Subsidized Housing

Calculated Risk points out Robert Shiller’s article in the New York Times on the subsidization of homeownership in America. Shiller asks why we should subsidize homeownership, beyond short-term expediencies such as the fact that since we have a lot of unemployed construction workers, we could reduce unemployment by subsidizing homeownership (as long as we can subsidize new home construction as opposed to just trading houses). Of course, the reason we have a lot of unemployed construction workers is that we over-subsidized housing for the past decade and a half; hence Shiller’s question.

At first, Shiller seems to give this answer:

“While the crisis in the housing market shows that our current approach is far from perfect, there is a certain wisdom behind it, related not only to economic stimulus but also to the preservation of a sense of national identity. . . .

“The best answer isn’t found in traditional economics but rather in American culture: a long-standing feeling that owning homes in healthy communities is connected to individual liberties that embody our national identity. . . .

“In his classic 1985 book, ‘Crabgrass Frontier,’ Kenneth T. Jackson of Columbia University delineated the complex train of thought that over the last two centuries has produced the American belief that homeownership encourages pride and good citizenship and, ultimately, preservation of liberty. These attitudes are enduring.”

At this point, I was ready to pounce. Shiller seems to be arguing that we should subsidize homeownership because we share a belief that homeownership is good. But he doesn’t fall for the trap he seems to be stumbling into. Instead, he says,

“If we choose to keep subsidizing individual homeownership, we must also commit to adding safeguards so that homeowners are less financially vulnerable. Of course, that will require some creative finance.

“But first, we should rethink the idea of renting, which could be a viable option for many more Americans and needn’t endanger the traditional values of individual liberty and good citizenship.”

I’m a little leery of “creative finance,” but I’m all for rethinking renting. The key point, which Shiller makes, is one that I’ve made to many of my friends thinking of buying houses: buying a house is colossally stupid investment according to the investing textbook, because you are taking on a high degree of leverage and putting more than your net worth not only into a single asset class, but into a single structure on a single piece of land. What makes it sensible, sometimes, are the mortgage interest tax deduction (an extremely regressive subsidy) and the fact that in many places you may want to live there are few viable rental alternatives, so you have to buy. (That is basically the situation my family was in when we moved to Western Massachusetts nine years ago; our dog eliminated most of the rental options.)

Calculated Risk sums it up this way:

“There are probably advantages to society of a fairly high homeownership rate (as opposed to tax advantages to the individual) – perhaps homeownership creates a stronger bond to the community (more community involvement, awareness of crime, and more), and homeowners tend to keep up their properties (unless they have negative equity!). Shiller argues for other psychological benefits that are harder to quantify.

“There are negatives too; as an example, homeownership reduces geographic mobility, especially right now, and that makes it harder for some homeowners to move for employment reasons.

“And of course withdrawing all of the subsidies for housing would lead to plummeting house prices. So any unwinding of the housing subsidies, like government subsidized mortgage rates, would probably have to be reduced gradually.”

And here’s a short excerpt from 13 Bankers (from the draft manuscript, final version may differ):

“The ideology of homeownership has its roots in two sources. The first is the idea that homeownership is intrinsically good–it encourages individual responsibility, provides financial security, promotes community attachment, encourages people to take care of property, and so on. . . . There may also be an element of truth to this idea; homeownership is generally thought to create positive externalities, since homeowners are on average more likely to devote effort to improving their communities. After reviewing other empirical studies and doing their own analyses, Edward Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro conclude:

[T]here is a limited body of evidence suggesting that homeownership creates positive spillovers for near neighbors. Homeowners do appear to be more active citizens. They vote more. They take better care of their homes. Houses that are surrounded by homeowners are worth a little more than houses that are surrounded by renters.

However, much of the positive effect of homeownership is due not to ownership itself, but to other factors that differentiate owners and renters. In another paper, Glaeser and Denise DiPasquale found that ‘almost one-half of the effect of homeownership disappeared when we controlled for the time that the person had lived in the home.’ William Rohe and Michael Stegman compared a sample of low-income homebuyers with similar low-income renters over time and found that the homebuyers were less likely to engage in informal neighboring, more likely to participate in block associations, and no more likely to participate in other types of community associations. Alyssa Katz concludes, in Our Lot, ‘scholars found that once they set aside the various traits that tend to determine whether someone chooses to own or rent one’s home, homeowners and tenants really aren’t that different.’

Before we rush back into subsidizing homeownership, we should figure how how valuable it really is to society as a whole.

36 responses to “Subsidized Housing

  1. If the purpose were to encourage homeownership, we would give tax credits for owning a home, not for paying interest on a loan.

