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Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Dec. 5, 2023

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Griffith: Pricey housing is whose fault?


With so much attention fixed on soaring prices for gasoline and groceries, one can almost overlook the fact that we’re also enduring an affordable housing crisis. The question is, why?

Spanning the pandemic era from February 2020 through May 2022, home prices soared 43.5 percent. Residential property prices in the United States, adjusted for inflation, are now 6.7 percent above the prior all-time record levels of the 2006 bubble.

Home prices are increasing far greater than family income growth. The mortgage payment on a median-priced home with a 20 percent down payment jumped from under $1,300 to more than $2,000 in just the past year as interest rates and home prices surged — a whopping 56 percent increase.

So what’s to blame for these surging prices? Politicians are scapegoating “institutional owners” and other investors in rental properties. But the evidence doesn’t support this. According to mortgage giant Freddie Mac, “Overall investor share of home sales stands at 27.6 percent in December 2021, which is only slightly higher than 26.7 percent in 2019.”

Although the share of sales to institutional investors (pension funds, insurance companies, banks) and iBuyers (large corporate buyers that often remodel and flip) rose from under 2 percent in 2018 to 4 percent of home sales since 2021 — this is still only a small portion of all rental homes purchased.

So who are the main culprits? Government mortgage subsidies, the Federal Reserve and local regulations.

Government-sponsored enterprises — namely, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — continue to dominate the mortgage market. Investors who purchase GSE bonds and mortgage-backed securities ultimately provide funds for people to finance homes, and these bondholders and investors enjoy implicit government backing. Approximately 90 percent of GSE volume is currently devoted to refinances, investor purchases, lower loan-to-value loans and pricier homes purchased by higher-income earners. Government-subsidized GSEs enable borrowers to take on bigger loans and spur housing demand, leading to higher home prices and increased taxpayer risk.

On the local level, stringent zoning restrictions, density limitations and aggressive environmental regulation limit the supply of housing while increasing the costs of construction. Regulations often account for more than 30 percent of the costs of rental housing construction. Rent control further compounds the problem by deterring new construction, giving landlords fewer incentives to spend on upkeep and remodeling, and reducing the future supply of housing. New construction the past decade remains far lower than in the decade preceding the prior housing price bubble, in part because of these restrictions.

Blaming real estate investors for the resulting misery may score political points. But demagoguery does nothing to alleviate it.

Lawmakers can start to restore this bedrock of the American dream by removing federal subsidies from the housing market, restricting the Federal Reserve’s power to purchase a limitless quantity of mortgages and eliminating the artificial barriers to housing supply erected by local leaders.

It’s time to stop home prices from going through the roof.

Joel Griffith is a research fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

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