Out of Control Policy Blog

Land Use Regulation Making Bay Area Unaffordable

Randal O'Toole had a great op-ed in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle on the Bay Area's housing affordability problem:

What happened in the 1970s to make Bay Area housing so unaffordable? In a nutshell: land-use planning. During the 1970s, Bay Area cities and counties imposed a variety of land-use restrictions intended to make the region more livable.

These restrictions included urban-growth boundaries, purchases of regional parks and open spaces and various limits on building permits. These regulations created artificial land shortages that drove housing prices to extreme levels. Today, residents of Houston, Texas, can buy a brand-new four-bedroom, two-and-one-half bath home on a quarter-acre lot for less than $160,000. That same house would cost you more than five times as much in Marin or Contra Costa counties, seven times as much in Alameda County, and eight to nine times as much in Santa Clara, San Mateo, or San Francisco counties.

In fact, planning-induced housing shortages added $30 billion to the cost of homes that Bay Area homebuyers purchased in 2005. This dwarfs any benefits from land-use restrictions; after all, how livable is a place if you can't afford to live there?

. . . .

The people most enthused about all these planning rules like to call themselves "progressive." But the effects of planning on home prices are entirely regressive. Planning-induced housing shortages place enormous burdens on low-income families but create windfall profits for wealthy homeowners. Does this steal-from-the-poor, give-to-the-rich policy reflect the Bay Area's true attitudes?

Homeownership is more than just a dream, it is a vital part of America's economic mobility. Most small businesses get their original financing from a loan secured by the business owner's home. Children in low-income families who own their own homes do better on educational tests than those who live in rental housing. Barriers to home ownership reduce this mobility and help keep low-income people poor.

Predictably, planners' solutions to the housing affordability problem often make the problem worse. Planners typically require that homebuilders sell or rent 15 percent of their homes at below-market rates to low-income families. The homebuilders simply pass that cost on to the buyers of the other 85 percent of the homes they sell. Existing homeowners, seeing that new homes suddenly cost more, raise the price of their homes when they sell. The result: A few people benefit and everyone else pays more.

The solution to the Bay Area's housing affordability crisis is not a few units of affordable housing, but widespread land-use deregulation that will make housing more affordable for everyone.

The numbers in Randal's oped come from his recent study, The Planning Penalty. It's well worth a read to understand the extent of the influence of land use regulation on housing prices in California and nationwide. I borrowed some of his numbers in my recent oped on Cali housing prices.

For more on growth and land use issues, see here.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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