Why America Needs a Disruptive Housing Policy Now More Than Ever

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Though America’s growing housing crisis was largely absent from the election campaign, it is a singular issue that cuts across all segments of voters. Every voter is a housing voter, and as a country we need the new Trump administration to enter a new chapter in housing policy, one that disrupts old ways of thinking and embraces a path of inclusionary growth and shared prosperity. The American electorate requires nothing less.

Recent academic research has surfaced five critical issues that define the state of housing in America. These issues highlight the need for disruptive federal housing policy. First, the housing market is undersupplied and the rent is too damn high (we didn’t need academics to tell us that one). Second, economic mobility depends on geography yet economically integrated neighborhoods are rare. Finally, local land-use regulation increases economic inequality and can threaten U.S. productivity and economic growth at a national scale.  

The upshot? Because we lack a comprehensive national housing plan, America could easily flip to a growth path that hinders economic mobility and makes access to opportunities even more unequal. We are heading to a future in which people no longer move to where the jobs are because it’s too expensive to live there.   

America’s cities have witnessed explosive growth over the past five years. This growth has  followed, in large part, innovation. Tech workers have expanded from their birth place in Silicon Valley and are now also clustering in places like Austin, Boston, Washington DC, New York, Denver and Seattle. In Austin, 1,500 new residents come to town each month, in Seattle, 1,300 a month show up and in D.C., 1,000 new residents make the district home each month.  

This move of new entrants and businesses have been a boon to U.S. cities, creating wealth and jobs. At the same time, cities did not have a game plan for growth. As if caught off guard, local housing policy never quite rose to the occasion by figuring out how all residents could benefit from the wealth that was coming into their cities or how to make sure the poor weren’t displaced by it. Rents skyrocketed, housing supply plummeted and entry-level starter homes all but disappeared, challenging even the most earnest first-time buyer.  

Developers coddled wealthy new residents by building expensive condos in the center city and ignoring the needs of a growing working class that demanded affordable housing. Homeowners that have enjoyed a 30 percent windfall in property values since the housing bust, steadfastly reupped on restrictive zoning practices that crippled housing supply even more.  

Instead of shaping an inclusive growth path where all citizens benefitted for an economic resurgence, cities squandered their success by neglecting what should have been the backbone of their achievement: housing equity. And in doing so stoked historical legacies of inequality, displacement and racial and economic segregation.

At Redfin, we’ve looked at how growth has affected middle class homeownership by analyzing one of the beacons of local community, our teachers. In California, for example, only 17 percent of homes currently listed for sale are affordable on the average California teacher salary of $73,536. This represents a 13 percentage point decline in affordable housing since 2012, when nearly 30 percent of all homes for sale were within reach on the then average salary of $70,487. This pattern is repeated in communities across the country.

If affordable housing was all we needed to worry about in U.S. cities, we could simply build our way out of the problem. A simple solution captured in the word ‘more.’ More new construction, more affordable housing, more subsidies.  

But housing is so much bigger than shelter. That’s what we learned the last five years. The crisis has risen to an economic issue. It’s not just an issue for the poor, it affects the sustainability of the middle class. Housing is not just about a place, it’s about health, mobility and growth.

In the new era of economic growth, housing policy must support livable communities, not just affordable ones. Livability requires inclusionary growth, it requires that families have access to public investments from sidewalks to schools. Economic mobility, a key component of livability, requires public transportation investment so that workers can get from where it’s affordable to live to where the jobs are. Cities like Chicago and Baltimore are not just split along racial lines, but splintered by transit and access to jobs and opportunity.

Livability requires federal involvement at the local level where housing policy happens. Our zoning laws are neglecting our needs as a country. Housing policy requires a disruption.

Here are four ways the new Trump Administration can disrupt America’s housing policy to serve the needs of the middle and working class families.

One, reframe the housing crisis from an affordability issue to an economic one, with regional and national importance. If the election has taught us anything, it’s that words matter. The new administration can use words to push the debate from old language and old problems to new realities and new solutions. As long as housing is framed as somebody else’s problem, we will never give housing its proper place as central to the economic prosperity of our country.

Cities, for their part, need a rhetorical nudge in order stop seeing themselves as lone wolves in solving their housing problem and to start building intercity and public-private partnerships to create regional corridors of high growth opportunity.  

Two, reward local disruption. One of the the most incendiary foes of livability and inclusionary growth in America’s cities is local land use regulation. Local homeowners and influencers seeking to protect property values vote time and time again for exclusionary policies that keep people from moving into their neighborhoods and make land too extensive for all but the most high end of development.

The new Trump administration will have a weapon against NIMBYISM (“Not In My Backyard”). It can reward communities that implement inclusionary zoning practices with federal infrastructure investments. The federal government can do much more to be influential in local housing policy. That’s where the crisis starts – at the local level. When people vote against inclusionary zoning policies.

Three, for pete’s sake end the mortgage interest rate deduction. This tax policy helps those who need it the least, high-income homeowners who itemize their tax returns. The Trump administration should tie the deduction to incomes or geographies so that middle class homebuyers and low-income neighborhoods benefit the most and not the least.

There’s a window of opportunity here, while mortgage rates are still low to make sweeping changes on who benefits from this policy. Mortgage interest rates have been extremely low the past four years (an average under 4 percent compared to over 10 percent 30 years ago). And because of chronically low supply, we’ve seen more cash buyers and investors in the market, which means that the interest rate deduction hasn’t added up to a lot of money for most high-income families anyway.

Before rates rise again let’s redirect our nation’s largest housing subsidy away from wealthy households to low income and middle class homeowners, who don’t deduct, have less equity and could use a tax benefit to help their families. That’s disruptive tax policy.

Four, end the bastardization of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  The biggest tools in the federal toolbox to fix housing are, sadly, the most maligned. Former presidents on both the right and the left used mortgage financing giants Freddie and Fannie to increase homeownership and expand housing to low-middle income and minority homeowners. Now these agencies have been stripped of lofty goals by a court of political opinion and Congressional inaction.

Fannie and Freddie are key to providing mortgage financing to the large segment of the middle class that remain on the sidelines of homeownership. Shrink them, yes, but don’t ignore their power to make meaningful investments in cities by providing financing to the working class and the developers of workforce housing. It’s time to legitimize their mission again.

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Chief Economist

Nela leads Redfin’s housing market research team on data reports that help Redfin customers make informed choices. She comes to Redfin from Bloomberg LP, where she served as a senior economist with Bloomberg Government. She also served in past roles in the mortgage industry, capital markets and financial policy. Redfin is a full-service real estate brokerage that uses modern technology to make clients smarter and faster. For more information about working with a Redfin real estate agent to buy or sell a home, visit our "Why Redfin?," page.

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