Why a Housing Shortage Exists Despite More Houses Per Person

When I post about the skyrocketing price of housing and the need to build, commentators (include some of the most astute commentators on MR), will sometimes object by pointing to the increasing and historically high number of houses per capita. They question how this aligns with rising prices and wave vaguely towards factors like monopoly pricing, hedge funds, Airbnb, vacancies and so forth, implying that more construction isn’t the solution. The real explanation for rising prices amid greater homes per capita is actually quite simple, fewer kids. Kevin Erdmann has an excellent post on this going through the numbers in detail. I will illustrate with a stylized example.

Suppose we have 100 homes and 100 families, each with 2 parents and 2 kids. Thus, there are 100 homes, 400 people and 0.25 homes per capita.  Now the kids grow up, get married, and want homes of their own but they have fewer kids of their own, none for simplicity. Imagine that supply increases substantially, say to 150 homes. The number of homes per capita goes up to 150/400 (.375), an all time high! Supply-side skeptics are right about the numbers, wrong about the meaning. The reality is that the demand for homes has increased to 200 but supply has increased to just 150 leading to soaring prices.

Now what do we do about this? One response is to blame people’s choices–immigrants are buying all the houses, hedge funds are buying all the houses, tourists are renting all the houses, everyone should want less and conserve more! Going down this path will tear the country apart. The other response is the American way, in the words of Bryan Caplan’s excellent new book, build, baby, build!

Here’s Kevin:

We are already 15 years into a cultural and economic battle that is so important, it turned the direction of adults per house upward for, likely, the first time since the start of the industrial revolution. Fifteen years in, by that measure, we have reversed economic progress by nearly 40 years. There is so much ground we have to make up. And, also, the reactionary position will have to continue to dig deeper and get worse – rounding up immigrants, blaming the homeless, stoking fear and distrust of financial institutions. I’m sorry if I’m sounding too shrill. It all happens in slow motion around us, so we adapt to the new normal. But the tent encampments in all the urban parks are a long way from what should be considered normal. We are already deeply into a cultural battle. And you can see that it is a cultural battle, because it is difficult to simply establish a plurality of support to admit obvious things.

If this continues, it will destroy the fabric of mutual trust that has managed to miraculously hold this country together for 250 years. The challenge is to open the eyes of enough victims of these policy choices that 50%+1 of the country can address it on the empirical level rather than the aesthetic level, and to stop this devolution before it gets worse.

Hat tip: Naveen.


Comments for this post are closed