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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Before Glaeser, "Urban Economics Was Dried Up"

A shortened, but still fairly long version of an interesting NY Times article on Edward L. Glaeser, an urban economist at Harvard:

Home Economics, by Jon Gertner, Theorist, NY Times: Edward L. Glaeser ... An economist at Harvard ... is just 38. In the years since earning his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, though, he has been prolific and provocative in a way that has left many of his colleagues awestruck. "I think he's a genius," says George Akerlof, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2001. Gary Becker, an economist at the University of Chicago and a Nobel laureate, notes that before Glaeser came along, "urban economics was dried up. No one had come up with some new ways to look at cities." David Cutler, Glaeser's Harvard colleague ... puts it this way: "I think Ed is probably the most exciting urban researcher in half a century, if not longer."

In addition to teaching classes, Glaeser ... now divides his time between doing his personal research and serving as a dashing public advocate for urbanism. And he does make an effort to be dashing. Glaeser is not heir to the tweedy, harrumphing, bad-haircut tradition of academics. He radiates a confidence that to some fellow economists borders on arrogance. He has a tendency to speak quickly and in paragraphs rather than sentences, while projecting an Old World decorousness more reminiscent of Edith Wharton's New York than of today's Boston. He is tall, broad-shouldered and patrician in his bearing; he began wearing three-piece suits 23 years ago, back when he was in prep school, he says. One afternoon last December in his Cambridge office, Glaeser sported a bespoke pinstriped get-up and a pale blue silk tie, which he had tucked into a matching, fully buttoned pinstripe vest draped with the gold fob from his pocket watch. His shoes shone. He seemed to have stepped from a hansom cab, missing only a top hat. As he began to explain some of his recent work on housing prices, his large silver cuff links clinked against the table.

Unlike that of most other housing economists, Glaeser's recent work on real estate addresses the issues of supply rather than of demand. He is far more interested in the forces shaping land development and residential building in the United States than in the forces shaping buyers' motivations and actions. He views supply as crucial to appreciating what has happened to the U.S. real-estate market over the past 30 years. ... Between 1980 and 2000, four of the five cities in the U.S. with the fastest-growing housing prices were in Boston's metropolitan area: Cambridge, Somerville, Newton and Boston itself. (Palo Alto had the second-fastest-rising prices over that time.) Glaeser and several colleagues considered two explanations. First, the possibility that builders in the metro area were running out of land and that home prices reflected that scarcity. The second hypothesis was that building permits were scarce, not land. Had the 187 townships in the metro area created a web of regulations that hindered building to such a degree that demand far outstripped supply, driving prices up?

Almost as a rule, Glaeser is skeptical of the lack-of-land argument. He has previously noted (with a collaborator, Matthew Kahn) that 95 percent of the United States remains undeveloped and that if every American were given a house on a quarter acre, so that every family of four had a full acre, that distribution would not use up half the land in Texas. Most of Boston's metro area, he concluded, wasn't particularly dense, and even in places where it was, like the centers of Boston and Cambridge, there was ample opportunity to construct higher buildings with more housing units.

So, after sorting through a mountain of data, Glaeser decided that the housing crisis was man-made. The region's zoning regulations — which were enacted by locales in the first half of the 20th century to separate residential land from commercial and industrial land and which generally promoted the orderly growth of suburbs — had become so various and complex in the second half of the 20th century that they were limiting growth. Land-use rules of the 1920's were meant to assure homeowners that their neighbors wouldn't raise hogs in their backyards, throw up a shack on a sliver of land nearby or build a factory next door, but the zoning rules of the 1970's and 1980's were different in nature and effect. Regulations in Glaeser's new hometown of Weston, for instance, made extremely large lot sizes mandatory in some neighborhoods and placed high environmental hurdles (some reasonable, others not, in Glaeser's view) in front of developers. Other towns passed ordinances governing sidewalks, street widths, the shape of lots, septic lines and so on — all with the result, in Glaeser's analysis, of curtailing the supply of housing. The same phenomenon, he says, has inflated prices in metro areas all along the East and West Coasts.

It is rather unlikely that Glaeser is calling attention to the evolution of zoning to make an ideological argument or to pin the blame on local officials for any sort of housing bubble. "He doesn't wake up in the morning and say, 'My agenda is to fight government,"' says his Harvard colleague Martin Feldstein, an economist long in favor of privatizing Social Security and who, you might argue, knows what it's like to wake up with that agenda. While Glaeser admits to a libertarian bent, with a preference for market solutions over government solutions (he calls rent control "bad, bad, bad"), his inconsistencies are such that his colleagues disagree over whether he comes from the political center or the right. Certainly no one accuses him of being a lefty. But Glaeser has many admirers, and several research collaborators, on the liberal end of the spectrum; he likewise displays an odd enthusiasm for progressive efforts like those by London's mayor, Ken Livingstone (Glaeser affectionately calls him by his popular nickname, Red Ken), who imposed a stringent "traffic tax" on vehicles in the center city to reduce congestion.

