Housing Would Be More Affordable Were Housing More Plentiful

Lydia DePillis reviews the new American Community Survey data on DC and determines “Overall, we’re not adding housing units very fast. In the District, there were 282,900 housing units in 2006, and 285,164 today.”

This is why I find a lot of the conventional conversation around affordable housing to be frustrating. You don’t want to oversimplify on this issue, but it’s a mistake to undersimplify as well — first principles matter. The population of the United States was larger in 2009 than it was in 2006 and it continues to grow today. Under the circumstances, housing can become more affordable if you build lots of new housing or else if your city becomes a less desirable place to live. Since few mayors or city council members want to outline “make the city a worse place to live” as a policy goal, that means you need to focus on allowing higher-density construction in desirable areas and on scrutinizing regulations that make new construction more expensive or more time consuming. That’s not to say that all such regulations are bad on balance, but they are all barriers to making housing more affordable.


Unfortunately, because price increases lead to additional construction people wind up associating the two and getting the causation backwards. It’s like thinking the guys selling bottled water on the sidewalk are causing the hot, humid weather. Where housing is scarce, greedy developers rush in to take advantage of the situation. But they’re not causing the problem. Different kinds of targeted affordable housing measures can help at the margin, but fundamentally unless you’re letting places get denser you’re not getting at the core of the issue.