Why Is There a Housing Crisis? 

Yes, we need more housing. But the real "market distortions" propelling the crisis are inequality, speculation, financial bloat, tax havens, and more.

The Bay Area's outrageous housing prices have led to howls of protest. Average rents have shot up by half during the last five years. Rents and house prices are the highest of any metropolitan area in the country and among the most unaffordable in the world. This is not just true of San Francisco but applies to the entire Bay region — now twelve counties and 8.5 million people, according to the US Census.

According to mainstream policy shops and planners, such as Gabriel Metcalf, president and CEO of the pro-urban growth organization SPUR, the housing crisis is caused by activists and neighborhood residents who oppose more market-rate housing development. Their solution is to allow developers to build more freely.

But while it's true that we need to expand the region's housing supply, building more housing cannot solve the problem as long as demand is out of control, as it is today. There is simply no way housing could have been built quickly enough to avoid the price spike of the current boom.

Three basic forces are driving the Bay Area's housing prices upward: growth, affluence, and inequality. Three other things make matters worse: finance, business cycles, and geography. All of these operate on the demand side of the equation, and demand is the key to the runaway housing market.

The prime mover of housing prices is economic growth. The Bay Area has been booming for the last five years, creating more than 500,000 new jobs on a base of 3 million. This is the global capital of tech, the world's most dynamic industry, and all those jobs have drawn in thousands of newcomers looking for housing. Moreover, tech delivers huge profits and pays high salaries and wages, as do other key sectors, like biomedical and finance. The Bay Area's per capita income has long been one of the highest in the country, and high incomes give people the wherewithal to pay top dollar for housing.

On top of this, income distribution is highly unequal, and wealth inequality is even worse, allowing the upper classes to put additional pressure on the market for good housing in favored locations. The Bay Area has one of the highest indexes of income inequality of any region, caused principally by the high salaries of the top 20 percent of earners. As for wealth, the Bay Area has more millionaires per capita than any other US metro and can claim 45 of the 400 richest people in the United States, second only to New York City.

Most people understand these essential drivers of the housing market, if not how extreme they are in the Bay region. But much more lies behind the runaway rents and sale prices of late. We need to think outside the box of simple supply and demand and look further at a trio of conditions shaping demand: credit and capital, boom and bust cycles, and the spatial preferences of the elite.

First, housing is a big-ticket item that normally requires a mortgage, and an excess of credit will exaggerate people's ability to purchase houses. California had the most overheated mortgage markets during the housing bubble of the 2000s, and our financial institutions have not been substantially reformed. Finance is subject to dramatic swings, and the pressure becomes unbearable at the peak of the cycle. Furthermore, footloose capital from around the world has once again been flooding into the Bay Area in search of high returns, whether as venture investments in hot start-ups, stock holdings in tech giants, or purchases of mortgage bonds. All the wealth in tech is not generated locally, nor is all housing demand.

Second, the housing market does not behave like eBay because supply is slow to adjust to demand. It takes a long time to build new units and most people stay in the same residence for years. Hence, only a small percentage of total housing stock comes on the market in any year — normally less than 5 percent — and markets suffer from intense bottlenecks. As expansive demand chases limited supply over the course of a business cycle, prices accelerate ahead of new building. Speculators and landlords intensify the pressure as they buy properties, evict tenants, and displace people in anticipation of even higher rents. The good news is that booms go bust, sooner or later. Construction will overshoot the market, as it always does, and then prices will fall by 10 to 20 percent, as usual.

Third, housing markets are badly distorted by the geography of privilege and power. If the nouveaux riches of the tech world want to live in San Francisco (even if they commute to Silicon Valley), they have the means to outbid working stiffs, families, artists, and the poor; the result, as we've seen, is a city that has become richer and whiter with remarkable speed. And that's just the tip of the iceberg: The greatest distortion to housing markets is the demand by the wealthy for exclusive, leafy, space-eating suburbs from Palo Alto to Orinda. These favored enclaves reduce overall housing supply by using low-density zoning to block the high-rises and apartments that provide moderate priced homes (not to mention low-income public housing).

So is there no recourse? Since the biggest sources of the housing crisis lie in the general conditions of contemporary capitalism — the tech boom, gross inequality, frothy finance, boom and bust cycles, and the power of the elites — local reforms can only do so much. Without a major political upheaval for financial control, higher taxes, equality, and more public spending, we are in for perennial housing crises. The housing market can never heal itself under existing conditions.

But some things can be done locally. Rent control with reasonable annual increases works quite well to dampen overheated markets. Eviction controls are critical, along with other restrictions on speculation. Demands for set-asides for low-income units are another proven strategy, along with development fees. Land trusts have worked well for open space protection in the Bay Area, and could work for housing, but will require major funding. And a real commitment of earmarking money for low-income housing by the federal government — on a scale to match the money going to highways — is a must.

New housing will have to be built, as well. But developers are profit-seekers, so don't expect them to be innocent bearers of what people need. It is absolutely necessary to question developers and city planners over what is to be built, how high, how big, and where. A livable city demands good design, historic preservation, neighborhood protections, mixed use, and social diversity, among other things, and figuring out what those things are should be a collective, democratic and, yes, conflictual process of politics and public debate. Nonetheless, opposing all new building, greater density, and neighborhood change is not a viable policy, and we cannot cling to the idea that our town or neighborhood will remain the same in a dynamic urban system.

Conservative critics, of course, denounce all popular efforts to control runaway housing costs, displacement, speculation, and bad planning as unnatural violations of some "natural law" of perfect markets. No one should be fooled by such fantasies. The real "market distortions" propelling the housing crisis are inequality, speculation, financial bloat, tax havens, and more. The day when the runaway privileges of bankers, builders, speculators, wealthy suburbanites, and the rest are reined in — that's the day the housing crisis will be over.

Richard Walker.

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