Glaeser's goal seems less to further a particular philosophy than to explain the interplay of housing and human behavior. His desire to provide a persuasive, data-driven explanation for elevated home prices fits into a decade of research that he says he hopes will ultimately provide a broad and ambitious framework to explain the function and evolution of America's cities. His view is that the life of the city cannot (and should not) be separated from its real-estate market. "They mutually cause each other," he says. "Housing supply determines to a certain extent what goes on with the economic life of the city; and the economic life of the city is intimately related to the demand for housing. And you cannot possibly understand that if you're going to try and treat them as being separate." Put another way, we shape cities; cities shape real estate; real estate shapes cities. And cities shape us too.

Cities, Glaeser often says, should be thought of as "the absence of physical space between people and firms." This sounds like a poetic definition of urbanism, but it is actually more than that. To Glaeser, the concentration of people and business puts us close enough to share one another's company, culture and ideas. That goes not only for a densely packed place like Manhattan but also for car-based areas like Silicon Valley. As David Cutler points out, almost all of Glaeser's work is about social interaction and space, about seeing cities as places where all kinds of important transactions occur in "the union of everything." ... In economic jargon, city living creates what Glaeser calls "spillovers." Some urban spillovers are not so good, like the pollution and congestion from so many people and cars. But others are the very essence of civilized life — the decency of community, the spread of ideas, the possibility of sublime inspiration. If there is a common theme to his work, Glaeser says, it is that "people are changed by the people around them." And it is the absence of physical distance, more than anything else, that makes that happen. ...

Glaeser has methodically examined how transportation, education, crime, weather and sprawl affect the fortunes of America's cities, as if turning over tarot cards one by one. He isn't the only economist to look at these subjects, but he is arguably the most original in assimilating careful and highly mathematical economic research. ... Until recently, cities existed to economize on transportation costs — hence their locations near industries or agriculture to reduce the expense of shipping products by sea or by train. Yet because transport (mainly trucking) costs dropped significantly during the 20th century, location has become irrelevant. In Glaeser's view, cities now exist so that people can have face-to-face interactions or be entertained or consume products and services. For businesses, cities are a place to benefit from a spillover in ideas and to reduce costs by being near other companies.

This evolution, of course, has coincided with a vast American migration toward regions of sun and sprawl. Glaeser likes to point out the close correlation between a city's average January temperature and its urban growth; he also notes that cars per capita in 1990 is among the best indicators of how well a city has fared over the past 15 years. The more cars, the better — a conclusion that seems perfectly logical to Glaeser. Car-based cities enable residents to buy cheaper, bigger houses. And commuters in car-based cities tend to get to work faster than commuters in cities that rely on public transit. (The average car commute is about 24 minutes; on public transportation, it is around 48 minutes.) While many of his academic peers were looking at, and denigrating, how the majority of Americans have chosen to live, Glaeser (though no fan of the aesthetics of sprawl himself) didn't think an economist should allow taste to affect judgment. "You shouldn't go around thinking that all these people are just jackasses for deciding to drive an automobile," he says.

In any case, Glaeser discovered that there can be more to urban success than cars and palm trees. For a city without warm weather and a car-friendly environment, skills are destiny. That is why New York and Minneapolis, with vast numbers of college graduates, have done so well. "Boston would be just another declining, cold, manufacturing city if it weren't for its preponderance of human capital," Glaeser says. And his studies suggest that the more skilled a city's population, the more skilled it is becoming, as entrepreneurs attract skilled workers who in turn attract entrepreneurs. Americans, as a result, are sorting themselves through education and geography more and more with each passing year. ...

In 2000, Glaeser took a sabbatical from Harvard and began to spend a few days a week in Philadelphia working with Joseph Gyourko, a real-estate economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Glaeser had already been thinking about the relationship between housing and urban poverty when one day he and Gyourko began to discuss why cities like Philadelphia and Detroit — places with poor future prospects, both economists believed — weren't doing even worse in terms of population. Why didn't everyone leave, Gyourko wondered, and go to a place like Charlotte, N.C., that had a fast-growing economy? This question addresses a puzzle of urban economics. Cities (think of Las Vegas or Phoenix) can grow at a very fast rate, exploding overnight with businesses and residents. Some can increase in population by 50 or even 60 percent in a decade. But cities lose their residents very slowly and almost never at a pace of more than 10 percent in a decade. What's more, when cities grow, they expand significantly in population, but housing prices tend to rise slowly; even as Las Vegas grew by leaps and bounds in the 1990's, for instance, the average home there cost well under $200,000. When cities decline, however, the trends get flipped around. Population diminishes slowly, but housing prices tend to drop markedly.

