January 2, 2024 Reading Time: 3 minutes

Why is housing so expensive? The answer is easy: we’re not building enough of it. Demand is growing faster than supply, and that’s a recipe for rising prices. The problem is especially acute in innovation hubs like the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, and New York (though San Francisco seems to be fighting demand by turning its streets into scat-splattered post-apocalyptic hellscapes). When it takes seventeen years to begin construction on a public housing development, we shouldn’t be surprised that housing is getting more expensive.

The rent is too damn high, but there are a few easy ways to bring it back to earth.

First, legalize density. Huge swathes of the country are zoned for single-family detached housing. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that so many people live in enormous houses in sprawling suburbs where they endure 45-minute commutes through traffic-choked streets and highways. It’s the only housing people can build legally and profitably in many places.

Second, reimagine what “housing” is. Restrictions on how housing is defined mean a lot of unnecessary expenses. Requirement 7 in this handy, 334-page Fair Housing Act Design Manual tells us, “Dwelling units must contain usable kitchens and bathrooms such that an individual who uses a wheelchair can maneuver about the space. See Chapter Seven.” Chapter 7 provides an 83-page description of how to comply with Fair Housing Act Regulations 24 CFR 100.205, “…covered multifamily dwellings with a building entrance on an accessible route shall be designed and constructed in such a manner that all premises within covered multifamily dwelling units contain usable kitchens…such that an individual in a wheelchair can maneuver about the space.” Do we have to require that anything we call “housing” have a sleeping space, a cooking space, a parking space, and a bathroom?

It’s not clear many apartments, condos, or houses in cities like San Francisco and New York need kitchens because cooking is not a very good use of their occupants’ time. If you’re an executive at a zillion-dollar tech startup or a new hire at a white-shoe law firm — or if you’re studying to be one of these things — then the only reason you should cook is if it’s a hobby. Given the value of your time, grocery shopping and cooking are insanely expensive. You probably shouldn’t do it unless you love it or have some other motive. In most cities, reasonably healthy meals aren’t that far away, and delivery services are legion; they would probably proliferate as kitchenless housing sprang up. A lot of kitchens are superfluous.

So are a lot of parking spaces and bathrooms. You might agree about parking spaces and nod in approval because cities are making progress and eliminating parking requirements, which means fewer blacktopped patches of ground that are only for storing cars. But bathrooms? You can outsource cooking, but you can’t outsource bathroom stuff. That’s true, but bathrooms can be shared. Maybe not every unit needs a bathroom. If you’re wondering what living without your own bathroom or kitchen would be like, spend a few days in a college dormitory. It’s good enough for 18-22 year-olds. It might be good enough for people a little farther along in life.

“So you’re saying the poor don’t deserve common comforts like kitchens and bathrooms?” No. People might be willing to live without their own kitchens and bathrooms if it means a cheaper place to sleep. Regulation’s underlying philosophy is that I know better than you how you should live and what tradeoffs you should make. I reject that. The relevant social question is not “should people have this or that nice thing?” but “what should we give up to get this or that nice thing?” We should be prepared to let people look at the nice thing and what they would have to give up to get it and say, “no, thank you.”

These are a few cuts we can make to the red tape that blocks affordable housing. People get more options and lower prices, and even though Michael Munger reminds us in two articles that “All Housing is Affordable Housing,” these modest steps would likely lead to more modest new housing within reach of people with modest means.

John Stuart Mill embraced liberty because it allows a wide array of “experiments of living.” Experiments are important because we can theorize about how people should live all day, but an experiment is a hypothesis’s crucial test. Market tests are commercial societies’ validation processes. If you make money, you’ve chosen wisely. If you lose money, you’ve chosen poorly. That’s not always strictly true, but it’s a good starting point. In a world filled with vacant urban land and buildings, letting people reimagine housing is a good way to get more of it at lower prices.

Art Carden

Art Carden

Art Carden is a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.

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