Two Sneaky Reasons Why Building More Housing Isn’t Helping

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on April 6, 2016

The discussion about how much building more housing will help with affordability, and the nuances of the neighborhood and regional effects and what to do about them is alive and well and important.

But so far most of those conversations are assuming that when you add supply, it addresses some sort of demand, even if it's an influx of rich people with other options.

As in, as long as there is pent-up demand for housing in a region, someone will live in the new housing that gets built.

Fairly simple, right?

Except it isn't always true, because of:

1. Short-Term Rentals (i.e. Illegal Hotels)

Homes are being removed from the market and being turned into short-term rentals (i.e. hotel rooms) via companies like AirBnB at an amazing clip.

LAANE, in Los Angeles, first concerned about the effect on hotel workers, recently completed a massive study of AirBnB based on the site's own publiclly available data, and discovered it is having tremendous effects on the region's housing market. In the Venice area, for example, 12.5 percent of the housing has become short-term rentals. In a popular area with low vacancy and skyrocketing costs, the number of homes transformed into hotel rooms in the past few years is about seven times the number of new homes built. In other words, the city is actually losing housing.

Despite the company's preferred image of someone letting people stay in their spare bedroom to earn some extra cash, LAANE found that two thirds of the listings, and 87 percent of the revenue, comes from whole apartments or homes, and a significant number of hosts have two or more (often many more) listings, and are likely to be commerical operators, not individual homeowners.

Bottom line: When landlords can shift vacant units to the tourist market instead of lowering the rents, then new supply doesn't help with affordability.

2. Real Estate as a Place to Park Money (Often Illegal Money)

It's not necessarily breaking news that the extremely wealthy have been buying apartments they neither live in nor rent out in hot real estate markets. New York City has 89,000 apartments owned by people who mostly spend their time elsewhere, prompting proposals for a pied-à-terre tax (which I still think is a great idea and don't know why it hasn't gotten anywhere). 

The revelations in the Panama Papers have been not only a good reminder of this phenomenon, but a reminder that it's not just a matter of some super wealthy folks wanting second and third homes. Luxury housing has become in many places a form of money laundering—it's not about providing housing at all. And yet it drives up everyone else's cost of housing.

As summarized by Tim Redmond on 48hills.org:

"On NPR this afternoon, the vice president of Transparency International talked about how the offshore deals impact ordinary people–and the first thing she talked about was housing in cities like New York and San Francisco. See, the shadowy banking system allows people with illegal money–money from arms trading, money from drug sales, money stolen from the people of a struggling country–to launder it and use it, among other things, to buy real estate.

So, she said, the bidding wars that are driving up the cost of housing in cities, and the mega-priced condos that are shoving out other types of housing in places with scarce real estate, are directly linked to this dark money."

(As noted in HousingWire, there's a lot in the papers to explain Miami's real estate market as well.)

The AirBnB issue in Los Angeles is already uniting hotel workers and their unions, affordable housing developers, tenant advocates, and even hotel owners to call for better regulations of the service. Who knows exactly what sort of allies the Panama Papers revelation might bring together. After all, as Drew Schwartz writes in Vice,

If you live in one of the 200 countries and territories that Mossack Fonseca's clients call home–and, given the fact you're reading this article, you probably do–the story of the Panama Papers is your story. The money the law firm helps to hide should be used to pay for your schools, your highways, your hospitals. The criminals it works with run the most violent illegal organisations your country has ever seen. The politicians who have taken and made bribes, dodged taxes and amassed fortunes of unimaginable scale are your politicians.

And that doesn't even get into the effect on housing markets.

(Photo credit: TaxRebate.org.uk, CC BY 2.0)

About the author more »

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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COMMENTS

DOK
8 Apr 16, 11:20 pm

AirBNB and foreign investors are both sources of demand for current housing, too. As such, they are already contributing to the increase in housing prices. Increasing supply has little impact on demand and thus lowers prices, all else being equal.

To your second point:, it’s not like the oligarchs are having trouble finding new developments to park their money in. The lion’s share of new construction that onerous restrictions prevent, is that for the upper middle class.

Miriam Axel-Lute
11 Apr 16, 9:21 am

Yes, given static demand, building new should help, on a regional level. And yes, AirBnB and foreign investors are contributing to increase in housing prices. Exactly.

My point is that there are these two sources of demand that are not actually demand for housing to be used as housing and that we do not have to allow, or do not have to allow unregulated or untaxed. If one had the same level of homebuilding, but without homes being diverted to other uses, that has the same effect as building more.

This was not actually an argument against building more housing (though how/where/for whom are important). It was an argument for addressing these diversions of housing resources.

Michael Lewyn
12 Apr 16, 9:29 am

1.  I don’t see why hotel unions’ views on Airbnb are any more reliable than the Koch Brothers’ views about renewable energy.  They both have an interest in destroying a competitor.

2.  By using statistics for a touristy area like Venice, you are cherry-picking.  Even the study you rely on claims that CITYWIDE, Airbnb reduces citywide housing supply by just over 7000 units- a drop in the bucket in a city as large as Los Angeles.  And these units meet supply too; short-term rentals address housing needs just as long-term rentals do.

3.  Of the pied-a-terres you mention, only 1556 are worth over $5 million, according to the article you link to.  So the “money-laundering foreign oligarch” problem is also a drop in the bucket.

4.  But even if these problems were much bigger problems, they don’t mean that the city can’t meet demand with new supply.  It would just mean that demand is greater, and the city has to work twice as hard to add supply.

Miriam Axel-Lute
12 Apr 16, 10:16 am

1. When hotel workers and hotel owners and non-involved community groups all agree on something, that’s generally worth examining. This is by no means an argument only being made by the unions.

2 & 3 (though mostly 2). Housing markets are local. The linked report notes that AirBnB units are clustered very heavily in a handful of touristy neighborhoods—in those neighborhoods they are absolutely having an effect. And short term rentals do not address supply for housing, any more than conversions to office space would. They are hotel units. Different kettle of fish.

4. In theory, yes, on a regional level. I’m not arguing against building housing, nor am I arguing that these two phenomena are the only or even the major problem. We need to build housing—especially permanently affordable housing, and especially in heretofore exclusionary high-opportunity neighborhoods.

But when we are looking at a neighborhood scale, in a suddenly high-demand neighborhood, there actually is a limit to supply (because there are limits to land) and short term negative consequences of rapid building there (see: http://www.shelterforce.org/article/4408/why_we_must_build/ and http://www.rooflines.org/4430/the_supply-side_arguments_and_why_geography_s scale_and_migration_matter/). So addressing (or taxing) inappropriate, detrimental, or illegal forms of demand should also be on the table.

Chad
9 Jun 16, 1:37 pm

“So…(or taxing)…should also be on the table.”
As long as addressing the ‘right’ property AND re-channeling that money to affordable housing creation. If possible, stopping/sanctioning these ‘crimes’ earlier that add to these housing issues, and using those sanctions to fund affordable housing would have the even-better outcome of lowering the two mentioned supply-side effects a little earlier in the game.

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