Glaeser and Gyourko determined that the durable nature of housing itself explains this phenomenon. People can flee, but houses can take a century or more to finally fall to pieces. "These places still exist," Glaeser says of Detroit and St. Louis, "because the housing is permanent. And if you want to understand why they're poor, it's actually also in part because the housing is permanent." For Glaeser, this is the story not only of these two places but also of Buffalo, Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — the powerhouse cities of America in 1950 that consistently and inexorably lost population over the next 50 years. It is not just that there were poor people and the jobs left and the poor people were stuck there. "Thousands of poor come to Detroit each year and live in places that are cheaper than any other place to live in part because they've got durable housing still around," Glaeser says. The net population of Detroit usually decreases each year, in other words, but the city still attracts plenty of people drawn by its extreme affordability. ... The resulting paper, "Urban Decline and Durable Housing," caused a stir among urban economists ... (It was initially circulated with a subtitle along the lines of "Why Does Anyone Still Live in Detroit?" until the authors, thinking it politically insensitive, removed it.) ...

Glaeser has come to believe that changes in zoning regulations may be the most important transformation in the American real-estate market since the mass acceptance of the automobile. In his view, these regulations have essentially created a "zoning tax" that has pushed prices far above construction costs. Very, very far above construction costs. It is not a perspective shared by all housing analysts; some economists have been far more inclined to blame high prices on high demand (spurred by low interest rates) or on rampant speculation. ... Still, among the half-dozen leading economists who study housing supply, there seems to be wide agreement that regulations have had a tremendous effect on prices. "I think the evidence is overwhelming," says John Quigley, an urban economist at Berkeley who has looked specifically at the effects of regulation on the California market. ...

Glaeser has little doubt that there are regular cycles in real-estate markets; the recent slowdown may perhaps be evidence of one of those cycles. But he says he doesn't think that the supply issues are something that will disappear, even if the demand for housing levels off or drops over the next few years. "We will never go back to a world in which developers in Massachusetts or California or New York are able to do what they want with their property unimpeded by their neighbors," he says. And what surprises him is that the changes in how we have treated property rights for the last 40 years — who gets permission to build, the size and location of what owners are permitted to build — have been the subject of virtually no national dialogue, even as the effects on prices, in his view, have been extraordinary.

This is not to suggest that Glaeser wants New York or Boston to become another Houston or Phoenix, where developers build without hindrance and housing, as a result, stays cheap. "I'm pretty sure that Boston and California have gone too far to one extreme," he says. "But I'm not sure that Texas hasn't gone too far to the other extreme." ... And there is a bigger point here anyway, he says. Zoning and housing supply ultimately determine not only who lives in a city but also the very nature of these places. Boston, San Francisco and Manhattan are obviously becoming rarefied destinations, mostly for America's elites (Glaeser calls the cities "luxury goods"), with housing floating beyond the reach of the young and the middle class. These cities' economies are in the process of becoming boutique, too, accommodating only the most skilled and privileged. Their desire to limit construction and grow not in buildings and population but in prices has, in effect, begun to shape their destiny. "A healthy city is one that has a healthy mix of demographic groups," Glaeser says. "Shutting out your 25-to-40 year-olds? That feels like a bad strategy for urban innovation." ...

Glaeser long ago became convinced that there is a lot riding on supply. ... Joseph Gyourko shares the view that where we live, and why we sort ourselves into those places, have profound effects on society, culture, politics and business. ... Thus, the two academics have resumed their real-estate research, taking on two projects. The first, closer to completion, is an attempt to explain the occurrence of housing cycles. So far, the preliminary data have led Glaeser to believe that the past decade's run-up in prices is probably caused by factors beyond the restrictions on supply; the home-appreciation numbers appear to be so high that they suggest that prices in coastal cities have some psychological component too. (In his view, the supply shortage greatly magnifies the effect of any sort of "irrational exuberance.") Glaeser is the kind of economist who is reluctant to make predictions. Yet, he says, "I'm comfortable with the notion that we're going to have a substantial correction over the next five years."

His other project is both more ambitious and more difficult. He and Gyourko say they know that the country's regulatory environment, and thus the supply of housing, began to change around 1975. But they don't know why it changed. So along with a third researcher, Raven Saks, they have begun to track building permits from hundreds of cities around the country over the past four decades to investigate the nature of the evolution. ...

    Posted by on Sunday, March 5, 2006 at 12:22 AM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (6)

          

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