Housing Boom & Bust

by Thomas Sowell

Let us go back to square one to consider the empirical consequences of policies in the housing market. Politicians in Washington set out to solve a national problem that did not exist — a nationwide shortage of “affordable housing” — and have now left us with a problem whose existence is as undeniable as it is painful. When the political crusade for affordable housing took off and built up steam during the 1990s, the share of their incomes that Americans were spending on housing in 1998 was 17 percent, compared to 30 percent in the early 1980s. Even during the housing boom of 2005, the median home took just 22 percent of the median American income.

What created the illusion of a nationwide problem was that, in particular localities around the country, housing prices had skyrocketed to the point where people had to pay half their income to buy a modest-sized home and often resorted to very risky ways of financing the purchase. In Tucson, for example, “roughly 60% of first-time home buyers make no down payment and instead now use 100% financing to get into the market,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Almost invariably, these locally extreme housing prices have been a result of local political crusades in the name of locally attractive slogans about the environment, open space, “smart growth,” or whatever other phrases had political resonance at the particular time and place.

Where housing markets have been more or less left alone — in places like Houston or Dallas, for example — housing did not take even half as big a share of family incomes as did comparable housing in places like the San Francisco Bay Area, where heavily hyped political crusades had led to severe restrictions on building. It was in precisely these extremely high housing-cost enclaves that the kind of people for whom the national housing crusade expressed much concern — minorities, low-income people and families with children — were forced out disproportionately.


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How did the housing bust happen and how do we prevent another one?

Thomas Sowell cuts through the PC finger-pointing and pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook to provide a plain-English explanation of what brought on the current economic disaster in the housing market.

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