Biden’s Housing Plan Emulates Europe

Seattle Washington
Homes in Seattle, Washington, April 21, 2011 (Harold Hollingsworth)

One of the areas in which I think America should emulate Northwestern Europe is housing.

Stagnant wages, restrictive building codes and underinvestment in construction have caused home prices to rise faster than wages in eight out of ten metro areas in the United States.

Young Americans are one-third less likely to own a home at this point in their lives than their parents and grandparents, delaying their wealth accumulation and possibly family formation. Among young black Americans, homeownership has fallen to its lowest in more than sixty years. Americans of all ages are less likely to move, which has contributed to a decline in social mobility and an increase in regional inequality.

I like the Dutch system, which is a combination of government-built social housing rented out at below-market prices and rental subsidies, which can reach up to a third of the average private rent, and for which about one in five households qualify.

Turns out that’s close to Joe Biden’s plan. Read more “Biden’s Housing Plan Emulates Europe”

The American Dream Could Use Some European Inspiration

Copenhagen Denmark
A street in Copenhagen, Denmark (Unsplash/Ethan Hu)

One can tell two very different stories about the American economy.

In one, growth is robust, unemployment is at its lowest in half a century and the stock market is booming. This is the story President Donald Trump likes to tell.

In the other, two in five Americans would struggle (PDF) to come up with $400 in an emergency. One in three households are classified as “financially fragile“. Annie Lowrey writes in The Atlantic that American families are being “bled dry by landlords, hospital administrators, university bursars and child-care centers.” This is the story Bernie Sanders and the Democrats tell: for millions of Americans on seemingly decent middle incomes, life has become too hard.

Sanders’ solution is to bring “democratic socialism” to America. He cites European countries like Denmark and Sweden as inspiration. They’re not bad places to imitate — but they have actually moved away from socialism and toward a mix of free markets and the welfare state. It is why they rank among the freest and most competitive (PDF) economies in the world.

Americans can learn from the Scandinavian experience, if they get the balance right. Read more “The American Dream Could Use Some European Inspiration”

Berlin Shows How Not to Do Housing Policy

Berlin Germany
The sun sets on the Saint Nicholas’ Church and town hall of Berlin, Germany, January 26, 2010 (Mika Meskanen)

If you’re trying to control housing costs in your city, don’t look to Berlin for inspiration.

The German capital is due to implement a five-year, across-the-board rent freeze in March. The measure is expected to save around 340,000 tenants money during that period, but it will come at the expense of housing affordability in the long term.

The German Economic Institute in Cologne estimates that Berlin’s policy will reduce the value of some properties by more than 40 percent.

A consequence of that will be underinvestment. The BBU, a trade association of developers in the Berlin and Brandenburg region, says its members expect to reduce investments by €5.5 billion and construction by a quarter.

Germany needs 350,000 new homes each year to keep up with demand. Only 286,000 were built in 2018. If the BBU is to be believed, that number will fall — driving up housing costs across Germany. Read more “Berlin Shows How Not to Do Housing Policy”

Cracks in California’s Progressive Model

The sun sets over the San Francisco Bay, California, September 29, 2015
The sun sets over the San Francisco Bay, California, September 29, 2015 (Thomas Hawk)

California may be the future of the Democratic Party, but the left doesn’t have everything figured out in the Golden State.

Michael Greenberg reports for The New York Review of Books that California likes to think of itself as a liberal bastion against the far-right policies of Donald Trump.

It is refusing to cooperate with the president’s anti-immigrant policies. It has enacted its own environmental and net-neutrality laws which, given the size and influence of California’s economy, could have a nationwide effect.

But California also has the highest poverty rate in America and a quarter of its homeless. Read more “Cracks in California’s Progressive Model”

EU Budget Fight, California’s Housing Crisis and Trump’s Threats

President Jean-Claude Juncker and other members of the European Commission listen to a debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, September 14, 2016
President Jean-Claude Juncker and other members of the European Commission listen to a debate in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, September 14, 2016 (European Parliament)

Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands are unhappy about the European Commission’s proposal to eliminate rebates in the EU’s next seven-year budget.

The commission has proposed to cut solidarity spending by 7 percent and agricultural subsidies by 5 percent to make up for the loss of Britain’s contribution.

It also wants to eliminate “correction” mechanisms that benefit the wealthier member states.

The stakes are low. The rebates add up to €6 billion. The proposed budget — €1.25 trillion — altogether represents about 8 percent of the EU economy.

Expect a big fight nevertheless. For center-right leaders in Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands, who face competition from the nativist right, this is a perfect opportunity to bolster their Euroskeptic credentials. In the end, the commission will give in a little and everybody walks away happy. Read more “EU Budget Fight, California’s Housing Crisis and Trump’s Threats”

Merkel Presents Alternative Eurozone Plan, Erdoğan Calls Early Elections

Angela Merkel
German chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a news conference in Berlin, March 24, 2015 (Bundesregierung)

Angela Merkel’s response to Emmanuel Macron’s EU reform push is to beef up the Eurogroup: the regular conclave of finance ministers from the nineteen countries that use the single currency. Merkel would add economy ministers to the meetings and expand the Eurogroup’s remit to include all areas of economic policy.

Mehreen Khan argues in the Financial Times that it’s a good way to sabotage eurozone reform: “you effectively hollow out decisionmaking power and create a glorified talking shop.”

I think that’s an exaggeration, but Merkel and Macron do have different priorities.

The former, backed by a Dutch-led alliance of liberal member states, calls for structural reforms to boost competitiveness in the south. Macron argues for investments to promote convergence.

