Does America face an affordable housing crisis and, if so, why? This paper argues that in much of America the price of housing is quite close to the marginal, physical costs of new construction. The price of housing is significantly higher than construction costs only in a limited number of areas, such as California and some eastern cities. In those areas, we argue that high prices have little to do with conventional models with a free market for land. Instead, our evidence suggests that zoning and other land use controls, play the dominant role in making housing expensive.
This paper examines whether there is a housing affordability problem in America by comparing house prices to the costs of new construction. It then proceeds to investigate why prices far exceed construction costs in certain areas. In most of the country, home prices appear to be fairly close to the physical costs of construction. Only in particular areas, especially New York City and California, do housing prices diverge substantially from the costs of new construction. The bulk of the evidence examined indicates that zoning and other land use controls are responsible for prices in high cost areas of the country. This indicates that restrictions on supply and new development, not just high demand for certain regions, are responsible for the housing affordability problems that do exist. The results also suggest that if housing affordability advocates are interested in reducing housing costs, they would do well to start with zoning reform, and not focus as much on public or subsidized construction programs.
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