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House Prices, NIMBYism, and Income Inequality

The difficulty of building new housing, once really a problem only in high-demand urban areas, has now spread even to many low-density areas. NIMBYism, as represented by overly-restrictive zoning laws, combined with a mismatch between demand for housing and the supply of house builders, has created a situation in which housing prices have doubled over only three years in many areas that I would describe as in the middle of fucking nowhere.

Constrained markets in necessities is the one area where people who decry income inequality have a legitimate point obviously supported by facts on the ground. We are now in a situation in which those on the right side of the fat part of the income spectrum are in a position to set prices for the entire market. That is: tech workers and those making similar incomes are putting a floor on house prices because there isn't enough housing to go around, so they bid up prices for what is available.

While in theory the solution to high prices is high prices (i.e., by drawing more supply into the market), this is not an instantaneous process in the house-building industry given the startup costs and limited supply of skilled labor, and is complicated by zoning and red tape in too many areas. IMO, except in the most dense, most high-demand downtown areas where there literally isn't enough land to accommodate everyone who wants to live there, even in residential towers, house prices should be at most marginally higher than land cost + building cost, and the fact that they aren't is going to be a (and maybe the) major contributor to Baumol cost disease and resulting price inflation over the coming decade.

I repeat: it's not just income inequality

Income inequality isn't the whole story. I thought I made that clear, but for some reason I momentarily forgot how confirmation bias works when I posted the above to Facebook.

The socialist looks at this situation and sees only the income inequality, and not the causes of the shortage. Income inequality, for instance, doesn't make food more expensive, because that market can respond much more quickly to rises in demand. Housing has too many factors, including government interference at the behest of incumbents (read: NIMBY homeowners), working against market liquidity.

Income inequality makes this problem worse, but high incomes don't somehow create shortages: the same number of people with incomes in a tighter band would still demand roughly the same amount of housing. The root cause here is not enough housing to meet demand. Housing should not be anything like a scarce commodity outside of the high-density downtown areas in major metros. There's no natural reason for houses to be in short supply in Littleton, NH, for instance. Houses in most of the USA should be available near cost for everyone, rich and poor.


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