Who Benefits From Lower Housing Prices?

I’ve had a bit of passing fascination with the college admissions scandal that has been in the news lately. A lot of people seem to be outraged, but I’ve heard from many people who—like me—are not surprised that people of wealth and influence sometimes conspire to get their offspring into elite institutions. Some of that lack of surprise is cynicism, of course, but at least some of it is empathy. While I’d like to think that I would not have done the same thing if I’d been in the position to do what those families did to get their kids into college, there are other ways my best intentions and my deeds can easily come into conflict.

The other reason I’m not outraged is a bit more philosophical. Despite being of a generally conservative inclination, I’ve never had a problem with affirmative action in college admissions as a general policy; while there are some instances of excess that offend, I tend to support the broad idea that people who are disadvantaged, at least, would be given extra consideration as a broader policy towards enhancing equality of opportunity.

Now let me be brutally honest with myself for a moment: would I support an affirmative action policy if it meant that one of my two daughters would be denied an opportunity to enter her university of choice?

The egalitarian side of me would like to think so, but I’m honestly not sure. I love my kids a lot. And that means that there is an event horizon that surrounds my family where my parenting instincts overwhelm pretty much all other considerations. While I don’t expect my personal ethics on cheating, stealing, or lying to be that easily negotiable, I have to admit that my support for a broader public policy objective might be compromised if it impacted those I love in such a personal way.

I’m being brutally honest (and a little vulnerable) here in order to make a difficult point about another public issue that can quickly become personal: affordable housing. Because here’s another brutal truth: in our cities today, nobody in a position to seriously impact the affordability of housing ever benefits from housing prices becoming affordable. In fact, the opposite holds true: most every individual or organization in a position to lower housing prices would be harmed by such a result.

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I’ve spent much of the past two weeks on the road (California, DC, New Hampshire) talking about housing issues. I put this slide together and used it many times in my talks. I admit that it lacks nuance—I’m sure there are multiple crossovers and people who can fit into multiple categories—but as a broad concept, I find it insightful. I can always tell when something really resonates because people in the audience get out their phones to take pictures of the slide. And there were lots of pictures of this one.

That’s because the fundamental insight behind it, I think, is important. Governments rely on continually rising housing prices, or else things can go really bad really quickly (see the financial crisis of 2008). Existing homeowners would much prefer to have their housing prices go up than have them stagnate or fall. People making loans on homes, building homes, developing property, or working within the real estate market have many of their mistakes forgiven by appreciating property values. Those who invest—including pension funds and other institutional money—benefit not only from the appreciation of real estate, but also from the overall wealth effect that rising home prices provide.

So a policy approach that lowers home prices is going to run into a lot of structural resistance. And that’s the core cognitive dissonance in our affordable housing conversation: we want housing to somehow become more affordable without prices actually going down. Stated another way, we want people to somehow be able to afford housing while housing itself remains largely unaffordable.

Only die-hard YIMBY movements have been really honest about this disconnect. That’s because the foundation of their thinking is a near-religious belief in the law of supply and demand—and forget the messiness of human irrationality. If supply and demand is your gospel, it makes sense to seek to lower prices by dramatically increasing supply, and that’s what market-focused urbanists do. That would do the trick, for sure, but whether it would actually be the kind of stable and prosperous world they envision is another question.

As with many housing issues, I don’t have a clear three-step plan to make everything work for everyone. Similar to the latest college admissions scandal, it seems that at least part of the conversation needs to acknowledge that even if we truly believe in some vision for an ideal society—whether that includes ample affordable housing or fair college admissions standards or something else entirely—when it comes down to it, our vision for our personal happiness is often at odds with our theoretical utopia. Put another way, individually, we have a vested interest in one approach (rising prices and growth), but collectively, we express an interest in the opposite (broader affordability and housing stability).

If we first make that acknowledgement, we can start to discuss a transition between a housing market dominated by our current distorted craziness and one that is more responsive to human needs.