Pittsburgh, Poster Child for Sloppy Housing Policy
In the weeks and months ahead, researchers at the Show-Me Institute will be taking a closer look at housing policies in Missouri, with a particular emphasis on the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) program. Readers of this blog are familiar with common objections —LIHTC is expensive, doesn’t live up to its promises, and is mainly a sop to developers—but Institute researchers haven’t spent as much time on the broader subject the LIHTC program supposedly addresses, housing supply and affordability. The question of housing affordability is an enormously important one and deserves more attention, especially during a period of rampant inflation.
Some policymakers are starting to deal with the challenge of housing inflation thoughtfully. But some cities, like Pittsburgh, are adopting half-baked (but trendy) policies from elsewhere to solve a problem that, practically speaking, may not exist locally. As reported in the Wall Street Journal:
On Monday the mayor signed an ordinance . . . to expand the city’s inclusionary zoning requirements. Developers building 20 or more units in the gentrifying Bloomfield and Polish Hill neighborhoods will have to set aside at least 10% for affordable housing. Under the rules, a designated studio apartment could rent for no more than $742 a month, though the average rent for one is $1,300 in Pittsburgh, according to the housing search website Rent.com. . . .[I]nclusionary zoning forces developers to set aside affordable housing whether or not they receive government incentives, so “the other 90% of the units have to subsidize that cost,” Mr. Eichenlaub says. “They are making the developer and the owners of those units, or renters, absorb those costs. Effectively, it’s a tax on housing.”
And when you tax something, you get less of it. Portland, Ore., introduced inclusionary zoning in 2017. Permits for residential buildings with 20 or more units plummeted 64% in 25 months as developers went smaller to get around the mandate. The nonprofit Up for Growth concluded that “rather than increasing the number of affordable units,” the zoning scheme “appears to be diminishing the supply of housing at nearly all income levels.” [Emphasis mine]
My colleague Elias Tsapelas has done, and continues to do, outstanding work digging into LIHTC. The Pittsburgh “inclusionary zoning” mandate is the same sort of government burden as the LIHTC, minus the incentives. As the Wall Street Journal editorial board astutely observes, Pittsburgh’s newly mandated costs are likely to metastasize not only into higher housing prices for other renters and owners, but also into overall housing supply degradations.
But Pittsburgh’s housing policy change is notable for another reason: by one prominent metric, the city is the only major metropolitan area in America that doesn’t appear to have an affordability problem. Wendell Cox is a prominent researcher on the issue of housing affordability, and he has published his “median multiple” index for many years now, ranking metropolitan areas worldwide based on how affordable their housing markets are. His 2022 edition of the index is illuminating, not only for the other findings (which I’ll get into in another blog post) but especially for Pittsburgh—which now ranks as the only purely “affordable” housing market in the United States. In other words, Pittsburgh is trying to fix a problem it doesn’t really have.
My colleagues and I will pull apart why housing costs can be artificially inflated by government interventions and why those interventions can nonetheless be politically popular, but Pittsburgh stands as a cautionary tale that Kansas City and St. Louis policymakers must be aware of and must refuse to emulate. There are numerous reasons that housing costs have risen nationally, and the solution to that challenge is neither simple nor monolithic. In its case, Pittsburgh should go back to the drawing board and ensure it isn’t about to create a problem that doesn’t meaningfully exist. Yet.