    This is not a subsidy to people buying houses; it is a subsidy to financial firms making loans.

    This is both completely obvious and rarely stated.

    The mortgage interest tax deduction should be abolished. (Actually, tax deductions for interest payments in general ought to be abolished, but that is another topic.)

  2. “Homeowners do appear to be more active citizens. They vote more.”

    This is the only plausible explanation of subsidies for existing homes, although it looks like the authors have the dominant causal relationship backwards. Owning a home does not cause people to vote. Voting propensities and other characteristics of homeowners may cause the subsidies.

    If you consider existing home subsidies as simple bribes for a relatively independent block of people who vote at above average rates, then the targeting suddenly makes a lot of sense.

  3. I just want to raise a point about the study which claimed to show that the advantages to the neighborhood presented by home-ownership were eliminated when the sample was controlled for the length of time the people had lived in that location.

    I would think that (since homeowners tend to stay in one place longer than renters) this would eliminate both the most entrenched homeowners and the most transient renters from the study. By doing this, yes, you’d probably end up finding a lot more similarities than differences.

    A more accurate way to balance this might be to find the average time renters and homeowners stay in one place, and try to interview only people who have been in their present location for half of that time span. For example, if renters tend to stay in one place for two years, interview renters who have been in their present location for a year. If homeowners tend to stay put for eight years, interview people who’ve owned the same home for four years.

    Thus your mix more accurately reflects that average mix found in a neighborhood, as opposed to eliminating the ‘best’ of one group and the ‘worst’ of the other.

  4. “our dog eliminated most of the rental options”

    Does the US model of renting perhaps create fundamentally undemocratic relationships between renters and landlords?

  5. But first, we should rethink the idea of renting, which could be a viable option for many more Americans and needn’t endanger the traditional values of individual liberty and good citizenship.

    As we know by now, consumerism based on going into debt, as exemplified by “home ownership”, not only didn’t nurture liberty and citizenship but very actively destroyed them.

    This was an intentional assault. Just like with every other form of Walmartization, the goal was to hypnotize Americans with cheap stuff while their real socioeconomic position and all civil freedoms were eroded.

    In this case shabby suburbanization has been heavily subsidized through the mortgage deduction, other subsidies for financialization, public highway projects, artificially cheap gas, externmanlized environmental costs, and every other kind of socialized cost. The goal has been to subsidize the price enough to render it tenable for enough people to afford it if they become debt slaves. They’re then tethered to the corporate treadmill and must tremble for their jobs. This in turn is meant to render them docile in the face of assaults on unions, outsourcing, eroding wages and benefits, the general shredding of the safety net and so on. If you’ve been suckered into a model where everything depends upon your being able to service your debt, you’re less likely to be a “troublemaker”. (And as long as cheap money’s available, and you hold onto that crappy job, you can always refinance, which has been the path of least resistance.) Alan Greenspan boasted about how that was the plan.

    So that’s how cheap oil and a social domination agenda went into building this potemkin middle class which is now being liquidated, as cheap oil is no longer available and exponential debt became unsustainable.

    One of the biggest of the Big Lies has been how Americans allegedy were weighing “freedom” vs. physical “security” where it came to anti-terrorism. Putting it that way, TPTB have obscured the fact that neither of those mean anything to a mass brainwashed into caring only about its material junk and the debts it had to incur to accumulate that junk.

    So I’m afraid that these articles, while better, still don’t go far enough to refute the lies involved here.

    On its face it’s obvious that a population of debt slaves have squandered their “freedom”. One look at this protection gang, the finance racket, proves that. And one look at how the people have been willing to endure the Bailout villainy, because they think that’s necessary to keep the debt monster upright, proves what slaves they have become.

    Freedom? Citizenship? Is that a sick joke? I’ll believe in those when the people rise up, denounce the debts, and smash the banks.

  6. Strangely, the housing crisis has changed my mind about the government subsidy of home buying. I used to think of it as a ridiculous political dinosaur. But now I think that widespread home ownership is important in a country with lots of land that is both democratic and capitalistic. The Anglo-Saxon idea that, no matter how humble, one’s home is one’s castle is deeply democratic. Renters, however, cannot consider their homes to be their castles. Home ownership means that the owner is not under the thumb of the rentier class. In addition, the rentier class also takes from capitalists. A democratic, capitalist society is thus the enemy of the rentier class. Of course, rents do not disappear, but they should be distributed as widely and democratically as possible.

    One thing that the current housing crisis has brought into focus, at least for me, is the fact that the increasing inequality of the past generation conflicts with increasing home ownership. At the moment, home ownership is giving way. Governmental subsidy of mortgages seems to be economically unwise, and maybe its real aim is to keep banks afloat. But it is supporting the ideal of home ownership, at least for now.

