During his last days in office, former Representative Jason Chaffetz must have forgotten he is supposed to be a fiscal conservative. His recent comments that members of Congress need $2,500 stipends to afford housing in DC reflect a complete ignorance of both the reasons for high housing prices and the best ways to lower those prices. Instead of treating the symptoms of skyrocketing housing prices, policymakers should be striking at the root: rent control, height limits, and burdensome zoning restrictions that discourage development.
All of this turns on basic economics. Markets drive prices of goods and services down, but only if they are competitive. In many cases, existing interests try to prevent others from entering markets in order to protect their own bottom lines. Zoning regulations are often manipulated by interest groups, who hope to limit the allowed uses of land within a city and prevent future developments. Zoning essentially fixes the amount of available housing by discouraging developers from building more housing, ultimately driving housing prices up.
Academic research places much of the blame for high housing costs on zoning––and this isn’t just limited to a single city or state. Edward Glaeser and Raven Saks of Harvard and Joseph Gyourko of the University of Pennsylvania examined Manhattan’s housing market estimate that new construction costs for housing are only about $300 per square foot, but that square foot tends to be rented out for $600, twice the cost at construction. Glaeser, Gyourko, and Saks write, quite intuitively, that “this would seem to offer an irresistible opportunity for developers.” But it’s zoning regulations that prevent developers from coming in to build more homes (which ultimately lowers housing prices), despite market incentives. Even though there is a deafening clamor for more housing, as evidenced by rising prices, building takes so long in many big cities like DC, San Francisco, and New York, so prices simply continue to balloon.
The ramifications of high housing prices hit the entire economy. A paper released in May by Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti, two economists with the National Bureau of Economic Research, concludes that housing constraints like zoning have lowered aggregate economic growth by at least 50 percent from 1964 to 2009. By making it more difficult to move resources like labor between cities, zoning hurts the United States’s competitiveness in a major way.
High housing costs hurt everyone, but they actually hit those in need the hardest. Researchers at the Mercatus Center have documented how onerous zoning laws hurt the poor, who spend relatively more on housing than richer households. These regressive rules also follow the trend of most regulations and primarily reflect the preferences of high-income people, since they have the time and resources to play a part in crafting the laws. Economist Diana Thomas notes that this is how regulation redistributes wealth from lower-income to higher-income households. Many people, on both sides of the aisle, are unaware that zoning laws play such a role in keeping families entrenched in poverty.
Rent control, which attempts to provide affordable housing to the poor by limiting how much can be charged for rent, isn’t helping either. Rent control is common, despite a clear consensus among economists that it does not help provide affordable housing. In a 2012 poll of some of the most respected economists in the US 81 percent disagreed or disagreed strongly that rent control, “had a positive impact over the past three decades on the amount and quality of broadly affordable rental housing in cities that have used them.” To add perspective to the statistic, no one strongly agreed and only two percent agreed, and the rest either had no opinion or were uncertain.
Price caps like rent control generally lead to shortages and rarely help those they are meant to. In this case, it makes investing in housing unattractive for developers because they can’t expect to recoup the costs of building. This creates a shortage of housing and ensures prices never fall. Worse still, research shows that rent control not only deters building projects, but also discourages landowners from investing in home maintenance. The decision facing landlords is simple: if a nicer home or apartment can’t be used to attract higher rent, why spend time repairing the units? This problem is compounded by the lack of alternatives for renters – with nowhere else to go, they have to settle for poorly-maintained apartments and lower standards of living.
Perhaps the main limit on housing supply in DC is the height limits imposed by Congress in 1910. Building heights allowed in DC are based on the widths of the street they are on with the highest cap only allowing buildings to be 160 feet tall. DC is a growing hub for professionals and as more people try to enter the city, they bid up housing prices. As the New York Times reported in June, even those with large budgets are struggling to find homes. Real estate prices for the average house in Washington has ballooned 40 percent since 2009.
It’s not just housing prices, but hotels that are more expensive in DC than the average city. Scott Beyer, a writer specializing in city planning and land use issues, reported in 2016 that the nightly hotel room rate in DC is more than twice that of other cities. All this, Beyer notes, is largely rooted in the height restrictions created by Congress.
DC’s height restriction is meant to protect the character of the city, but there are areas available for development that would not detract from the city’s personality. It’s certainly true that having a New York City-esque concrete jungle lining the National Mall would not be ideal. Beyer, for example, notes there are many areas south of the Mall that might benefit from height limit changes.
Access to affordable housing in cities is crucial for the poor. Since urban areas usually contain the best and highest paying jobs, having access to cities means having access to the means to improve their own lives. That’s part of the reason comments like Chaffetz’s should induce a collective eye roll. It’s simply not good policy to subsidize housing for the rich and connected when the poor face steep housing prices. This is especially true because the root of the problem is something Congress can fix itself, unlike most zoning problems. Efforts should be made to liberalize zoning regulations, reform DC’s draconian height restriction, and cut back rent controls so developers have the ability––and the incentive––to build additional housing.
Josh T. Smith is a Master’s student in economics at Utah State University and works as a policy analyst for Strata, a public policy research center based in Logan, Utah.