The end goal is the same, but the way they would get there is very different: Merkel puts the onus on the laggards while Macron argues for a shared responsibility. Hence his push for a common eurozone budget and a European finance minister. Read more “Merkel Presents Alternative Eurozone Plan, Erdoğan Calls Early Elections”

The Rent Is Too High, Partisanship Versus Democracy

Homes in San Francisco, California, April 5, 2010
Homes in San Francisco, California, April 5, 2010 (Jerome Vial)

Will Wilkinson of the libertarian Niskanen Center tells The Washington Post that expanding affordable housing in America’s major cities is the key to reducing inequality.

Wages have barely budged in decades, yet housing costs have soared due to restrictive zoning and land-use policies. Young and working Americans are now unable to save. Homeowners are getting richer.

Kevin D. Williamson, a conservative columnist who was recently hired and then fired by The Atlantic for his right-wing views (more on that here), has similarly argued in National Review that working-class Americans left behind in the Rust Belt need to move to the coasts. He partly blames them for staying put, but recognizes that policy plays a role.

Consider California, where so many of the jobs in the new economy are. Its housing crisis (you can buy a private island or a castle in Europe for the price of a San Francisco apartment) is entirely man-made, “a result of extraordinarily restrictive zoning and environmental codes and epic NIMBYism of a uniquely Californian variety.”

A Republican Party wishing to renew its prospects in California (which it once dominated) or in American cities could — and should — make affordable housing the centerpiece of its agenda for the cities.

More on why Republicans ought to compete in American cities here. Handelsblatt reports that Berlin fears San Francisco-style housing problems. Read more “The Rent Is Too High, Partisanship Versus Democracy”

British Housing Shortage Requires National Effort

Mansions in London, England
Mansions in London, England (Shutterstock)

In the past, revolt and unrest in Britain were typically sparked by the cost of bread and corn. Today, it is the price of housing.

This month, the average price of a home in London reached £500,000. The average housing price in the whole country is now ten times the average wage. The increase is due more to limits in supply than to a steep rise in demand.

If Britain wants to defuse this time bomb that is anemic to the idea of a “property-owning democracy,” a concerted national effort has to begin immediately. To make up for the housing shortfall, it is estimated that between 250,000 and 300,000 homes need to be built every year for at least the next decade.

Those who say that this can’t be done should look to the achievements of Harold Macmillan. Despite the constraints of rationing and postwar austerity, 300,000 homes were build every year while he was housing minister between 1951 and 1954.

How was this done? Well, there was a concerted effort by the national government. Most famously, “new towns” were created, such as Hemel Hempstead and Stevenage, both close to London.

At this year’s Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, there was a whole raft of events all centered on how to try to end the housing crisis. It was generally acknowledged that new garden cities and ecotowns only represent the start of what has to be done. There needs to be more construction on urban brownfield land and the idea of apartment living should be rehabilitated.

Part of the problem lies in the notion that all development is bad development. This is simply not true. It’s only that developments that blend in well with their surroundings tend to go unreported.

The more serious problem is lack of space. In the last eighty years, the average space of a home has shrunk from 153 square meters in the 1920s to 96.8 square meters today. Houses in Britain are now 80 percent smaller on average than those in Germany and 53 percent smaller than those in Denmark. Little wonder that only one in four buyers would choose a home that was built in the last ten years. Simply ramping up production of the sort of homes that are currently being built would appear to be a mistake.

In a country where the phrase “An Englishman’s home is his castle” still holds more than a grain of truth, this is an issue that can not be left to partisan politics or even to the markets, as that is what has brought us to this point. Until there is a significant chance in policy, the dream of owning a property will remain just that for many young Britons — a dream.

Will the “Affordable Housing” Lie Ever Die?

What will it take for the government to admit that it’s utterly and inherently incapable of efficiently providing “affordable” housing?

A comprehensive investigation undertaken by The Washington Post uncovered nothing but waste and fraud and suffering for the scores of neighborhoods and tens of thousands of people who were supposed to benefit from the efforts of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The Post‘s reporting should come as a powerful reminder that housing, like all services, is best left to free markets; that government projects designed to provide what the market supposedly cannot encourage abuse and often make the very problems they were supposed to address worse. The newspaper’s findings are staggering. Read more “Will the “Affordable Housing” Lie Ever Die?”

Volcker: Housing Market Must Be Freer

Paul Volcker, chairman of President Barack Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board said during an interview with Bloomberg Television on Friday that the American housing market has to be “reconstructed.”

The former Federal Reserve chairman (1979-1987) complained about the decade-long interference of government in housing through the infamous Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac entities as well as the numerous incentives and controls aimed at boosting home ownership in America. The whole market, said Volcker, is “totally dependent, heavily dependent on government participation. It shouldn’t be that way. That’s going to have to be reconstructed.”

The situation deteriorated as a result of the recession. In the fourth quarters of last year, there were $390 billion in new mortgage originations, including home equity lines. Excluding the home equity lines, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration stood behind up to 95 percent of those mortgages — an enormous increase in government or government-sponsored participation.

In total, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac hold about $5.5 trillion in home mortgages which amounts to nearly half of all outstanding mortgage debt in the United States.

“Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were not a good idea in the first place,” according to Volcker. “This hybrid public, private thing sooner or later was going to get you in trouble — and it sure got us in trouble big time.” Indeed, the fiasco caused the very recession that much of the developed world, the United States especially, struggles with up to this very day. “I hope we don’t go back to that model,” said Volcker, so he better do something about it. As one of the president’s top economic advisors, he should discourage attempts by Washington to greaten goverment’s interference in private sectors of the economy, including housing.