Blog Posts

What’s Causing Oregon’s “Housing Affordability Crisis”?

By Miranda Bonifield

Here’s a question for you: Why is housing so expensive in Oregon?

Government at all levels has attempted to address the issue of housing affordability for years with tax credits, occasional expansion of the urban growth boundary, multimillion dollar bond measures, and now statewide rent control in Oregon. But rather than making life easier for Americans, state and local policies play major roles in the affordability crisis.

Economist Dr. Randall Pozdena recently authored a report published by Cascade Policy Institute that analyzes the decline of housing affordability, with a particular focus on Oregon. His research confirms what any developer can already tell you: Housing is less affordable because land is less available.

Easy access to land up until the 1970s meant housing price increases roughly tracked increases in household income. But in the ’60s and ’70s, planners and environmentalists dreaming of European-style density began lobbying against automobile-driven suburban sprawl. These measures gained enough traction that by 2000, the Brookings Institution found, state ballots around the country contained 553 “anti-sprawl” measures. Supporters expected higher density to decrease the need for public spending, improve traffic conditions by facilitating the use of transit, and lower development costs.

Instead, housing is escalating further out of reach every year. Oregon, California, Hawaii, and Washington, D.C. have the worst affordability scores in the country. An expensive market might make sense in D.C. and Hawaii, as both have extremely limited land available for development. California’s problem is the bureaucratic state whose regulations keep developers from meeting demand. But it’s Oregon that has the worst score for affordability out of the fifty states: Our housing prices rose 32% faster than our incomes between 1992 and 2007. This puts housing affordability in Oregon behind every one of the other 49 states.

With some exceptions, Oregon’s income growth has generally kept pace with the rest of the nation. We have plenty of developable land and a capable, productive community. Our housing is unaffordable because we’ve embraced some of the most aggressive “anti-sprawl” policies in the country. Dr. Pozdena finds:

“The higher the rank of anti-sprawl policy in a state, the poorer is the affordability rank of the state and the lower has been the availability of additional development sites relative to population growth. The confidence that these associations are not random is 99.99 percent. This is strongly indicative of a causal relationship between implementation of anti-sprawl policy, land conservation, and the affordability problem.”

There is no market and no economic philosophy in which reducing supply while demand increases leads to lower prices. In reality, Oregon’s policies have increased public spending, damaged public service quality, made no sizable impact on the number of automobile commuters, and worsened congestion.

It’s encouraging to hear policymakers acknowledge that we need to expand urban growth boundaries and encourage more development; but until a fundamental shift occurs in the philosophy behind growth policy, these statements are all flash and no substance. Oregon’s land use regulations don’t align with the way Oregonians actually live. They worsen traffic, crowd cities, and decrease quality of life.

Oregon must address the true causes of housing affordability problems, not just the symptoms—or the crisis will never end.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Local News Brings Accountability to Local Government

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Fake news is bad, but no news is even worse. Across the world, across the country, across the state, and across our communities, we are witnessing an obliteration of local news media. In Oregon, local newspapers are struggling and shuttering while TV and radio outlets focus more and more on national news fed by wire services.

Research soon to be published by the Journal of Financial Economics finds that when a local newspaper closes, local government wages and employment increase, municipal borrowing costs go up, as do county deficits. The authors argue local newspapers hold their governments accountable. When a community loses a paper, it loses some of that accountability.

It’s easy to blame Google and Facebook and media mergers for decimating local news. But, we ourselves are also to blame. We’re more likely to click on a story about a Trump tweet, celebrity gossip, or cute cats than we are to read a researched investigation into steep tax hikes, onerous regulations, and municipal malfeasance.

A tweet from Trump has virtually zero impact on our day-to-day lives in Oregon. At the same time, our legislature is right now passing bills that will affect all Oregonians every day. Our local governments and school boards are making decisions that affect how we work, how we live, how we travel, and how our kids are taught.

We all need to support local media, but it’s more than just buying a paper. Listen to the local news on the radio. Watch the local news on TV. More importantly, be engaged in your local community. That’s where everyday people can make a big difference.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Testimony Before the Transportation and Economic Development Subcommittee of Ways and Means Regarding HB 5039

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Members of the Subcommittee, my name is John Charles and I am President of Cascade Policy Institute. Cascade is a non-partisan policy research organization working to promote public policies based on sound market principles. As a non-profit corporation we are supported by contributions from individuals, foundations and businesses, most of them based in Oregon.

Much of the proposed ODOT budget involves dedicated funding sources such as motor fuel taxes, which means the Subcommittee has limited discretion to move money around. However, there are some programs supported by the General Fund or lottery-backed bonds, and I would like to call your attention to several that appear to have questionable value:

Willamette Valley passenger rail, $9.86 million: This allocation provides operating support for the Portland-Eugene Cascades train that runs twice daily in each direction.

