Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Burgh Diaspora

houston-downtown

Downtown Houston, Texas. (Photo: Jorg Hackemann/Shutterstock)

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

• August 27, 2014 • 4:00 AM

Downtown Houston, Texas. (Photo: Jorg Hackemann/Shutterstock)

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.

In this post, I take on economists Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser. I don’t have a Nobel Prize or a Ph.D. Proceed accordingly. Starting with Krugman:

But why are housing prices in New York or California so high? Population density and geography are part of the answer. For example, Los Angeles, which pioneered the kind of sprawl now epitomized by Atlanta, has run out of room and become a surprisingly dense metropolis. However, as Harvard’s Edward Glaeser and others have emphasized, high housing prices in slow-growing states also owe a lot to policies that sharply limit construction. Limits on building height in the cities, zoning that blocks denser development in the suburbs and other policies constrict housing on both coasts; meanwhile, looser regulation in the South has kept the supply of housing elastic and the cost of living low.

Yes, Krugman concurs with Harvard‘s Edward Glaeser. “Slow-growing states” refers to population change (rate?). Foolishly, Krugman infers migration from population numbers. His words, “Americans are moving to places like Texas, but, in a fundamental sense, they’re moving the wrong way.” In order to understand population growth in Texas cities such as Houston (a Glaeser favorite), start with non-Americans:

“There is no majority group here, not even close,” says Michael Emerson, a Rice University sociologist who studies Houston’s demographic change. He and his research partners put together the 2012 analysis that gave Houston the title of most diverse metropolitan area in America. If you look at the four major ethnic groups — Anglo, black, Asian and Latino — all have substantial numbers in Houston, with no one group dominating. It comes closer to having an equal balance of each group than you would find in New York or Los Angeles.

The city’s transformation to an international megalopolis happened quickly, and only within the past few decades. As the metro area shot to nearly 6 million people, 93 percent of all that growth was non-white.

“Houston runs about 10, 15 years ahead of Texas, 30 years ahead of the U.S., in terms of ethnic diversity and immigration flows,” Emerson says. “So it is fundamentally transformed in a way that all of America shall transform.”

An analysis looking for the relationship between population growth and restrictive housing supply does not control for immigration and birth rates. Krugman pretends that it does, shifting recklessly between population growth and net migration. Houston is an economic draw for all migrants, not a zoning free-for-all. The Texas population miracle deserves more context:

“Historically, if you look at [Texas] growth, about half comes from natural increase and half from migration,” Murdock said. “And the migration numbers were about 50-50, with a little more domestic than international. But when we look at numbers through 2012, about a third of that is international and two-thirds domestic migration.

Indeed, albeit quite recently, domestic migration is adding much more people to the overall count than immigration. That zoning restrictions curtail population growth is a myth. Nothing in Glaeser’s work (which looks at an era when only 25 percent of Texas population growth came from domestic migration) supports such a conclusion. Yet here he is overstating his own research:

The development industry should then be tasked with doing what it does best: building on a vast scale. The places in America that are growing and inexpensive are cities like Atlanta and Houston, where developers have been given a comparatively free hand. …

… And ultimately, if New York wants to make sure that less wealthy people can still afford the city, then the natural solution is housing vouchers. The federal government moved from public housing to vouchers 40 years ago.

Instead of creating a distinct stock of affordable units, vouchers provide support to allow poorer people to pay market rates and to choose where they want to live. With modern technology, landlords need not even know if their tenant is using a voucher, so the poor-door threat is minimized.

Glaeser’s policy recommendations (“pro-building”) are more political ideology than rational choice. Attempts to cool demand are not palatable to certain interests. Hence this comment from a Federal Reserve Bank study I referenced in my last post:

Despite the reasoning showing that limited income is the primary problem and that public subsidies that can be used outside the housing market are generally the reasonable response, some policymakers will only support government subsidies for housing. These policymakers will have to choose between programs that build new units and those that provide households with the equivalent of cash for housing (that is, vouchers). During that decision process, policymakers must address the evidence that housing vouchers appear able to put households into affordable housing units at a significantly lower cost than production programs. Housing vouchers might prove less effective than production programs where government restrictions significantly impede the market supply of housing. In these cases, policymakers should consider the removal of regulations, a challenging task that will require balancing competing interests, including the desire to increase housing quality.

Emphasis added. Those words were written in 2002 and presage Glaeser’s 2014 advice of build more housing and subsidize via vouchers. When one wields a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. However, the current crisis of affordability is not a product of local forces such as land-use regulations:

Going back to the early 2000s, the housing market has been overwhelmingly driven by national phenomena, first the explosion in loose mortgage lending and bubbly prices that finally peaked in 2006, then the collapse in mortgage credit and prices from 2007 to 2010, and then a gradual recovery in prices since then.

The differences between markets through that span are largely in amplitude, not direction. For example, Phoenix home prices rose more during the bubble than national prices, collapsed more during the trough, and consequently have recovered more.

But while national trends like interest rates and mortgage lending standards should influence home prices, many of the forces that should most affect the price of a downtown condo or a suburban split-level are very much local. What kind of job and income growth is a region experiencing? How much does local land-use policy encourage or discourage new housing supply from being built? These are things that ought to determine home prices in a place, but since the early 2000s have been overwhelmed by these national forces.

The local political tension between NIMBYs and free market crusaders does not consider the impacts of national forces on the regional real estate market. This debate inherently fails to properly frame the geographic scale of the problem. On top of that, we have respected expert economists such as Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography. Little wonder why so many communities appear impotent in the face of skyrocketing rents.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

More From Jim Russell

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


Follow us


Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.