Housing as a Utility and the Limits of Redevelopment

In some interesting and spirited discussion on Twitter (like a week ago, I know, ancient history), Daniel Kay Hertz brings up the idea of regulating housing like a utility. First, I’d like to explain why I think housing is not a utility and should not be regulated as such. Then, we’ll look at what issues comprise the real barriers to development, and the implications of those barriers.

Development in built-up cities is hard. There’s little vacant land, and construction is more complicated than on empty sites in the suburbs. In fact, development is so difficult and barriers to entry so great, says Daniel Kay Hertz, that development can’t keep up with demand; therefore, we should simply nationalize places like Manhattan. All rents – residential and commercial – would be regulated.

Is Housing a Utility?

In the economic sense, a product or service is considered to be a utility if it is most efficient in the long run for production to be concentrated in a single firm. This is most likely to be the case in an industry where it would be difficult for a new company to enter the market (“high barriers to entry”) due to very large up front capital costs. For example, consider the water supply for Los Angeles. In order to have two or three firms compete to provide water, you’d have to build two or three water systems.

Note that unlike industries that are naturally competitive, to compete with a utility, you have to build a lot of redundant infrastructure. To compete for your smart phone business, Apple and Samsung do not both build you phones, of which you only use one while the others sit idle. However, to compete with LADWP’s water supply, a new provider would have to build another water system and another water pipe to your house. You’d have two water connections, but only use one. That’s a lot of redundant water pipes, and it would cost a lot of money, so it’s much more efficient to have one water company with regulated rates.

Natural utilities almost always end up being heavily regulated private firms or heavily regulated public agencies. When they are not, such as broadband internet services, it creates the potential for monopolies that Wall Street analysts call “comically profitable”, but the rest of us might opt to call criminally profitable instead. Therefore, if a product is a natural utility, it’s important to recognize that and regulate it as such.

However, housing does not meet this definition of a utility. While housing development has considerable capital costs – millions or tens of millions of dollars even for relatively small projects – it’s an order of magnitude less than the billions or tens of billions of capital dollars that would be needed up front to compete with LADWP or Time Warner Cable.

In addition, there is little efficiency to be gained from concentrating housing production in a single firm (or government agency). If developers want to compete for your housing business, they do not build you redundant apartments. Most cities with tight housing markets have low vacancy rates, that is, very little idle housing infrastructure, suggesting there is little inefficiency in having multiple firms compete to provide housing.

Lastly, note that utility-type regulation is not intended or well-suited to address the types of issues we have with housing. The primary problem we have with housing is scarcity, a lack of housing. Utility regulation, in and of itself, address only natural monopoly problems; if there are problems with scarcity and allocation, additional regulations such as tiered utility rates much be introduced.

Therefore, while we can see the need for policies to address the impacts of housing scarcity on low-income households, there’s no compelling reason to regulate the entire residential (or commercial) sector of Manhattan. This is important, because simpler solutions are almost always better. The central administration needed for a nationalized Manhattan would be very complex, and the potential for unintended negative consequences would be large. For the costs of nationalizing Manhattan, we could almost certainly implement a more effective program of improved transportation and housing benefits for low-income households.

Are There Limits to Redevelopment?

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that in a place like Manhattan, redevelopment of land is much more difficult than in the suburbs. Almost any project will entail demolishing an existing building and displacing the revenue-generating uses currently occupying the site. Let’s take a closer look at the implications of increasing difficulty of redevelopment. In this analysis, we’ll ignore regulatory barriers like zoning, which can be changed, and focus on theoretical economic and technological limits.

Empirically, we can guess that once the existing building on a site reaches a certain size, redevelopment is impractical. Demolition of large buildings is rare, even in places with extremely high land values and lack of regulatory barriers like zoning. The tallest building ever intentionally demolished by its owner to make way for a larger structure is the Singer Building in New York City, which was 47 stories tall, though the bulk of the building was only 12 stories. The Morrison Hotel in Chicago was 45 stories, but again, much of the building was considerably shorter. Beyond that, there’s the City Investing Building in NYC (33 stories) and a few high-rise hotels in Las Vegas.

To see why, consider that every property owner has three development options:

  • Do Nothing: continue to operate the property as is. This is the lowest risk option. Future revenues and operating costs are relatively certain.
  • Refurbish: maintain the existing building, but make internal improvements that increase value, such as refinishing apartments. This is the medium risk option. Construction can be staged, but some revenue will still be lost during that time period. Future revenues are expected to be somewhat higher. Operating costs may be higher or lower, depending on relative efficiency of the new units and the impact of taxes.
  • Redevelop: demolish or largely demolish the existing building and replace it with a newer, larger structure. This is the highest risk option. All existing uses will have to be removed during construction, resulting in significant loss of revenue during that time period. Future revenues are expected to be much higher, and operating costs will likely increase due to larger size and higher tax value.

Graphically, the cash flows for these options look like this:


In deciding what to do, owners must consider the present value (PV) of each option. The second and third options offer higher revenues, but further into the future. Due to the time value of money, these future revenues are worth less to today’s PV. These options require the owner to forgo revenue during construction, which takes away from their PV. In addition, the owner must consider the risk of a real estate market downturn between today and the completion of the new project, which further devalues the future revenues in today’s PV.

With this framework, we can see why redevelopment is harder in built-up areas. For vacant land, the existing revenue is probably zero, and the site can be developed quickly, so risk is lower. If a tall building already occupies the site, the existing revenue will be large, and the construction period longer. Building technology might limit the additional density that could be developed on the site. At some density of existing development, it will no longer be profitable to redevelop the site.