    As I say, I have now changed my mind, and think that the government should do what it can to keep people in their homes, as owners. It may be one of the best things that the government can do for democracy, and perhaps, for capitalism. Plutocracy is an enemy of the free market, as the plutocrats limit or destroy competition and otherwise exercise monopolistic power. America relies upon the ideal of the level playing field, and one way to bring that ideal closer to reality is widespread home ownership.

  7. Tony Foresta

    I’m with Glaeser and Denise. Gainful employment is the key. The more Americans working, – the better will be the greater society, and the more ownership of that society, be it homes, or refrigerators, grills, or cars, or jetskees or, lawnmoyers, or sartwork, or whatever… If Americans don’t get back to work, – there will be no real recovery. The predatorclass den of vipers and thieves will profiteer wantonly from this or that speculative manipulation of markets, – but the rest of us will have hell to pay, – and there will be no real recovery. The people need jobs, gainful employment. Failure to produce jobs, will certainly hurl Amerika into a “doom loop”, and the end will not be pretty or bloodless.

    America is dead.
    There are no socalled freemarkets.
    Capitalism does not exist in our society.
    Bandit capitalism rules the land.
    Our socalled leaders are purchased, bought and paid for by predatorclass individuals and oligarchs.
    We, – the people – have no real voice and absolutely no representation in the conduct of the government.
    A large majority of Americans are either confused or really pissed.
    We, the people need real change!! If not – then all the kings horses, and all the kings men, cannot put America back together again. Ashes, ashes, all fall down.

  8. I don’t have anything insightful to add here but I love to hear stuff like this because it’s a very useful counterpoint to my mom’s constant “When are you going to buy your own place?” questions. (She appears to have given up on “When are you going to get married?” so if I can just wait her out for a few more years I think I’m safe.)

  9. So is anyone going to also advocate regulatory systems that limit the inequities of the landlord/tenant relationship? Or avoid the perverse “race to the top,” where each “city” in a region tries to maximize its housing prices? Or reducing density-restricting rules? Or engaging the enormous transformation in the building industry a higher proportion of rental properties would imply?

    Croak!

  10. Bruce Bartlett

    One fear I would have about substantially increasing the percentage of renters is that it is too easy for politicians to impose rent controls to curry favor with voters. Another is that there will be even more pressure than there already is to subsidize multifamily housing through the tax code. Since it appears that we are going to subsidize housing one way or another, it isn’t obvious to me that the way we do it now is worse than the alternatives.

  11. I think the view about homeownership is a bit skewed. With the lengths of the mortgages we have today, 30 or 40 years, it’s ludicrous to speak of ownership. Rather than owning, one is a renting a home from the bank. You’ll notice that real homeowners are in far less trouble during this crisis, they have the option of controlling their costs in case of reduced income. So, the real problem is something I’ll call “long-term rent” model, where you are locked into your “rent” for 20, 30, or 40 years. Ownership good, “long-term renting” bad.

  12. That sounds like a prisoner’s dilema to me. It requires too much faith on each party to have a net gain at the end. Too much self interest to get there.

    As for some of the longer posts above; hold back on the hyperbole – sounds too much like Lennin, Marx, Beck, Reagan, Clinton, Greenspan, et al. all rolled into one (you do realize that by just changing a few adjectives and nouns, that sounds almost exactly like Marx?). Hyperbole like that is as “Big Lie” as the straw man you have set up to attack. Fail.

  13. “…since homeowners tend to stay in one place longer than renters….”

    And it is useful to think about why. One reason that I both experienced and watched for many years is that rents almost invariably go up faster than wages, so that after a few years the renters are forced to seek cheaper, typically inferior, places. This has various bad consequences for those involved, particularly families who see disruption of schooling and neighborhood support networks which are very important to people who cannot just buy services for their children or ailing parents.

    Unless renting can be made more stable and secure, an economic model that ignores those social costs is too unrealistic to be useful.

  14. Renting your home is putting yourself into the power of another person or company, who can then for whatever arbitrary reason, exercise control over how you live. The landlord can decide whether your child should have a pet, whether you can put a Mickey Mouse decal on the wall in your two-year-old’s bedroom, and what color your walls should be painted. Landlords can, and do, invade your house with limited notice. At least if you own your home, the bank is not likely to control your decorating choices. And the point about the rent going up every year is a valid one. If you own on a fixed rate mortgage, you can plan your finances a few years ahead, save for your kids’ college, and have your housing costs under control when you approach retirement. Renting does not offer that predictability. Renting is more flexible – you can, in fact often you are forced, to move more often, but is that a desirable goal? It seems to me that we should be encouraging stability in neighborhoods, not mobility.

