Earlier this week Wendell Cox wrote a piece at New Geography arguing that projections for increasing demand for multifamily housing relative to single family homes are incorrect. He was criticizing a study by Arthur Nelson that predicts increased demand for multifamily housing relative to single-family housing in California between 2010 and 2035. So far, Cox points out that this hypothesis is not being fulfilled; between 2000 and 2008 slightly over half of newly occupied housing units were single-family homes on conventional lots (larger than 1/8 acre), not indicative of a shift in preferences toward multifamily housing.
Cox emphasizes that his data is based on revealed preferences rather than forecasts or surveys which may indicate a false preference for denser housing. However, he does not acknowledge that these preferences he cites are not revealed in a free market. The mortgage interest tax deduction biases home buyers toward larger homes, the complex entitlement process for dense infill development restricts supply of denser housing, and the the zoning and parking requirements that regulate development all shape revealed consumer decisions.
Both Cox and Nelson seem to base their views of consumer preferences heavily on introspection, assuming that over time more Americans will come to share their preference for suburban or urban living respectively. And they both take the same approach of looking at the real estate trends aggregated across the entire state. This is an interesting question for academics, but not a particularly relevant area for real estate markets. Real estate is local, and state trends are not likely to apply to many cities and neighborhoods. The average home sold in California went for $309,000 at $195 per square foot last month. However this statistic is meaningless for West Hollywood residents where the average sale price was $378 per square foot. It’s equally meaningless for Bakersfield residents where the per-square-foot price was $87. Only one of these local areas faces a housing affordability problem, which Cox emphasizes is an important concern for land use policy.
Fortunately for consumers, it’s not necessary for academics to accurately forecast changing real estate preferences. They only need for local developers and homebuilders to do so, and the profit incentive leads developers to do just this, unless policy prevents them from doing so. High housing costs indicate supply restrictions that prevent developers from meeting consumer demands. If Bakersfield city planners adopted a binding urban growth boundary, the type of policy Cox decries, we would see the cost of conventional single family homes rise. In most of the places where we see housing affordability problems such as West Hollywood, it’s not Smart Growth policies that are to blame, but rather conventional zoning that prevents increased density from bringing down housing costs.
The most notable exception to this is Portland’s Urban Growth boundary which, in conjunction with density restrictions, keeps house prices in the city at $200 per square foot compared to the state average of $135. This UGB seems to be the driving force behind the work of many anti-density “market suburbanists,” which alone is enough of a reason to oppose this policy. However, in the cities where residents pay the greatest premium for housing, it’s likely that we would see much more multifamily home construction in a freer market.
If zoning restrictions and parking requirements were relaxed in areas of the country where residents currently pay the highest premiums to live, we would in large part see more multifamily construction rather than single family. This is why, despite the cumbersome entitlement process for multifamily buildings in many cities, and the mortgage interest deduction luring consumers to larger owner-occupied homes, over half of last year’s building permits were for multifamily units in some of the country’s most expensive cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC.