Thursday 5 April 2018

Right to housing

On the plus side, it's great that people are recognising human rights implications of housing. On the down side, people draw the wrong lessons from it. 

Decades of having enabled NIMBYs to block new development, both intensification and expansion, caused the housing crisis. There are big incentives and local government finance issues underlying it, and sorting that out would fix the crisis. There are plenty of affordable housing markets around the world - even ones where housing has remained affordable despite population increases. Those places have different incentives for local government - either broader and more encompassing local tax bases or access to project-based financing for infrastructure roll-out (like MUDs or special purpose tax ratings areas).

So the lesson should be that whatever right people think they have to a neighbourhood or town that never changes, that right conflicts with other people's right to develop their own properties and winds up infringing on ability to get a house more broadly. Housing shouldn't be seen as a positive right, because that implies a reciprocal obligation on somebody else basically to buy you a house. But at least we shouldn't be setting up zoning rules or local council incentive structures that make it damn near impossible for anyone to build more housing. It doesn't just infringe on others' right to build on their own property, it also massively infringes on other people's ability to find housing.

Instead, what are folks drawing from the housing crisis?
"Good housing is not something that some people are entitled to and others are not. It is a human right.

"We need to make sure our housing is accessible for the elderly and people with disabilities, that it is insulated and safe to live in, and that there is enough supply to meet demand."

The HRC's submission to the UN committee made several recommendations for action on housing, including increasing the provision of social housing and improving tenure rights for renters.
Fix the rules blocking housing first. That will solve most of the problem. If there are remaining issues once you've got property markets working properly again, then that's likely an incomes problem that should generally be addressed by incomes interventions. If there's anticipated demand for housing suitable for the elderly, people will build it - unless you're only allowed to build a small number of houses next year.

Layering a pile of other restrictions on top of the current mess to try to make it more bearable risks setting up things that will make recovery harder once we finally get to the underlying problem. The incidence of a lot of regulation around rentals will fall on landlords when rental markets are relatively inelastic, but that flips to falling on tenants when housing markets become more elastic.

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