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More houses = more unemployment

Richard Florida gives a longish history of the relationship between economic fortune and the cities. He talks about how suburbanization came about as a result of economic trends:

uburbanization was the spatial fix for the industrial age—the geographic expression of mass production and the early credit economy. Henry Ford’s automobiles had been rolling off assembly lines since 1913, but “Fordism,” the combination of mass production and mass consumption to create national prosperity, didn’t emerge as a full-blown economic and social model until the 1930s and the advent of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.

Before the Great Depression, only a minority of Americans owned a home. But in the 1930s and ’40s, government policies brought about longer-term mortgages, which lowered payments and enabled more people to buy a house. Fannie Mae was created to purchase those mortgages and lubricate the system. And of course the tax deduction on mortgage-interest payments (which had existed since 1913, when the federal income-tax system was created) privileged house purchases over other types of spending. Between 1940 and 1960, the homeownership rate rose from 44 percent to 62 percent.

Demand for houses was symbiotic with demand for cars, and both were helped along by federal highway construction, among other infrastructure projects that subsidized a new suburban lifestyle and in turn fueled demand for all manner of household goods. More recently, innovations in finance like adjustable-rate mortgages and securitized subprime loans expanded homeownership further and kept demand high. By 2004, a record 69.2 percent of American families owned their home.

For the generation that grew up during the Depression and was inclined to pinch pennies, policies that encouraged freer spending were sensible enough—they allowed the economy to grow faster. But as younger generations, weaned on credit, followed, and credit availability increased, the system got out of hand. Housing, meanwhile, became an ever-more-central part of the American Dream: for many people, as the recent housing bubble grew, owning a home came to represent not just an end in itself, but a means to financial independence.

Suburbanization—and the sprawling growth it propelled—made sense for a time. The cities of the early and mid-20th century were dirty, sooty, smelly, and crowded, and commuting from the first, close-in suburbs was fast and easy. And as manufacturing became more technologically stable and product lines matured during the postwar boom, suburban growth dovetailed nicely with the pattern of industrial growth. Businesses began opening new plants in green-field locations that featured cheaper land and labor; management saw no reason to continue making now-standardized products in the expensive urban locations where they’d first been developed and sold. Work was outsourced to then-new suburbs and the emerging areas of the Sun Belt, whose connections to bigger cities by the highway system afforded rapid, low-cost distribution. This process brought the Sun Belt economies (which had lagged since the Civil War) into modern times, and sustained a long boom for the United States as a whole.

Now here’s the money quote where Richard Florida questions the value of home ownership:

The solution begins with the removal of homeownership from its long-privileged place at the center of the U.S. economy. Substantial incentives for homeownership (from tax breaks to artificially low mortgage-interest rates) distort demand, encouraging people to buy bigger houses than they otherwise would. That means less spending on medical technology, or software, or alternative energy—the sectors and products that could drive U.S. growth and exports in the coming years. Artificial demand for bigger houses also skews residential patterns, leading to excessive low-density suburban growth. The measures that prop up this demand should be eliminated.

If anything, our government policies should encourage renting, not buying. Homeownership occupies a central place in the American Dream primarily because decades of policy have put it there. A recent study by Grace Wong, an economist at the Wharton School of Business, shows that, controlling for income and demographics, homeowners are no happier than renters, nor do they report lower levels of stress or higher levels of self-esteem.

And while homeownership has some social benefits—a higher level of civic engagement is one—it is costly to the economy. The economist Andrew Oswald has demonstrated that in both the United States and Europe, those places with higher homeownership rates also suffer from higher unemployment. Homeownership, Oswald found, is a more important predictor of unemployment than rates of unionization or the generosity of welfare benefits. Too often, it ties people to declining or blighted locations, and forces them into work—if they can find it—that is a poor match for their interests and abilities.

As homeownership rates have risen, our society has become less nimble: in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans were nearly twice as likely to move in a given year as they are today. Last year fewer Americans moved, as a percentage of the population, than in any year since the Census Bureau started tracking address changes, in the late 1940s. This sort of creeping rigidity in the labor market is a bad sign for the economy, particularly in a time when businesses, industries, and regions are rising and falling quickly.

The foreclosure crisis creates a real opportunity here. Instead of resisting foreclosures, the government should seek to facilitate them in ways that can minimize pain and disruption. Banks that take back homes, for instance, could be required to offer to rent each home to the previous homeowner, at market rates—which are typically lower than mortgage payments—for some number of years. (At the end of that period, the former homeowner could be given the option to repurchase the home at the prevailing market price.) A bigger, healthier rental market, with more choices, would make renting a more attractive option for many people; it would also make the economy as a whole more flexible and responsive.

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