Housing Boom and Bust
The same discredited assumptions and the same disregard of repercussions.


Thomas Sowell

EDITORS NOTE: The following is adapted from Thomas Sowell’s new book, The Housing Boom and Bust.

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.

Few things blind human beings to the actual consequences of what they are doing like a heady feeling of self-righteousness during a crusade to smite the wicked and rescue the downtrodden. Statistical studies about disparities between blacks and whites in mortgage loan approval rates might be said to have “jump-started” the housing crusades that began in the 1990s. Politicians and the media led this crusade, with many community activists following in their wake, much like scavengers, able to extract large sums of money from banks and other institutions by raising claims of discrimination, whose power to delay government approval of bank mergers and other business decisions made pay-offs to these activists the only prudent course for those accused.

Even where loudly proclaimed concern for the poor and minorities gave impetus to the drive for over-riding traditional mortgage lending standards, this is not to say that the poor and minorities were the sole beneficiaries or even the main beneficiaries. When you open the floodgates, you cannot tell the water where to go. Housing speculators — “flippers” — found the new and looser home mortgage rules a bonanza. So did many others. It is by no means clear that the poor or minorities came out ahead at all, after the housing boom turned to bust and many were left with mortgage payments they couldn’t meet on homes they couldn’t afford.

With rich rewards available — politically, ideologically, and financially — from the “affordable housing” crusade, there were ample incentives to keep this crusade going for years. Meanwhile, various special interests found ways to benefit themselves from all this, whether as home builders, real-estate investors, or others, and therefore added their voices in support of the open-ended goal of more home ownership through various ways of achieving, or seeming to achieve, affordable housing. Supporters of such policies and programs easily drowned out the voices of those economists and others who increasingly warned of the risky financial arrangements that were behind the statistics on the growing numbers of home buyers that were so triumphantly being paraded as fruits of the crusade for affordable housing and the stamping out of mortgage lending discrimination.

In short, this was a crusade that was feeding on its own successes by its own criteria, and was not likely to stop unless it got stopped.