By Christopher Thornberg, PhD
Editors Note: This posting was originally published on the Opinion Page of the Los Angeles Daily News.
High housing costs continue to be at the center of policy debates in Los Angeles—and across much of the state. This intensifying focus is warranted now more than ever given how the crisis has moved from simply eating up the disposable income of residents to slowing overall employment growth in coastal economies – something driven by a lack of available workers, which in turn is driven by the housing shortage.
Sadly, the many proffered solutions to the problem remain wildly off base and are not likely to accomplish much of anything.
Take the City of Los Angeles’s proposed linkage fee, a fee to be paid by developers of market-rate properties to fund more affordable housing – and something that has been endorsed by many prominent voices in the community in recent weeks. That support has been motivated in part by the results of a recent homeless count done in Los Angeles County, which suggested that there was a 20% increase in the County’s homeless population over the last year. This is a total red herring when it comes to addressing the lack of new housing supply.
The recent homeless census count indicates that the total number of homeless in Los Angeles County is 53,000—a minuscule fraction of the 10 million plus people who call the County home. Moreover, a clear majority of these folks are homeless not because of the high cost of housing but because of mental and/or substance abuse problems, serious issues that would leave them homeless regardless of the current market price of housing. These people desperately need help—but a different kind of help than the linkage fee would provide.
And the few who are helped represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg—for every family that receives support there are another thousand that continue to struggle as rising rents eat into their incomes. Conservatively, the County would need close to one-quarter of a million new units to catch up with current need.
The linkage fee and similar policy proposals being rolled out at the city and county level reveal a deeper problem: Many localities and policymakers simply believe that the free market is not willing or able to create an adequate supply of housing in the region so they pursue punitive measures to make up for these perceived inadequacies.
Such a claim is akin to chaining a mighty eagle to the ground and then accusing it of not being able to fly. The lack of housing in Los Angeles is not due to the market’s failure but rather to the actions and choices of the City’s citizenry and its policymakers who have systematically intervened over many years to slow new development.
Research conducted at UCLA (UCLA Dissertation, The Homeowner Revolution: Democracy, Land Use and the Los Angeles Slow-Growth Movement, 1965-1992, Morrow, Gregory D.) shows how the City has energetically downzoned over the years, shrinking housing capacity from 10 million people to just slightly over 4 million—roughly the same as the current population. Add to that sky high permitting costs imposed by the City, non-stop California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuits, as documented by the lawyers at Holland and Knight (In the Name of the Environment: Litigation Abuse Under CEQA, Jennifer Hernandez, David Friedman, and Stephanie DeHerrera, August 2015), and other rules and taxes including inclusionary housing and prevailing wage requirements, and it becomes obvious why the market is responding so slowly to current price signals.
It is true that what does get built in this town tends to be for higher income households. But this is a natural outcome of the barriers to entry that afflict the system. When supply is artificially limited, what does get produced is going to be concentrated in the highest margin portions of the market. If supply were less restricted and fixed costs reduced, there would be a natural movement towards lower income families. Would costs ever go so low as to entice developers to build ‘affordable housing’ using the public regulatory world definition? Probably not. But in Los Angeles the overall lack of supply keeps middle income families in housing that would otherwise be available for lower income families.
The market should not be blamed for problems created by public policies that have constrained them. Addressing these critical policy issues is the place to start. A few small changes have occurred at the state level, but so far, Sacramento has looked more towards punishing local jurisdictions for not allowing housing, rather than attempting to deal with the true root causes. Everyone is treating the symptoms, not the disease.
Take for example inclusionary housing, the new buzz word in many communities. Past studies conducted by neutral researchers have shown that these policies have very little overall impact on housing affordability in a community. This is because the gains enjoyed by the lucky few families who receive inclusionary housing subsidies are offset by the higher cost of housing for the rest of the population. And ultimately such efforts are tiny compared to the scale of the problem. The $90 million raised per year would support less than 1000 new units. This is less than the annual increase in the housing shortage.
A few places with similar problems are starting to look at more realistic options. Oregon has started to move in the right direction with Oregon HB 2007, a proposal that goes to the next level—it seeks to prohibit local efforts and activities that restricted housing development in the first place. As the old ditty goes when you’re in deep the first thing to do is stop digging. But Oregon’s proposal is controversial, there are many loopholes, and even if it passes it will only prevent new restrictions from being put into place. Until California, Oregon and other development-unfriendly places roll back current market restrictions and fill in the hole, the housing crisis will only get worse.
Christopher Thornberg founded Beacon Economics LLC in 2006. Under his leadership the firm has become one of the most respected research organizations in California serving public and private sector clients across the United States. In 2015, Dr. Thornberg also became Director of the UC Riverside School of Business Center for Economic Forecasting and Development and an Adjunct Professor at the School.