Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Eviction Economy

Matthew Desmond wrote an interesting piece in the New York Times, drawing on his new book on eviction, but I’m not sure that the economics implicit in his analysis and the economics implicit in his remedy are consistent.
The analysis seems to be that landlords and lenders are not just earning a profit from dealing with the poor they are earning extraordinary profits from the poor:

“Landlords like Tobin aren’t making money in trailer parks or ghettos in spite of their poverty but because of it. Depressed property values offer lower mortgage payments and tax bills. In poor areas of the cities, rents are lower, too — but not by much. In 2010, the average monthly rent in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods was only $50 less than the citywide median.

Landlords renting to poor families can charge slightly reduced rents but, owing to far lower expenses, still command handsome profits. As a landlord with 114 inner-city units once told me, speaking of an affluent suburb near Milwaukee: “In Brookfield, I lost money. But if you do low-income, you get a steady monthly income.”

He also points out that

“Exploitation is not confined to the housing sector alone. It thrives when it comes to other essentials, like food. Inner-city bodegas take advantage of families’ lack of transportation to increase grocery prices, effectively reducing the value of food stamps. The payday lending industry exploits poor people’s lack of access to credit by offering high-interest loans and collecting over $7 billion a year in fees.”

I say that I am not sure that his remedy, housing vouchers, is consistent with his analysis because while housing vouchers will increase the demand for housing on the part of low income households, it will only increase the supply if the increase in profits attracts more investment. If, however, landlords are already making higher than normal profits and the supply is not increasing, why should we expect the housing vouchers will be able to induce more affordable housing rather than simply going to even higher profits?

I agree there is a problem. But we need to understand the causes of the problem. There are essentially two reasons for high prices (rents or interest rates): either the cost of production is high or there are barriers to competition that enable sellers to earn monopoly profits. If renters are being exploited, in the sense that landlords are getting a greater rate of return than other people who take similar risks, then we need to find out what is preventing others from entering the market. Removal of these barriers to entry should drive down prices and profits. If on the other hand, there are actually high costs associated with lending or renting in low income neighborhoods we need to think about what might be done to reduce those costs. Desmond’s analysis seems to point toward monopoly but his prescription seems to point toward high costs of production.   

One other alternative is that the prices are not actually that high, but many people are still unable to afford them. If that is the case, then the issue is fundamentally one of redistribution. But then the story is not really about exploitation. 

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