Primer on Housing
Housing plays a vital role in people's lives, as everyone
needs a roof over his or her head. Questions arise, however, when families
have difficulty finding housing they can afford.
Housing has several characteristics that policy-makers
consider when addressing the role government should play in the housing
market. Housing is durable, that is it can be used several decades,
and it is expensive; buyers usually must borrow money in order to purchase
a home. Families can choose from many types of housing; options include
single-family or duplex houses, apartments and condominiums for sale
Some experts argue that there is a housing shortage for
low-income families, while others claim that such a shortage is overstated.
Government housing policies have ranged from building housing units
directly (public housing) to providing vouchers for low-income families
to pay for housing. Other experts contend that while some policies have
boosted housing levels for low-income families, other policies have
resulted in costly unintended consequences. They argue that the government
should limit its role in the housing market and instead focus on raising
the incomes of low-income families.
Issues regarding housing have social, political and economic
consequences. In this year's essay contest, students are asked to use
their economics eyeglasses to analyze the housing market and determine
the appropriate role of government.
This housing primer starts by examining the basic components of the
market as well the roles that supply and demand play in determining
the price of housing. It then discusses whether there is a housing shortage
and the role government has played in the housing market. Use this primer
as a springboard for your own research and writing your essay.
The housing market
As with any good, the housing market provides a meeting place for consumers
and producers. In the housing market, consumers include families or
individuals who rent or own units, while producers include builders,
landlords and homeowners.
Now, take a step back and review a few basic principles
of economics. Supply is the relationship between prices and the quantities
of goods businesses produce. The law of supply says that as price falls,
quantity supplied goes down, and as price rises, quantity supplied goes
up. Supply is determined by available technology, taxes, subsidies and
production costs. Demand is the relationship between prices and the
quantity of goods consumers buy. The law of demand says that as price
falls, quantity demanded goes up, and as price rises, quantity demanded
goes down. Demand is determined by consumer tastes, income, consumer
expectations, and the prices of related goods. The equilibrium price
lies at the point where quantity supplied equals quantity demanded.
Changes in either supply or demand may spur a change in the equilibrium
Sub-markets develop within the housing market based on
the type of unit and its geographic location. Since some people want
to buy penthouses and others shop for studio apartments, multiple demand
curves exist. Some construction firms specialize in building single-family
homes, while others focus on high-rise developments, resulting in multiple
supply curves. Because there is more than one set of supply and demand
curves, there are many equilibrium prices, that is, many different rents
and home prices. And sub-markets influence one another: Prices and supply
of one type of housing can affect the prices and supply of other types
Studies have also shown that homeownership may not only
benefit the household living in the home, it also benefits other people,
especially other homeowners nearby. When people own their home, they
tend to take better care of it than they would if they were renting
from a landlord. A well-maintained home helps keep the market values
of surrounding dwellings higher than if the home were poorly maintained.
The question of a housing shortage
Some experts claim that our country is in the midst of a housing
shortage. They argue that many low-income families have either no access
to housing or must undergo extreme financial burdens to pay rent. Currently,
5.4 million U.S. households pay over 50 percent of their income for
housing. Housing is generally considered affordable if it costs no more
than 30 percent of the occupant's income.
These experts argue that since there are not enough units
available for low-income families to buy or rent, the market has misallocated
resources and therefore the government should adopt policies that increase
the availability of affordable housing. Other experts contend that there
isn't a housing shortage, according to economic theory. They say that
the housing market is responding appropriately to supply and demand
signals. The lack of affordable housing is the result of low income
levels for some families, so the government should focus on raising
income levels, not on tinkering with the housing market.
From these various points of view, experts have argued
for government involvement in the housing market on the supply-side,
such as building affordable units (public housing), to the demand-side,
such as providing vouchers or coupons to low-income families to pay
for housing, to limiting the role government plays in the housing market.
The glossary contains several descriptions
of government policies that influence the supply of and demand for housing.
Feel free either to discuss one of the issues mentioned in this primer
or to present a concern not listed here. You may also decide to take
a local or national perspective in addressing housing issues. While
much research has focused on issues in urban areas, smaller cities and
rural areas also have unique problems. If there are housing issues in
your area that interest you, you might interview staff at an area nonprofit
or government housing organization, or contact a local realtor or financial
institution. After gathering your research, organize your thoughts and
write a creative, three-page essay. We look forward to reading about
your views on this issue.
Green, Richard K. and Malpezzi, Stephen. A Primer on
U.S. Housing Markets and Housing Policy. Working Paper Series, Center
for Urban Land Economics Research. University of Wisconsin, 2000.
O'Sullivan, Arthur. Urban Economics. New York: Irwin