There’s a discussion on Twitter about home ownership. In the US, there are periodic calls to abolish the mortgage interest deduction on various grounds: it discriminates against low-income renters, it benefits people in higher tax brackets (i.e. the rich), it is a subsidy to the suburbs. Matt Bruenig, one of the strongest voices on the American socialist left writing about policy, makes an anti-racist argument: per a 2015 report from Demos (p. 12), home ownership contributes to a racial wealth gap, since whites enjoy higher returns than blacks and Hispanics.
In this post, I’m going to make a more general point: home ownership is a questionable individual choice, and a bad regional choice. Governments, from the urban to the national level, should not encourage it in any way.
Home ownership as wealth
Real estate, like any other asset, is a source of wealth. People buy it as an investment, which they can borrow against (“second mortgage”), bequeath to their children, or sell in retirement. In this, it’s no different from any other asset. The more down-to-earth use is as a source of savings: retirees who own a house or apartment debt-free, having finished paying off their mortgage, are not at risk of eviction if their pensions are limited. Near-retirees who lose their jobs are in a similar situation – they have lower immediate expenses than if they rented.
The problem is that this form of saving works in reverse for everyone who is of working age. A 40-year-old who loses their job might want to live off of savings while looking for a job of equivalent skill level and pay. If their savings are largely in their house, this is difficult, for two reasons:
- The house is less liquid than stocks – it’s hard to sell a quarter of it.
- The house is likelier to lose value when the owner needs it the most.
The second point is true to some extent of all pro-cyclical assets (e.g. stocks), but especially of real estate. Workers are more likely to be laid off in recessions, when pro-cyclical assets lose value. Counter-cyclical ones, like sovereign bonds, rise in value, but have lower returns in the long run, creating the familiar risk/returns tradeoff. Housing in that sense is no different from stocks.
However, in one sense, housing is different: it is especially sensitive to the state of the local economy. The American economy today is stronger than it was thirty years ago, but the Detroit economy is not, and people who bought houses in Detroit have had their home values wiped. In this way, home ownership makes people less capable of moving to places with better jobs.
Home ownership and NIMBYism
One of the points made by William Fischel in his writings about zoning and NIMBYism is that the impetus for this behavior comes from homeowners trying to safeguard the value of their investment. Per Fischel, since most homeowners’ entire savings are locked up in one risky asset, they are risk-averse when it comes to any neighborhood change, leading to NIMBYism. Renters are more flexible. So are the richest people, who have a broad array of investments (and often multiple apartments and houses): upper-crust NIMBYism is often the domain of the upper middle class rather than of the top 1%.
It is the general interest of society to have less NIMBYism and looser zoning. This is true even at the level of the individual city. It’s in the interest of San Francisco to be able to build more housing and more office space, even to replace single-family houses in outer areas near Muni Metro with mid-rise apartment buildings. And the higher the level of government, the more upzoning makes sense.
Condos and governance
As Ed Glaeser mentions in a 2011 paper, more than 85% of single-family houses in the US are owned, and more than 85% of apartments in buildings with 3 or more units are rented. Glaeser explains how this turns home ownership incentives into incentives for single-family housing. But it also affects how new multifamily housing looks.
Traditional mid-rise buildings are owned by a single landlord, who rents them to individual tenants. Newer buildings are either rentals or condos. Condos have more complex governing boards, and in extreme cases end up having the same social dynamics of suburbs: people who enjoy telling others what to do make rules about behavior.
The American practice of making mortgage interest tax-deductible is not common across the developed world. But there are more widespread policies that still treat homeowner wealth preferentially to other kinds of investments. There are no capital gains taxes on real estate appreciation, subject to constraints to make sure individual homeowners are not taxed but large-scale commercial developers are. Most countries also fail to tax imputed rents. Switzerland does tax imputed rents, but is unusual in doing so: Swiss homeowners owe taxes on the rents they’d be getting if they rented out their properties at fair market value.
There doesn’t need to be double taxation. In other words, housing should be taxed as personal consumption (so mortgage interest is not deductible, but there are no imputed rents) or as business expenses (so interest is deductible, but there are imputed rents). But it should be single-taxed, because it is not a state interest to depopulate the cities to create a class of suburban NIMBYs, who affect petty aristocratic manners when times are good but turn into a precariat when times are bad.