This implies that once a city reaches a certain density of development, the only development option possible is geographic expansion of the city, and improved transportation to reduce the time cost of distance. For example, in 1890, the Lower East Side was probably close to this limit. Skyscraper technology was new, so buildings were limited to the height allowed by masonry construction, and tenements were carried up to such height accordingly. The inability to traverse longer distances in a short time at reasonable cost resulted in those buildings being occupied at very high population density.

This also implies that, quite logically, rents per unit floor area will always be higher in places where potential development sites are already occupied by existing buildings. Some price premium will be required to induce redevelopment of an occupied site versus vacant land.

With today’s building technology, it’s probably impractical to redevelop most sites that are occupied by buildings taller than 25 stories. (Note that some grad students with some time and funding could do the research to find real results. And if it’s already been done, someone please point out where!) That means that if an entire district is already developed to that height, further redevelopment will be difficult and it is unlikely that the market will be able to provide significant new supply locally. The proper solution to this problem would be to improve transportation to reduce price pressures by making it easier to travel from districts with more redevelopment potential.

Where Are We Today?

However, for the US, the nature of this theoretical limit is just that – theoretical. With the possible exception of a few small parts of Manhattan, nowhere in the country is developed to that intensity. Everywhere in Los Angeles County has land with low intensity existing development that, at least theoretically, has low barriers to redevelopment.

Regulating housing like a utility would be trying to resolve regulatory failures – zoning and permitting – with further regulation. If regulations are not producing the desired results, it’s a much better approach to reform the failing regulations than to try to resolve the negative outcomes of the first set of regulations with a second set of regulations. It is not hard to see that nationalizing Manhattan, or any other city, to resolve the failures of existing land use regulation might result in even worse negative outcomes. For the cost of any such program, we could devise less complicated housing subsidies and transportation improvements that would have a better chance of achieving the desired results and less chance of negative consequences.

7 thoughts on “Housing as a Utility and the Limits of Redevelopment

  1. the0verheadwire

    Why don’t we just start thinking about what makes housing so expensive and begin to “nationalize” those expenses. What if we paid for all the code compliance and impact fees in core areas through taxes rather than passing them to developers. Then also give tax breaks to development in those places too. The thing we need to do is incentivize supply. If you’re cutting out all the fees and other extras, wouldn’t that start to lower costs and make redevelopment more enticing in urban areas?

    1. Jake Wegmann

      What you’re proposing is basically, if I understand you right, is what US cities used to do, i.e. pay for infrastructure out of general tax revenue on the assumption that stimulates further growth and in the long run benefit cities’ finances. This is what New York and Chicago were doing during their period of rapid urban expansion.

      But the trouble is that any proposal to do the same would be a huge political loser now. (These sorts of dynamics helped fuel the anger that led to Prop 13 being passed in CA.) Voters, for better or for worse, want new development “to pay for itself.” So it does, at least in the short term, and all of those costs get passed on to the end users (tenants or buyers) of the new buildings.

      How to break that logjam, I don’t know. Seems to me it would be more promising to focus on regulatory relief–I take it as a given that voters in most places will not be persuaded to assume the costs of new development except in specific cases where specific benefits are promised to them,

      1. John G.

        If you don’t know to break that logjam, then no one should really be complaining about lack of housing.

        People need to be educated on how their political pet peeves affect our housing supplies. More effort needs to be invested on that.

  2. devin

    Minor nit: you say that utilities like water provision face much larger up-front capital costs than housing, and that this is the difference. This statement is surely true, and it’s an important difference, but that isn’t quite what makes a utility a utility. You are thinking of up-front capital costs that can be made up over time, but the critical thing for natural monopolies is that the up-front capital costs can be up over units.

    Building a competing water system would entail large capital costs, but I’ll separate that from what you might call “fixed costs”: the cost that you have to pay, no matter what scale you build to. For example, maybe you have to build a pipeline from Northern California in order to serve any customers in LA at all. That’s the fixed cost, and its cost doesn’t vary at all no matter how many customers you serve in LA. (For housing, a legal cost might be a fixed cost: no matter how big you build, you still have to fight the same lawsuit?)

    Then you have your marginal costs: hooking up an extra person to your pipeline. Because the pipeline is already here, this cost is very low! Each new person is cheap and only requires a minor hookup to the main line. The combination of high fixed cost and low marginal cost—not barriers to entry per se—is what makes for a natural monopoly/utility.

    The upshot is that, for utilities, there legitimately are huge efficiency gains in only building one pipeline, regardless of market structure. So it’s not just a barrier to entry: it’s legitimately cost-saving to only have one pipeline running across the state (quibble with myself: I’m generalizing here to make a point). You can serve the same number of customers with one pipeline or with two competing pipelines, and so the second one is just a waste of resources.

    Housing, by contrast, entails high up-front capital costs. These may be a barrier to entering, because the capital costs are only paid out over time. However, the capital costs vary proportionately with the number of units built: that is, they aren’t a fixed cost but just a marginal cost. Want 2x the units, need 2x the capital! There are certainly some fixed costs along the way (legal perhaps, drawing up plans for your cookie-cutter podiums, etc), but these are small compared to the marginal costs.

    Takeaway: it’s the high fixed costs relative to marginal costs that makes for a natural monopoly/utility. Water/cable have this feature, housing does not–and it’s this, not the difference in capital costs, that makes housing not like a utility.

    (Ok back to work..)

  3. Ian Mitchell

    Here’s something I was thinking- to some extent, transportation always factors in. Sometimes that transportation is pedestrian- walking, climbing stairs. Sometimes it’s vehicular, by elevator. Paying to take a building’s elevator is almost unheard of, paying for every other form of transit is very common.

  4. Pingback: Single-Family Homes and Affordability | Let's Go LA

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