The housing market: it’s all about supply and demand, right?
Not quite. States and markets – especially markets for housing – grew up together. Housing is heavily regulated in ways that generate, constrain, and ultimately channel supply and demand, creating not one, but many sub-markets and also non-markets. The policies governing housing have been layered one atop the other through history.
Where do these policies come from? They often respond to perceived crises. For instance, Vancouver enacted its first Fire By-law on July 19, 1886, just five weeks after the newly incorporated city burned to the ground. As a result, the policies set in place to deal with various crises are frequently reactive in nature. They also tend to be crafted in the image and interests of those most powerfully situated to govern.
Since the late 19th Century, policies across North America (and elsewhere) also tend to respond to an ideological background of “market fundamentalism,” or the idea that the market governs best (sometimes referred to as “neoliberalism”). As Karl Polanyi diagnosed early in the 20th Century, markets are terrible at governing some things (people, nature, productive capacity). As I argue in my book, urban land and the housing built atop it is one of these things. This sets up an interesting dynamic whereby ideological attempts to govern by a singular market create all manner of housing problems, which in turn generate reactive policy responses and explain why housing is so heavily regulated. The most frequent policy response, I think, has been to set up protective partitions within markets. This produces sub-markets and non-markets and helps explain the distinct nature of our various housing crises.
In what follows, I’m going to attempt to provide some insights into Vancouver’s current housing crises in a way that gets at the history of this partitioning of markets. The past barriers we’ve created to generate, constrain, and channel the market forces of supply and demand continue to shape policy levers available to us today.
Here’s a working visual guide (link to larger version). Sorry: it’s still pretty rough and necessarily messy, so it might not “work” for everyone!
Ok, so what’s going on here? Just to get it out of the way: “SFD” = Single Family Dwelling and “PBR” = Purpose-Built Rental. Combined together with “Condo” and “Non-market” housing, we’ve got our (heavily simplified) major basic forms in which housing is provided.
We can link these basic housing forms into how they relate to our perceptions of four distinct housing crises. I’ve distinguished these housing crises in terms of need, primary group of interest, and how Vancouver is doing addressing these crises in comparative perspective (more here).
Crisis #1: Homelessness involves the greatest need for housing, mostly affects the poor, and in comparative perspective, Vancouver actually has a not-terrible track record addressing this crisis. Though it’s gone up in recent years, the prevalence of homelessness remains relatively low. But the homeless are those most likely to be at risk of dying due to their housing situation. Everyone else’s crises pale by comparison.
Crisis #2: Rent Access involves high and immediate need for housing, mostly affects the working class and/or young, and Vancouver has a mediocre track record addressing this crisis. Rents remain relatively middle-of-the-pack for North American cities, but this is largely due to rent control and vacancy rates are very low, making it difficult for new entrants into the rental market. Failure to provide rentals can lead to real hardship and (ultimately) homelessness.
Crisis #3: Housing Price to Income reflects relatively low need, mostly affects the aspirational middle class, and Vancouver looks awful in comparative perspective (at least within North America). Since it affects the middle class & Vancouver does pretty terrible compared to elsewhere, this crisis sucks up most of the attention in Vancouver’s debates, despite reflecting relatively low need compared to the rental and homelessness crises.
Crisis #4: Return to Investment is unlike the other housing crises insofar as it reflects a more general crisis involving finance. Correspondingly, I place it as the lowest of needs, and it tends to affect an investor class already most protected by their assets. Recently, at least, Vancouver’s housing market has provided a very good return on investment. No real crisis here (despite recent attempts to set in motion a property tax revolt).
I’ve tried to cram as much of the history of reactive housing policy as I could into describing the barriers channeling supply and demand, with particular reference to Vancouver. Each letter describes a partition in markets and also acts as a policy lever. The letters identifying each lever / barrier are ordered in rough historical fashion. When was each barrier or lever put in place? Meanwhile, the arrows follow the production of housing from its monetary backing (capital – in green) through its development (in blue) to one of the four major forms of housing described above, and finally to its end use (consumption) as non-market, primary rental, secondary rental, resident owner-occupation, and empty or other.
It’s complicated! And I’m still leaving a lot out (e.g. non-profit organizations) and simplifying in places (e.g. treating resident-owners as strongly distinct from investors).
Nevertheless, a few points are worth making:
1) there is no such thing as a singular “housing market.” Instead there are many little sub-markets and non-markets produced by the layering of policies.
2) sub-markets are still connected to one another, but the connections are shaped by policies and determine how processes like “filtering” are variously enabled to work.
3) this reflects real concerns that there can be a “right” and “wrong” kind of supply. The overall history of housing policy insures that there really are different kinds of supplies that end up addressing different kinds of crisis. At the same time, supplies and crises do relate to one another. The trick is that the relationships aren’t at all straightforward, and some kinds of supply (e.g. condos) have been made more flexible than others.
4) earlier and wider ranging policies (e.g. A & B, covering tax, finance and land use) can have really wide-ranging effects on how housing works. For instance, shifting from extensive to intensive land use policies potentially unlocks a wide range of new housing stock that could help address all kinds of housing crises. Later policies tend to have more limited effects, carving off new little sub-markets (e.g. Accessory Dwelling Units) and specifying their links to other little sub-markets. But these links can be important!
5) sometimes the effects of policies can be complementary or conflict, depending upon the crisis at hand. For instance, Empty Home Taxes (policy lever F) diminish the range & value of benefits for investment (crisis #4, lowest need), but encourage the channeling of existing supply toward resident-owners (crisis #3, low need) and rentals (crisis #2, high need), ideally benefiting both the middle and working class. By contrast, a broader tax on use of housing for investment (policy lever A) without any exemption for rental tenancies would channel even more existing supply toward resident-owners (crisis #3, low need), but possibly exacerbate the options available for renters (crisis #2, high need). Rental restrictions within strata associations do the same thing. One concern with enabling the stratification of ADUs (policy levers D & G) – currently limited to rentals – is that it may have a similar effect, pitting the working class and middle class against one another.
6) am I already at six?!? I have lots more to say about this working model, which I began sketching months ago just to begin thinking through some of housing policy change we’ve seen and continue to see in Vancouver. With luck, I’ll work toward turning it into a paper! But as it is, this blog post is already too long. What’s your working model look like?