are: a relatively wealthy community; the hard desire to own one's
own house, along with the ambition to make it more and more comfortable
and pleasing; the dependence of building sites on immediate amenities
(sewage, power); and strategic sources of nourishment (jobs).
of infinitely available land faded as urbanization brought on
heavy dependence on elements that weren't always available to
homes on the range. Schools and hospitals are not only useful
for educating children and curing the infirm. They are necessary
to attract affluent home buyers.
writing for The New York Times Magazine, gives a useful
account of the home-building industry. Here are some basic indices.
We have 34 million rented apartments at this point and 74 million
owner-occupied homes. The pool is being fed by immigrants seeking
houses, by children growing and seeking their own homes, and by
the elderly wanting a second house in which to vacation or retire.
The home-building industry has constructed about 13.5 million
single-family homes since the mid-1990s.
So why is
the cost of housing so high?
that the average new house nationwide now sells for nearly $300,000.
The writer tells us, "I asked (a builder) what our children
-- my kids are both under 8, I told him -- would be paying when
they're ready to buy.
going to live with us until they're 40,' (the builder) said matter-of-factly.
'And when they have their second kid, then we'll finally kick
them out and make them pay for the house that we paid for. And
that house will cost them 45 to 50 percent of their income.'"
are dismaying, but perspective helps. "In Britain,"
the builder explains, "you pay seven times your annual income
for a home; in the U.S. you pay three and a half." The Brits
get 330 square feet per person in their homes; Americans, 750
square feet. But choice parts of the United States face "build-out."
Consider New Jersey. It currently averages 1,165 people per square
mile -- denser than India (914) and Japan (835).
And we confront,
finally and inevitably, the question: What is to be done about
exception, housing specialists concur, high home prices are owing
to zoning. Twenty years ago, in many quarters of the country,
one year would go by before the political authority would permit
a developer to begin housing construction. In New Jersey, that
interval now approaches eight years. Delays of that kind have
the effect of shrinking the amount of land on which houses can
be constructed. We get the inflated costs so familiar. "(Some
authorities) used sample prices from 25 areas to show that the
cost of housing in a metropolitan area appears to be in direct
correlation to its degree of zoning ordinances," Gertner
This is a
politically remote source of trouble. People who have to wait
for a zoning agency to change its conventions, regulations, traditions
and idiosyncrasies will be very old before they acquire a new
home. Henry George, the eminent social philosopher of a century
ago, turned the attention of planners and economists, however
briefly, to the indefeasible factor of land scarcity. Capital
and labor can increase; land cannot.
George was the apostle of the single tax. It aimed most directly
at land speculators. His insights would focus now on the limitations
on the use of land imposed by zoning. If John Jones wants an acre
protecting his house, he is laying claim to something that cannot
expand in size. Since land, in George's analysis, is forever limited,
it must be thought of and treated as common property. And therefore
the rental value of one acre should constitute a tax (the single
tax) on the person who sequesters it for himself.
case can be made for the amenities of zoning laws. But they have
an effect on the availability of housing, and on its cost. One
result is that housing costs are increasing faster than inflation.
But is the
Henry George factor likely to be espoused in political platforms?
It cannot happen soon because too many interests are vested in
zoning laws. But sharp political eyes should be trained on the
question, in search of a viable formulation designed to fight
against homelessness for grandchildren who cannot be expected
to pay the projected cost of housing.