Since the 2008 housing crisis, large firms have been purchasing homes to rent out. While this remains a small part of the housing market, entire single-family neighborhoods are now sometimes built and sold to investors who will manage them as rentals. Some worry that corporate owners won’t be good landlords, or that their buying activity will price families out of the market for homes, but we shouldn’t be alarmed.
Wall Street is buying neighborhoods. Is that bad?
Think of housing markets at two extremes. One extreme is seen in cities where it’s easier to redevelop areas or where there’s plenty of unregulated land nearby on which to build. Here, it’s difficult for institutional buyers to permanently increase home prices because there’s plenty of supply and prices are mostly determined by the cost of materials and labor to build homes.
In the other extreme, for prices to permanently rise higher than the cost of construction, two constraints must be in place: First, the city must lack unregulated space where developers could build. Second, the city must have oppressive regulations that make it difficult to change and add new housing within existing parts of the city.
The United States has cities at both extremes. The Houston metro area has room to grow and lets housing change and develop. As of May, Zillow estimated Houston’s median home price at $247,000. Atlanta and other major cities in Texas and elsewhere in the Sun Belt famously fall into this category.
At the other extreme, San Francisco has many geographical barriers and areas where housing cannot legally be built. It also enforces oppressive rules against changing existing housing. Zillow estimates San Francisco’s median home price at $1,256,000. To some degree, many urban centers on the East and West Coasts, such as Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston, are in the same boat.
Compared to these extremes, the relative effect of Wall Street investors on home prices is a rounding error. Overwhelmingly, supply (or the lack thereof) is the reason for differing home prices. The way to keep prices low, like in Houston, is to protect the right to build more houses. In spirit and practice, the success of that process means extending the same right to Wall Street landlords. Maintaining selective access to housing by limiting the right of all comers to build new homes is a path that leads to San Francisco pricing.
Wall Street’s primary advantage as home buyers is access to capital. A house with a price low enough to be a profitable investment for Wall Street should also be a good investment for the family living in it. Frequently, those families can’t qualify for mortgages even though their rent payments make the homes a good Wall Street investment.
In places like Houston, the way to make these rental neighborhoods affordable for families is to allow banks to make mortgage credit more broadly available. The way to make them affordable for families in San Francisco is to build more of them – regardless of who owns them.
People need houses. Let's start building.
If we even the playing field between Wall Street and families by making mortgage payments a more accessible option in lieu of rent payments, and if we even the playing field between San Francisco and Houston by approving more homes in San Francisco, a robust market of single-family rental homes will mean more options for everyone.
Opinions in your inbox: Get the best insights and analysis delivered to your inbox
Maybe whole neighborhoods built as single-family rental units can emerge as another widespread housing option, alongside other common options like apartments, condos, and neighborhoods of owner-occupied single-family homes. In a market with more options, families and Wall Street firms might each find complementary roles that fit them best. Neighborhoods can be places for raising families, meeting neighbors, building household savings and wealth, and – yes – providing reasonable profits for developers and landlords.
Rebuilding a Nation?: Democrats' spending plans don't show any signs of sanity
In places where housing can be constructed with fewer obstacles, everyone can benefit – both the provider and the user. The problem of big winners and big losers is a problem that happens in places like San Francisco, where every new home is subject to an extensive inquisition where the builders and owners must prove their moral eligibility. But at the best house parties, everyone is invited.
Kevin Erdmann (@KAErdmann) is a visiting fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and author of the books “Shut Out: How a Housing Shortage Caused the Great Recession and Crippled Our Economy” and “Building from the Ground Up: Reclaiming the American Housing Boom” (forthcoming).
You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Wall Street is building neighborhoods. This is good, believe it or not