The Wilson Quarterly (WQ, Summer 2008, Vol. 32, No. 3) published an article by Witold Rybczynski about affordable homes.
What's driving the high cost of houses today is not increased construction costs or higher profits...but the cost of serviced land.
The author refers to "serviced land" in two ways: one, the passing of costs from the government to developers for infrastructure; and two, NIMBY (Not In My BackYard).
Prior to Prop 13, the government would increase taxes on local communities for services that followed increased population growth, such as new roads, new parks, sewers, and general maintenance. Now, many local governments cannot increase property taxes to make up for the increased need for services, so they force developers to pay these costs if they want to build. The developers take the financial infrastructure hit up front and pass those costs onto the homebuyer at the end in the form of higher home prices.
NIMBY is easy to understand in this case. There is "widespread resistance to growth," so locals pass zoning laws and restrict building permits to prevent more houses from being built. These legally mandated slow growth policies lead to pent-up demand and not enough supply of houses, causing artificially inflated values. Anyone who's lived in Northern California and New York knows there isn't a problem with overpopulation and population density in California to justify California's slow growth policies--at least not yet. Rybczynski says,
According to the research of economists Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Joseph Gyourko of the Wharton School, since 1970 the difficulty of getting regulatory approval to build new homes is the chief cause of increases in new house prices. In other words, while demand for houses has been growing, the number of new houses that can actually be built has been shrinking.
One tactic cities use to stall new homes is zoning for large lots, like one acre. This forces larger houses and higher prices. In the past, many individual homes would be only 1/6 of an acre. Rybczynski states,
Smaller houses on smaller lots are the logical solution to the problem of affordability, yet density--and less affluent neighbors--are precisely what most communities fear most.
I would love to see a return to smaller houses. One advantage of not having a lot of space is people will consume less if they know there isn't so much space to hold their new purchases.
Follow-up from Mankiw's blog: Assar Lindbeck once called rent control "the best way to destroy a city, other than bombing." Rent control is another regulation that discourages new real estate development by providing an incentive for renters not to move. At the same time, it discourages new developers from investing in new buildings because the owners will be unable to charge higher market prices. I am conflicted about rent control, because there must be some cap on rent increases that will satisfy both renters and developers. Leaving renters to the pure whims of landlords doesn't seem ideal. Of course, in trying to establish an ideal cap on rent increases, we could end up with the problem of the cap actually inflating rents. For instance, if we enact a 5% annual cap, all landlords will probably raise the rent 5% a year when they might have kept the rent unchanged without the law.