Another Study on Housing Costs has a sobering study, showing that– even at this nadir of the American housing market– the cost of housing remains stratospherically detached from actual personal incomes. The spread was found in about half of all US housing markets, including in nearly every market that contained high concentrations of dynamic industries, educated populations, and existing wealth. Not surprisingly, the disparity was most pronounced in the housing markets around Northern California, Southern California, and New York City.

This is troubling news, because it tracks a phenomenon that LT has covered, and which has been written about in depth by writers at Forbes, the Economist, and elsewhere: That is, there is a growing body of evidence that entrenched, restrictive land use policies are strangling our best cities, creating high barriers to entry in their housing markets, and excluding the very people who would most benefit from the opportunities of their labor markets. Presumably, the same policies are also dampening potential growth in the same regions by excluding a large number of potential economic participants from the local pools, and draining disproportionate shares of local moneys into non-productive real estate acquisition costs.

My fear is that that the hopeful signs that we’ve lately seen of a nascent real estate recovery could be dampened by the structural obstacles posed by a blanket of misguided legal devices that prevent the market from reaching anything like a healthy equilibrium. That is to say, we can’t have a sustained and sustainable recovery in residential real estate until the supply of real estate products begins to actually match the critical mass of demand that exists. And right now, that demand is for smaller, cheaper, and more energy-efficient units in the regions where economic opportunities exist. Instead, what we have is a massive supply of empty McMansions in car-dependent regions like suburban Phoenix, and abandoned houses in urban nightmares like Detroit and Buffalo.

The problem is that individual local land use policies, as determined by local governments, block the kinds of development that might begin to meet this demand. And the voters in a lot of communities have a vested interest in maintaining the stranglehold up to a certain point, because their home values are exaggerated by the overall shortage of units. It’s a vicious cycle, and a dangerous one if we intend to continue to place home-ownership at the center of our economic model for the US economy.

Art Imitates Land Use

After the Rain. Paul Cornoyer, c. 1900. (More about the artist, here.)

There’s something captivating about the contrast between nature and human development. Parks, urban waterfronts, skyline views from the countryside: People are drawn to these. I think Paul Cornoyer captured these kinds of contrasts well, and he also depicted other aspects of nature, such as weather, season, and light, as they affected the city.

One of the unique qualities of late-Victorian urbanism, which Cornoyer painted, is that it was the latest and most modern period in which development norms maintained a bright line between human construction and the wildness of nature. This was done by placing parks amid the concrete, and also at the city’s edge. Cast-iron, elevators, and railroads made very high densities possible by the late 19th century. Meanwhile, cars had yet to facilitate market-driven sprawl, and Howard and others had yet to provide the vision of a democratized suburbia.

So, there was still a market- and tradition- and technology-driven compactness to new places. And, at their edges, one would typically find very sharp transitions to much lower densities. Below is a detailed lithograph showing the northern frontier of New York City’s real estate development, as it stood in 1897— approximately when Cornoyer was painting Madison Square. Harlem can be seen at the far left; the foreground is (today) the Bronx; and Washington Heights is in the background, beyond the Harlem River: