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Can we start talking about housing affordability yet?
It's hard to escape the news that housing prices have jumped by quite a lot, across many markets, in a very short period of time. Low interest rates, changing work patterns (especially the growing option to work from home), and other factors all play into what's going on. And it certainly doesn't help that lumber prices have risen 300% since last April. If new construction becomes more expensive, that adds fuel to the prices of existing homes.
■ Amid the momentary boom cycle, we ought to make ourselves think seriously about what housing is for. As Le Corbusier said, "A house is a machine for living in". While that was a statement of architectural principle, it has merit as a statement on finances and policymaking, too.
■ Housing is a universal need. Some would call it a human right, but that language isn't helpful -- human rights are the things you possess by virtue of birth, like your right to free expression, and they can only be taken away by the deliberate actions of others. Universal needs, by contrast, are things we have to pay for, using the world's finite resources. This may seem like a trivial difference in language, but it's rather significant. Unless scarcity is a part of our context for thinking about how we supply universal needs, we can't come to reasonable conclusions about how to deliver them.
■ The way we've responded to that scarcity in the United States reflects the demands of some strongly vested interests. The real-estate industry, for instance, benefits from lots of churn and rising prices. The construction sector broadly benefits from lots of site-built, single-family projects that keep lots of people at work. The financial sector benefits from people borrowing the largest amounts they can possibly afford and from taking out further loans for renovations and expansions over time. These vested interests tend to encourage a perspective that rewards American households for sinking as much money into housing as possible, which is broadly encouraged by our habit of referring to housing as a family's "biggest financial asset".
■ It isn't hard to find critics of more-permissive zoning regulations who equate enthusiasm for expanding the supply of housing with pimping for private developers. But just because it's easy to create a meme doesn't mean the logic behind it is sound. There's no inherent hypocrisy in choosing to live in a single-family home while cheering on the development of new housing at higher densities.
■ The root cause of the problem is that, in treating housing as a financial instrument, we create a whole lot of private incentives for people to oppose the creation of new, attractive supplies of housing stock at affordable prices. Manufactured and modular housing, for example, can be delivered at much lower costs per square foot than comparable site-built single-family housing. Backyard housing (in the form of auxiliary dwelling units, or ADUs) can be produced in 30 days -- where the laws will allow. Innovations from other countries (like Japan's mass-customized housing industry) could have much to teach us.
■ With prices rising and supplies unusually tight, there is no better time than now to look at the root causes and to ask whether our incentive structures and rules are set up in ways that have too many people committing too much of their hard-earned money to shelter (in the name of "investment") when there could be far better returns available from putting their money to work elsewhere -- whether in financial investments, educational opportunities, or even goods like vacations. Housing is a universal need -- and that means our minds should turn to how best to supply the maximum amount of it so that people can satisfy their needs while having resources left over to put elsewhere.