  15. Mr Kwak wrote:

    “Of course, the reason we have a lot of unemployed construction workers is that we over-subsidized housing for the past decade and a half….”

    Program Will Pay Homeowners to Sell at a Loss

    March 7, 2010 – New York Times – excerpts

    “In an effort to end the foreclosure crisis, the Obama administration has been trying to keep defaulting owners in their homes. Now it will take a new approach: paying some of them to leave.

    This latest program, which will allow owners to sell for less than they owe and will give them a little cash to speed them on their way, is one of the administration’s most aggressive attempts to grapple with a problem that has defied solutions.

    More than five million households are behind on their mortgages and risk foreclosure. The government’s $75 billion mortgage modification plan has helped only a small slice of them. Consumer advocates, economists and even some banking industry representatives say much more needs to be done.”

    http://tinyurl.com/ycw9lrt

  16. Perhaps there would greater parity between homeownership and renters if you lived in socialized system but since that doesn’t seem to be the case here, your conclusion seems one-sided, lamenting that “few viable rental alternatives, so you have to buy.” Encumbrances may make you want to become a renter but the government doesn’t support those kinds of alternatives for the most part (the tax code).

  17. It would be great for income to be distributed so that lots of people could afford to own homes (although I personally think that having them all be standalone buildings with yards is as inconvenient as it is inefficient).

    But having them “own” homes they can’t afford (and have little or no actual equity in) isn’t benefiting anyone but the financiers. Without distributing more income to the working and middle classes, we won’t be able to afford to own homes, tax break or no tax break.

    Restore the after-tax income distribution of the 50s and 60s (adjusted for inflation and productivity growth), and the housing problem will solve itself. (The demand problem, too.)

  18. By the time I paid off my house rents for anything comparable were about five times my monthly mortgage payment. And now I have a marketable asset and control of my cash flow. I have not seen stats, but from checking things out in the paper (very unscientific) it appears that rents are not coming down while the cost of housing is. Seems like some ownership advantages are missing from this posting.

  19. The pragmatist

    Home ownership has traditionally been the major way that the middel class has built wealth. However, borrowing against equity wipes out that wealth.

    In a society where weatlh is ever more concentrated into fewer and fewer hands we should not move away from home ownership, but provide incentives that encourage people not to refinance or otherwise borrow against their equity.

  20. I agree. I’m retired with no mortgage or rent payment. I can’t imagine any other way.

    On the other hand, geographic mobility was never an issue with me.

  21. A subsidy that encourages “ownership” but not “mortgageship” is the property tax deduction — with the added bonus for liberty-loving anti-federalists that the money stays local and is used for community improvement and safety.

    But state governments and voters have been falling over each other to cut those taxes, too (see CA, FL, others).

  22. D. Christopher Leonard

    The belief that house ownership is desirable and ought to be promoted (via writing off mortgage interest) has a number of sources. 1. It became a kind of substitute for Jeffersonian ‘yeoman’ purportedly civicly virtuous because they were independent property holders. In other words, it is a continuation of “Republicanism” (not to be confused with the party) by other means.
    It is also a policy of corporate-liberalism in the immediate post-WWII era. There was of course, a huge housing shortage immediately post war (lots of GIs homeless). The 2nd New Deal (1936-) moved from a regulatory emphasis toward the notion of subsidizing consumption. By 1948 or so, this amounted to a set of policies of consumption subsidies that effectively, created the “middle class”. The vast expansion of credit made possible buying houses, buying automobiles and other big ticket consumer durables – and post secondary education. Whether it was desirable to promote house ownership is another matter. House construction created employment while rental subsidies were opposed by both Republicans and Southern Democrats – to ‘socialist’.
    It has been argued that too high a rate of house ownership leads to labor market rigidity (e.g. Italy with about 75% ownership) but while the post war boom continued (i.e. until about 1970 when Japanese & European firms became competitive) this didn’t matter much. After 1972 +/- the conditions change with the attack on a subsidized middle class in the U.S. and U.K. (Thatcher & Reagen). Income inequality starts to widen again, Federal support to education, infrastructure, etc. declines, household debt increases (while real wages stagnate) and defined benefit pension are replaced by market exposure. So after the dot com bubble burst, Greenspan et al juiced the housing market – while house ownership becomes promoted as an investment (to replace declining wages and buffer indebtedness)- instead of a class subsidy. voila! the end of the middle class created post 48 and a huge dose of creative destruction.

