Monday, April 24, 2017

Housing: Part 221 - The Education Premium

One issue that has been floating around for a while is the education premium in housing.  The idea is that getting into good schools requires living in the right neighborhoods.  Prices in those neighborhoods get bid up, and working class households get locked out of better school districts because they can't afford to buy into the right neighborhoods.

I think there are several interesting things to think about here.

1) Even though the idea that the housing market is riding on a wave of animal spirits, barely tethered to any sort of intrinsic value, seems to be taken broadly as obvious, there are many ways in which everyone seems to assume extreme efficiency.  One example of this is when they speak of federal subsidies like those implicit in the GSEs and tax benefits.  If one thinks those subsidies help to bloat home prices, one must accept that those subsidies are sifted through all sorts of deferred benefits - far future capital gains exemptions, the value of slightly lower interest rates many years into the future, etc.  I agree with this!  These markets are remarkably efficient.  If you really think about the implications of how these benefits would trickle down into market prices, it really is incoherent to complain that these subsidies helped to seed a "bubble".  Either buyers are led to prices that reflect a meticulous arrangement of far-off and imputed benefits, or they just fly off to the stratosphere whenever some noob gets his hands on an approved mortgage contract.  These effects live in different universes.

Now, few of us sit down and work out the present value of future non-taxed imputed rent.  But, that's because these markets are so efficient.  Zip code level prices seem to me to suggest an amazing level of broad market efficiency.  Mian & Sufi found that low end home prices appreciated more than high end prices, and they attributed that to expanding credit access at the margin.  That implies some market inefficiency.  But, the difference in price appreciation they found is actually a product of extreme efficiency.  There is far too much substitution between various overlapping sub-markets in any city for prices at one tier to rise by 20% or 30% more than prices in another tier because of credit access.....Actually, I take that back.  Since 2007, we have enforced such repression in credit markets, removing potential owner-occupiers from the bottom tier of the market so completely, that low tier pricing is especially cheap.  Low tier prices would appreciate more if we re-opened the mortgage market today.  But, it didn't in 2003-2006.  Then, to the extent that credit access was helping to pull up prices, it was fairly uniform across markets.  And, I think because of the maxing out of tax benefits, rising prices tend to moderate above about $400,000 or $500,000.

I'm still unsure how much that effect amounted to (the effect of loose mortgage terms on broad Closed Access prices).  Net out-migration of homeowners from Closed Access cities amounted to tens of thousands of households in 2004-2006.  It seems that new buyers with credit triggered a lot of sellers.  Without the Alt-A market, would prices have been similar to what we saw, but with less selling and out-migration from the Closed Access markets?  The Contagion cities are a different matter.  There was some temporary price surge there based on their particular context of in-migrating renters and those Closed Access sellers with windfalls looking for a place to rest.

Anyway, I'm rambling.  Schools and home prices are another example of how this efficiency is implicit in the complaint.  Housing markets are so efficient, that even the bundled service of education gets filtered into the market price, apparently with a surprising amount of specificity regarding both the quality of the school district and the value that quality bundles with the house.

2) The problem itself is actually just a side effect of the Closed Access problem.  In every city, there are many bundles of services and amenities that form the base value of a given neighborhood.  In most cities, families are actively choosing between those bundles of amenities, of which education is only one.  So, the reason this is a problem isn't strictly because the premium itself exists.  It's because Closed Access cities prevent families from making this choice on the margin.

In most cities, families would be choosing size of unit, commute, safety, neighborhood character, nearby services, and a host of other factors to determine their optimal unit.  Families who prioritized better schooling would make adjustments in all of these other areas.  So, typically, if the median household spends 25% of income on housing, a family that values education in a city with an education premium might live in a smaller unit, a little farther from work, etc.  But, the median household would still tend to spend about 25% on housing.  There are many margins for adjustment.

In Closed Access cities, this margin for adjustment is gone.  The only margin left for adjustment is leaving town for an Open Access city.  So, a family that values education is spending 45% of their income on housing.  They are spending 45% because all of the other margins for adjustment have been tapped out.  So, their choice is to either spend 60% of their income on housing and get better schools, spend 45% on housing for poor schools, or leave town.

It looks like that family's problem is the education premium.  But, it isn't.  Their problem is Closed Access.  They could also have some sort of subsidized housing or rent control, so they would be spending 35% of their income on housing, but they would be stuck in a bad school with the same bad choices.  Closed Access removes marginal options.

So, all of the marginal sources of adjustments that aren't taken as a sort of civil right (square footage, location, etc.) get adjusted away to try to pull expenses back toward the comfortable level.  But, clearly for the majority of households in those cities, all of those adjustments can't get expenses to a comfortable level.  So, the one adjustment that we consider a civil right - a chance for decent schooling for our kids - becomes operative, and the only reasonable way to adjust it is by raising or lowering our expenses.  It looks like a civil rights issue, but it is really just a side effect of Closed Access.  The real civil rights issue is the right to invest capital in real assets without undue harassment from local officials, which has been so watered down that entire mega-cities lack adequate housing.


  1. Great post.

    Yet one more note for eliminating property zoning---it increases parent choice in schools.

    Maybe vouchers are better. But if parents can move into good school districts (as the housing supply will accommodate), then population in good districts would swell.

    Despite noisome state control, you would have a choice of moving to a district you liked, if property zoning were eliminated.

    more fodder for my anti-globalist rants:

    Actually I am not anti-globalist.

    I have reservations about globalism if international trade is determined by property-financial classes (who embrace property zoning), multi-nationals, state-funded industries and mysterious offshore entities, which is presently the case.

  2. Add on: The globalists are screaming as Trump wants to put a tariff on Canadian lumber. "It will raise the cost of housing!" they wail.

    Really, it is those 2x4s that make housing cost so much in America…..