The myth of affordable housing

Cities are unaffordable by definition because of the value that can be extracted by living in them. 

A few months back, my Takshashila colleague Varun KR (Shenoy) asked me if there is any city where housing is not prohibitively expensive. It wasn’t a rhetorical question. While answering “no”, I went off on a long rant as to why affordable housing is a myth, and why housing in urban areas is by definition expensive. I had been planning to blog it for a while but I get down to it only now.

Cities are expensive to live in due to a simple reason – lots of people want to live there. And why do lots of people want to live in cities? Because the density in cities means that there is a lot more economic activity happening per capita that results in greater productivity and happiness.

If you are in a rural area, for example, there are few services that you could afford to outsource, for the small scale means that it doesn’t make sense for people to provide that service. Even when such services exist, lack of competition might mean a large “bid-ask spread” and hence inefficiency. This means you are forced to do a lot more tasks which you suck at, leaving less time for you to do things you are good at and make money from.

Needs of a rural area also means that there is a natural limit on the kind of economic activities that can be remunerative there, so if your skills don’t lie in one of those, you are but forced to lead a suboptimal existence.

Larger agglomerations (such as cities), by putting people closer to each other, provide sufficient scale for more goods and services to become tradable. Transaction costs are reduced, and you can afford to outsource a lot more tasks than you could afford to in a rural area, thus boosting your productivity.

Economist and noted urban theorist Jane Jacobs, in her book “Cities and the Wealth of Nations”, argues that economic development occurs exclusively in cities and “city regions” and proceeds to demolish different theories by which people have tried to create economic value in remote areas (my review of the book here).

The larger a city is, the greater the benefits for someone who lives there, controlling for ability and skill. Thus, ceteris paribus, the demand for living in cities exceeds that of living in smaller agglomerations, which gets reflected in the price of housing.

It might be argued that what I have presented so far is only an analysis of demand, and supply is missing from my analysis. (I don’t understand who is on the left and who is on the right on this one but) One side argues that the reason housing is not affordable in cities is that strict regulations and zoning laws limit the amount of housing available leading to higher prices. The other side talks about the greed of builders who want to “maximise profits by building for the rich”, which leads to undersupply at the lower end of the market.

While zoning and building restrictions might artificially restrict supply and push up prices (San Francisco is a well-known example of a city with expensive housing for this reason), easing such restrictions can have only a limited impact. While it is true that increasing density might lead to an increase in supply and thus lower prices, a denser city will end up providing scale to far more goods and services than a less dense city can, thus increasing the value addition for people living there, which means more people want to live in these denser cities.

As for regulations that dictate that “affordable housing” be built, one needs to look no further than the “Slum Rehabilitation Apartments” that have been built in Mumbai on land recovered from slums (the usual deal is for a builder to commit to building a certain number of “affordable” houses for the erstwhile dwellers of the slums thus demolished apart from “conventional” housing). Erstwhile slumdwellers rarely occupy such apartments, for they are willing to accept a lower quality of life (in another slum, perhaps) in exchange for the money that can be generated by renting out these apartments.

This piece is far from over, but given how long it’s been, I’ll probably continue in a second part. Till then, I leave you with this thought – a city becoming an “affordable” place to live is a cause of worry for policymakers (and dwellers of the city itself) because it is an indicator that the city is not adding as much economic value as it used to.