As noted in the budget documents, ridership for this line peaked in 2013 and has been flat for the past three years. Moreover, the ridership numbers provided to the Committee include the POINT bus service operated by ODOT. This significantly inflates the total number of riders attributed to the passenger rail program.

The POINT bus service includes five routes with stops at 42 locations, as shown below:

  1. Portland-Eugene, 7 trips/daily each way, 5 stops
  2. Bend-Ontario, 1 trip/daily each way, 11 stops
  3. Redmond-Chemult, 2 trips daily each way, 5 stops
  4. Portland-Astoria, 2 trips daily each way, 8 stops
  5. Klamath Falls-Brookings, 1 trip daily each way, 12 stops.

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Our Most Pressing Environmental Crisis Is at Home

By Miranda Bonifield

Oregon’s most pressing environmental crisis isn’t in forests or renewable energy. Our human habitats have been endangered by our restrictive so-called “smart growth” policies. Even when we talk about allowing growth, policymakers tend to favor light rail over people’s real needs. Senate Bill 10, which would require cities like Portland to allow development of 75 housing units per acre in public transit corridors, misses the mark in two key areas.

First, the bill’s attempt to legislate the location of new development won’t improve transit ridership. Despite billions in new light rail lines and mixed-use developments, TriMet’s ridership has been declining since 2012.

Second, the bill removes parking minimums from these developments. This could lower the cost of development, but it could also worsen parking and traffic problems in a city that’s been trying and failing to cut down on automobile use for decades. It’s a mistake to allow denser development while assuming that the people who live here will depend on public transit rather than cars.

Taking the shackles off developers so that we can provide housing is a good idea, but lawmakers need to plan around people rather than trying to stack people into their plan. Transit-oriented development hasn’t worked in the last twenty years. It’s not going to start working today.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Metro’s Priorities Don’t Match Yours

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The Portland regional government known as Metro recently published the results of a poll regarding the most important issues to the region. Unsurprisingly, traffic congestion emerged as the number one concern: 96% of all respondents stated that congestion was a serious problem.

These results are consistent with virtually every poll taken over the past 25 years, yet congestion continues to get worse. The reason is that the Metro Council refuses to improve driving conditions and authorize new bridges and highways where they are needed, such as the west side of Portland.

Instead, Metro is determined to spend enormous sums of public money on additional light rail service that most people will never use.

Metro has appointed a 30-person Task Force to draft a ballot measure for 2020 seeking billions of dollars to build a light rail line to Bridgeport Village. This would be a complete waste of money. Transit ridership peaked in 2012. Since then, thousands of customers have left for Uber and Lyft, and they’re not coming back. TriMet is becoming irrelevant.

Sadly, no one at Metro or TriMet cares what taxpayers want—they only care about expanding their bureaucratic empires. Voters should remember this when the bond measure is unveiled later this year.

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John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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A Done Deal and a Bad Deal: Why Rent Control Won’t Solve the Housing Crisis

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Oregon will soon be the first state to have a statewide rent control program. Last week, in my first week at Cascade Policy Institute, I testified in opposition to the rent control bill, SB 608. The bill has the support of the Governor Kate Brown, House Speaker Tina Kotek, and Senate President Peter Courtney. About 100 people signed up to testify, and supporters outnumbered opponents by 2-to-1. It’s a done deal and it’s a bad deal.

During World War II, the federal government instituted a national system of rent controls, establishing maximum rents for rental properties. New York City was the only city to retain this first generation of rent controls after the war. During the 1970s, rent regulations were introduced in many cities, including Boston; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; and Los Angeles.

In contrast with pure rent control (a fixed maximum price), SB 608 is a form of “second generation” rent controls that allows annual rent increases, limited to 7 percent plus inflation. Rent controls under SB 608 apply to buildings that are more than 15 years old. The bill also places strict limits on “no cause evictions.”

Nobel laureate Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times that rent control is “among the best-understood issues in all of economics, and—among economists, anyway—one of the least controversial.”[1] Krugman’s well known and widely used economics textbook describes the economic inefficiencies associated with rent control:[2]

Rent control, like all price ceilings, creates inefficiency in at least four distinct ways. It reduces the quantity of apartments rented below the efficient level; it typically leads to misallocation of apartments among would-be renters; it leads to wasted time and effort as people search for apartments; and it leads landlords to maintain apartments in inefficiently low quality or condition.

Proponents of rent controls argue that “second generation” rent controls reduce or eliminate the inefficiencies associated with “first generation” rent controls. For example, Kotek was quoted in the Oregonian:[3]

What you’re hearing from landlords about rent control is they have an idea of it that’s very much the model that began right after World War II where properties had hard, fast caps on rents. That’s not the kind of rent control we’re talking about. We’re talking about second generation rent stabilization where there’s a process for managing rent increases that protects investors and tenants.

