimulating construction of new units. This can be accomplished by guaranteeing a portion of rent for individuals who cannot afford to pay the market amount. There are various programs now, but they need to be vastly expanded.
Vouchers to renters and government-backed low-interest loans to builders can be two of tools employed. Interest rates can be tied to the number of rent vouchers the builder pledges to accept. Market conditions prevail and the tenants only pay what they can afford with the government picking up the difference.
Local communities can change zoning to allow more multi-family housing to be built. Without changes to the idea that multi-family housing is somehow inferior to single family units, we can never dig our way out of this deficit. At the same time, we need to allow every single-family home to have an accessory dwelling unit.
The legalization of such units would allow hundreds of thousand of homes to be created at existing sites. This would lead to very little change to the character of these neighborhoods. However, opponents continue to use this reason and others as an excuse to block accessory dwelling units.
States may have to become involved by mandating local communities to do the things I have recommended. Increasing housing, especially affordable housing, is not cheap. The latter requires the federal government to pledge billions.
We need to find equilibrium in the housing market. That may require Americans to adjust their thinking regarding people who live in rentals as compared to home ownership. Costs will continue to make single family living more and more unattainable for vast numbers of us. Let us not throw up artificial barriers to having enough homes for all.