The Globe is wrong on housing

Headline bait often works on journalists as clickbait works on social media. Case in point, yesterday’s article by Evan Horowitz in The Boston Globe, entitled Why more housing won’t make Boston much cheaper. It’s chock-full of the sweeping generalizations and half-truths that give journalists a bad name and, in this case, animates the fantasies of the NIMBY brigade.

A good example is begun with the third paragraph, where Horowitz writes:

By lifting zoning restrictions, checking not-in-my-backyard opposition, and lowering bureaucratic hurdles, Greater Boston could let a thousand new housing units bloom, easing the competition for scarce spaces and dampening costs.

But this strategy has its limits. New construction doesn’t just mean more options for people who are already here. It means more people moving in. So at the end of all its building, Boston could end up denser yet just as expensive.

Think that’s impossible? Look at Manhattan, a city that has been building feverishly skyward since the dawn of steel construction, with little to show in the way of reasonably priced housing.

Of course, not building new housing hasn’t prevented people from moving here. The whole point of building more housing is to keep up with the demand, which is manifested by an increase in population, rents and a growing number of rent-burden individuals and households — those for whom more than one-third of their income is spent on housing.

People generally don’t move for housing costs, but for work and opportunity. New supply does not produce it’s own demand, as the experience of Williston, North Dakota shows.

The oil boom of the last decade resulted in the population nearly doubling in five years, from 14,716 to 26,977. According to City Observatory, rents skyrocketed (this writer recalls seeing job ads where the company would provide housing in Colorado and fly workers to North Dakota and back every three or four days) to $3,200 for some units. The City went from issuing less than 200 building permits a year to nearly 2000, producing loads of housing and moderating rents. But then the oil boom went bust and loads of jobs left ort disappeared and so did the housing demand. Thanks to the increase in supply and decline in demand, rents plumeted. The abundant supply of housing has not produced its own demand.

The reference to New York City, furthermore, is completely absurd, condensing 100 years of history into present conditions. New York built a lot of housing, especially in the 1920s and 1950s, with production declining with tightened zoning laws in the 1960s, according to Stephen Smith. New York’s population was more or less static between 1950 and 1970, then fell by about 800,000 between 1970 and 1980 (coincidentally, nearly the same number of people who lived in Boston at its population peak in 1950), before slowly climbing back. New York exceeded its peak population in in the 1990s and is now nearly 700,000 above its previous peak, according to the US Census Bureau. New York’s super high rents have really only been an issue for the past 20 years, or so.

In the musical “Rent” the characters are living in a loft in Alphabet City and don’t seem to have any regular incomes. That would not be possible today.

In fact, Horowitz consistantly ignores demographics in his piece. He presents two charts, one looking at construction rates and median home prices and the other at the change in home prices versus the rate of new construction.

“Meanwhile, the cities with the most restrained cost growth are Chicago and Pittsburgh, which haven’t been doing much building at all,” Horowitz wrote.

Firstly, it isn’t true that Chicago isn’t building. Secondly, the population of Chicago has fluctuated around 2.7 million people since 1990, which is about 900,000 people below its peak. Similarly, Pitsburgh’s population is almost half of what it was in 1950. These are easy-to-find facts.

While it’s true that Boston has not exceeded its peak population, it’s a lot closer to it than Pittsburgh or Chicago. Moreover, Boston’s population of college students has accelerated trends for households to be formed by adults. This contributes to bidding up rents because a group of four people with four incomes can outpay a family of four with two incomes.

It is true that the relationship between supply and cost is not as clear cut as the strawman Horowitz creates, but people from across the political spectrum — French Communists, centrist liberals like Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias and American libertarians like Stephen Smith and Alex Tabbarock — have all agreed on the importance of building housing.

Increasing supply (and making it easier to do so) is not the only thing that can be done, but it is the one thing without which all else will come to naught. Without construction, inclusionary development is useless, the value of vouchers will decline and a possible return of rent control could go from a nuisance to a disaster.

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