When people talk about the cost of housing, their complaints can often can be reduced to a dislike for "greedy developers." Maybe developers are greedy and maybe they're not, but unless Los Angeles has a monopoly on all the greedy developers, and affordable cities like Dallas and Atlanta got all noble, selfless ones, the skyrocketing cost of housing probably can't be explained by the avarice of the people building our homes. At least not exclusively.
Since low vacancy rates are the strongest predictor of increasing housing costs, it might be better to look at who's actually benefiting from our decades-long institution of limited development and housing shortages.
The primary benefactors in Los Angeles, as elsewhere, usually look a lot like the type of people backing the anti-growth Neighborhood Integrity Initiative: older, wealthier homeowners who "got theirs" and don't seem to care much about how housing affordability affects younger and newer residents to their city. They appear more concerned with their views and their free street parking than with whether or not the next generation can afford to call the city home.
When vacancy rates are kept low—and when reduced zoning capacity keeps the "maximum" number of homes artificially depressed—the people who already own homes win big; renters just win a bigger lease, or a comparable one in a less desirable neighborhood.
Case in point: In the past year, upwards of 92,000 owner-occupied households in the City of LA made more that than the city's median household income ($49,682*) on the appreciation of their homes. That's about 20 percent of all owner-occupied homes in the city. My analysis was very conservative, so the actual number of homes that went up in value over $50,000 is likely even greater. The number of houses appreciating by more than per-capita income ($28,320*) is about 162,000, or over a third of owner-occupied homes. (See the end of this article for methodology.)
Here's another interesting tidbit: Between 1990 and 2014, the value of single family parcels grew from $200.3 billion to $684.2 billion—an increase of nearly $500 billion, or about 240 percent. The number of single family parcels only went up 8 percent, so this is mainly due to appreciation on existing homes and the land on which they reside. So who, again, is making all the money off of Los Angeles real estate?
Frankly, I don't have anything in particular against people making money on an investment. I also don't grudge developers a healthy profit—as with homeowners, they're taking a sizable risk by investing their money in our communities, and no one does that without some expectation of personal gain. That's perfectly fine and understandable.
Where you lose me is when, as a homeowner, you put your desire for easy wealth over the needs of your neighbors, present and future. When you put the "integrity" of your built environment above that of your fellow man. When in the midst of a housing shortage of historic proportions, you shut the door to new homes being built in your neighborhood, or virtually anywhere in your city. When one large group of people is earning more by sitting on land than another major group can earn from the fruits of their own labor, we've got a recipe for permanent, destructive divisions by socioeconomic class.
When the Supreme Court evaluates the legality of a law affected by the Fair Housing Act, they don't look at its intent, they look at the impact. If the law has a disparate impact on protected populations, it must be changed. Housing prices being what they are, whether your reasons as a homeowner are legitimate or not isn't really relevant at this point. They don't matter. Your intent isn't important. All that really matters are the outcomes, and, right now, the outcome are pretty damn dire.
Opposition to new housing is the main reason why homes are becoming so expensive in cities across the U.S., and if you're a part of that opposition then you're a part of the problem. There are reasons to oppose specific projects, to be sure—and there are policies that must change in order to minimize harm to existing residents. But there is no justifiable reason for opposition to housing and increased density in general. Not if you care about equity, opportunity, and sustainability anyway. If you're fighting for more housing and increased affordable housing and your home is still growing in value by tens of thousands of dollars each year, so be it. If you're on the no-growth side, then consider your Good Neighbor Card revoked.
I hope that people reading this can take this argument for what it is, which is an indictment of our system of housing production rather than the motivations of individuals. With the exception of a cynical, greedy few, such as those providing financial backing for the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, I think most people want to do right by all of the people Los Angeles. For what it's worth, many renters are just as guilty of mistakenly opposing new housing, believing sincerely that it's the right thing to do to protect vulnerable residents and preserve our stock of affordable housing.
I think that we'll eventually convince renters that more housing is in their best interest and that of their neighbors, especially as our policies adapt to the new urban landscape and do a better job of helping those who genuinely need assistance. For homeowners, though, the incentives are such that they have every (financial) reason to find excuses to oppose new development, because that ultimately leads to fewer vacant houses and many tens of thousands of dollars in increased personal wealth.
The challenge at the heart of this issue is that rising housing prices are a zero-sum proposition. When homes go up in value, owners win, and current renters and future generations lose by an equal amount. You rarely hear anyone say it, but the simple, glaring fact is that you can't have rapidly increasing home values and preserve affordability at the same time; they're perfectly incompatible. We have to give up on one or the other. Yet as a measure of the economy's health, growing housing prices still take center stage, and housing wealth remains an essential component of the American dream. I'm not hopeful that we'll develop an alternative anytime soon.
While we wait, we'll need homeowners to to pitch in a bit more, and accept that 10 percent annual returns on their home aren't any more sustainable than 10 percent annual rent increases. And we'll need enough new housing to accommodate continued future growth, so those who've put down roots will need to understand that their neighborhood will continue to change, just as it once changed so that they could move in. Everyone in California wants to be the last new resident in their neighborhood, and for the last 30 years we've built housing like they were. We've got a lot of catching up to do, and that probably needs to start with changing how we think about housing, growth, and what it really means to be a good neighbor.
Methodology: I compiled the house price data from Zillow's year-over-year median home values and the 2014 American Community Survey 5-year dataset; for those ZIP codes within the City of LA which had median home value increases of $50,000 or more, I made the assumption that half of all homes in the ZIP code went up in value by at least this amount. In truth, many of the homes below median value in each ZIP code also probably went up by more than $50,000, and some above median value may not have increased by this amount, but overall I believe this is a pretty conservative estimate.
Here's a map of the ZIP codes analyzed. Note that it's roughly the shape of the City of LA, although the boundaries of the ZIPs don't perfectly correspond to the borders of the city.
*2014 American Community Survey, 5-year dataset