Tuesday, August 17, 2010

War on the Dream, Part One

Wendell Cox, the noted author on suburbia—War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life—comments on an article about suburban growth in Sacramento in New Geography.

An excerpt.

An opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee by Sean Wirth of the Environmental Council of Sacramento could not have been more wrong in its characterization of the causes of the housing bubble in Sacramento.

“The article starts out promisingly, correctly noting that:
• The housing bubble spawned the Great Recession
• Demand exceeded the inventory of houses in the Sacramento area
• Sacramento prices "soared sky high"

“But it is all downhill from there, with the suggestion that the extraordinary price increases in Sacramento were the result of too much suburbanization (the theological term in urban planning circles is "sprawl"). In fact, all things being equal, house prices tend to escalate where the supply is more constrained, not less. Where suburbanization is allowed, the market can supply enough housing to avoid inordinate house price increases. Where suburbanization is severely constrained, a legion of evidence indicates that house prices are prone to rise. It is all a matter of basic economics. George Mason University economist Daniel Klein puts it this way: “Basic economics acknowledges that whatever redeeming features a restriction may have, it increases the cost of production and exchange, making goods and services less affordable. There may be exceptions to the general case, but they would be atypical."

“Housing is not atypical and Sacramento house prices soared in response to the tough use regulations. By the peak of the bubble, the Median Multiple (median house price divided by median household income) had risen to 6.8, well above the historic norm of 3.0. Many houses were built, but not enough to satisfy the demand, as Mr. Wirth indicates. Building many houses is not enough. There need to be enough houses to supply the demand, otherwise land prices soar, driving up house prices.

“Unless a sufficient supply is allowed, speculators and flippers will "smell the blood" of windfall profits, which are there for the taking in excessively regulated markets.

“During the housing bubble, house prices rose well above the historic Median Multiple norm only in metropolitan areas that had severe constraints land use constraints (called "smart growth" or "growth management"). This included Sacramento, other California markets, Miami, Portland, and Seattle and other markets around the country. “