Kotek is correct that second generation rent controls are not as bad as first generation rent controls, but it’s matter of degree. Second-degree burns aren’t as bad as third-degree burns, but a second-degree burn still hurts.

While many proponents see rent control as one way to address housing affordability, none of them indicated it would do anything to resolve what is widely perceived to be a housing shortage. In fact, an expert flown in from Berkeley by the housing committee admitted that rent controls in other cities have led to the conversion of apartments to condominium. He went so far as to suggest legislation that would ban the conversion of apartments to condos.

This suggestion lays bare the pernicious chain of regulation that rent control brings. Second generation rent control doesn’t “work” unless there are strict limits on the termination of month-to-month rents. Then, it won’t work unless there are strict limits on the conversion of units. One witness even suggested that apartment building owners should be forbidden from selling their properties.

The limits on providers’ ability to terminate leases will lead to providers becoming more selective in to whom they rent units. In this way, the ordinance misallocates rental units among would-be renters and may do the most harm to those whom the bill is intended to help, such as those with a history of homelessness, impaired credit, criminal convictions, or employment instability. An older woman testified about her horror story of trying to find an apartment with her retired husband in Medford, applying to dozens of apartments only to be told she’d be on a list. Her story will become more common as rent controls reduce the supply of rental units.

In addition to the inefficiencies identified by Krugman, SB 608 will ultimately lead to higher rents than would occur in the absence of the law. As rental units turn over, providers will factor in the expected cost of the law into the rents and other fees that they charge incoming residents. Some or all of the expected cost associated with SB 608 will be passed on to tenants. Ultimately, the law will have the perverse impact of increasing—rather than reducing or stabilizing—rents over time and reducing the amount of market rate housing available to low- and middle-income households.

[1] Krugman, Paul. “A rent affair.” New York Times. June 7, 2000.

[2] Krugman, Paul and Robin Wells. Microeconomics, 3rd ed. New York: Worth Publishers. 2013. p. 130.

[3] Friedman, Gordon R. “Portland’s Tina Kotek explains her rent control plans—and landlord pains.” Oregonian. February 4, 2017.

 

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Cap and Trade in Oregon: All Pain, No Gain

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

The Oregon legislature is expected to pass a carbon cap-and-trade bill this session.

While there is some agreement that climate change can have a negative impact on livability in the Pacific Northwest and throughout much of the world, there has been little attention paid to how little Oregon contributes to worldwide carbon emissions.

Oregon emitted about 65 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2017. By way of comparison, total global emissions were about 37 billion metric tons. That means that Oregon accounts for less than two-tenths of one percent of global emissions. About one six-hundredth. That’s tiny.

In other words, even if Oregon were to reduce carbon emissions to zero, the state would do virtually nothing to change worldwide carbon emissions, which means it would do virtually nothing to slow or stop global climate change.

At the same time, the cap-and-trade program would hit the pocketbooks of every Oregonian. An earlier version of the bill estimated the state would sell about $700 million a year of carbon permits, with the costs passed on the consumers and businesses.

Oregon’s cap-and-trade bill fails the basic cost-benefit test: The costs of cap-and-trade to everyday Oregonians would be exceptionally high while doing nothing to stop or slow climate change.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Portland Economist Eric Fruits Joins Cascade Policy Institute as Vice President of Research

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contact:
John A. Charles, Jr.

503-242-0900

john@cascadepolicy.org

Portland, OR – Eric Fruits, Ph.D. joined Cascade Policy Institute February 1 as Vice President of Research. Fruits is president and chief economist at Economics International Corp. and is an adjunct professor of economics at Portland State University. Cascade Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research and educational organization based in Portland.

Fruits has been a long-time academic advisor and contributing analyst for Cascade Policy Institute. His most recent report, Ride-Hailing as a Solution for TriMet’s High Cost Bus Lines: A Proposal for a Pilot Project, was published in January. As Vice President of Research, Fruits will lead Cascade’s policy team and serve as an expert analyst of Oregon state and local public policy issues.

As a consulting economist, Fruits has produced numerous research studies involving economic analysis, financial modeling, and statistical analysis. As an expert witness, he has provided testimony in state, federal, and international courts. He has written peer-reviewed articles on initial public offerings, the municipal bond market, real estate markets, and the formation and operation of cartels. His economic analysis has been widely cited and has been published in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.

Cascade President and CEO John A. Charles, Jr. said, “Eric is an outstanding economist who will add depth and breadth to Cascade’s research programs. He is also an entertaining speaker who can effectively explain complex subjects to non-technical audiences.”

Fruits indicated he is excited about joining the institute: “Cascade has a long history of producing high-quality, well-researched analysis and commentary. It plays an important role both on the front lines and behind the scenes on some of the biggest issues facing state and local governments in Oregon.”

About Cascade Policy Institute:

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research and educational organization that focuses on state and local issues in Oregon. Cascade’s mission is to develop and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.

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