  23. A political subdivision filled with renters empowers the renters as voters to spend tax funds generated from taxes paid largely by non voting tax payers. Obviously, the incidence of the tax is passed on in the rent. That leads to citizen countervailing measures like rent controls. There is another aspect innvolved here in the renter causing all kinds of imposed protections via local codes.

    To eliminate renter/ landlord biases local taxes would need to be citizen fees. The tax is a per capita assessment on the resident. The resident pays for his political actions. If the fee is not affordable, live where the fee is affordable. That leads to ghettos. But we have always had ghettos.

    Russia has not had personal home ownership for a very long time now. So, everyone that is able hungers for a little Dacha in the countryside.

    It’s mine is a very, very powerful instinct.

  24. My post sounds like Marx? Or the longer ones?

  25. The myths about home ownership are almost as old as the yeoman farmer. In the West, the various federal and state homestead acts encouraged “renters’ in the East to grab their piece of “The American Dream.” California, and, in particular, LA was built on the dream of home ownership. The Chandler family committed Chinatown to water the San Fernando Valley to build homes. The LA Times was just their political propaganda organ to sell land for homes. I could go on about the myth, but I’ll stop here.

  26. The latest experiment in encouraging ownership during the 2000s ended in tears – and it did not really encourage much of an ownership in the end. Given the enormous mobility of Americans (what, 35 million people change residences every year), home ownership is a suboptimal investment. This is on top of the financial arguments that you overleverage to put all your eggs in one basket. And fo rinternational comparisons, look no further than Germany to see that a nation that prefers to rent can have more livable cities, inner ones and otherwise, than the U.S.

  27. The way we do it now is arguably more regressive than alternatives like rent control. I am appalled by the mortgage interest deduction. I make a decent living and yet pay virtually no federal income tax, simply because I had enough capital to make a down payment on a house in a high-priced town near Boston. The mortgage interest deduction is a giveaway to people with capital; rent control is a giveaway to lower-middle class people and the poor.

  28. Michael,

    “Controlling for” certain effects from a statistical standpoint does not require that you remove data observations with certain characteristics from the sample. Without giving a lesson in stats, as I’m hardly qualified, the control is done using correlation between other characteristics and the dependent variable, and “accounting” for those effects when looking at the perceived strength of the variable of interest on the dependent variable. Without looking at the study, I assume in this case that no short term renters, nor long term housing people, were likely excluded. Instead, for example, a homeowners likelihood to exhibit a positive externality may have been found to be related to the fact that they were educated, paid higher taxes, had children, etc, which were all associated with homeownership and the positive externality. So renters, who on average exhibit less of these externalities, do so not because they rent, but because they are less educated, poor, and dont have kids.

    And now I have oversimplified, but I wanted to make sure that your misunderstanding of the applications of statistical controls was not passed over.

  29. Thanks Ethan, that makes sense.

    I guess I can see advantages on both side of this issue, but would never personally want to be a long term renter. For me it’s all about a lack of control over my own environment. I would no longer have the ability to paint my daughters room purple, or daydream about knocking down a wall and adding a bathroom. That would kill me.

    As for the freedom to move supposedly afforded renters, well, I’ve lost more than a few large security deposits when circumstances forced me to break a lease. And on the flipside, until the recent downturn I’ve never had a problem selling a home quickly, and making a profit in the process.

    Speaking of that profit, I can say unequivocally that the lion’s share the money I’ve managed to sock away for the future was garnered from the sale of each of my primary homes as I’ve sold and relocated. And that ‘forced savings’ came at no expense to me, as the rents I would have paid in the cities I’ve lived in were usually right in line with my mortgage payments.

    But, like I said, maybe this is just me, and maybe I’ve just been lucky,

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  31. That’s because owners don’t see the property tax deduction as subsidy for THEM, they see property taxes as subsidizing the local community.

    So, maybe the way to view the federal mortgage deduction, is as a subsidy to local communities that property taxes fund.

    There’s probably a less convoluted way to fund things, but we seem to defensively cling to a convoluted system.

    It seems to me that landlords make out the best in this deal. They get the mortgage interest deduction and pass on their local tax costs to their renters.

  32. I could misunderstand this idea, but I don’t think “creative destruction” is meant to refer to something engineered by the fedgov.

  33. Rational Adult

    This discussion about efficient use of resources and ownership illusions is all well and good. I don’t like apartment living. I’m not a big fan of noises from above and below and I am definitely not a fan of smelling 30 different dinner recipes on the may to my box within a box. I can see living without the tax subsidy. That will just shift the money demand curve the left. What ever. Without our home ownership model the power relationships between property owners and renters would be ugly and entrenched.

  34. Bravo!

    Encore?

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