The argument in favour of home ownership
Many people believe that more home ownership is a good thing. It is felt that people who own homes have a greater incentive to get involved in local politics as they have a stake in higher house prices. In contrast, people who rent lack this commitment device. Indeed, in a short run sense, a person who is renting benefits when the neighbourhood goes bad : his rent goes down.
From the viewpoint of the individual, renting is always better as it preserves flexibility. Owning a house imposes limitations on the locations where one could live and work, as the frictions of moving home are substantial. This biases individuals in favour of renting.
In the four-part classification scheme of market failures (monopoly power, asymmetric information, externalities, errors by consumers), this falls under the heading of externalities. If home owners become better citizens and better voters and induce better urban governance, this induces positive externalities upon all residents of cities. To the extent that this is the case, some elements of State policy should favour home ownership, so as to counteract the market failure.
This argument has limited value in India today, given that urban governance is organised in a terrible way. We have just not established the feedback loops of accountability from voters to the city mayor. Even if a voter wanted to get involved in more political action, and wanted to nudge his city administration forward, he does not have the levers to do so. If one only looked at the India of the present, we would reject this externality argument and say that there should be a pure level playing field between owning and renting.
Or, one could be an optimist and think that in the future, as the political system is reformed, these feedback loops will fall into place. One could then argue that large scale home ownership sets up interest groups today that have a stake in cities doing well in the future, as their portfolio value is bound to the quality of the city. The presence of such interest groups may help increase the probability of political system reform, when households get worried about potential damage to their portfolios as a consequence of urban mis-governance.
Today we’re highly distorted in favour of owning
If one started out at a undistorted market, one could have a reasonable discussion about whether there is something intrinsically good about owning as opposed to renting, and possibly envision whether levers of policy might be applied to favour home ownership, and the scale of intervention that is justified. In India today, unfortunately, the game is highly stacked against renting:
- Tax policy favours owning in the divergent treatment of interest payments as deductible versus deductibility of rent.
- Rent control laws inhibit renting.
- High inflation disrupts rental contracts by forcing repeated renegotiation.
- House owners that are corporations have not yet emerged. It is, hence, hard to find professional contracting in this field. Search costs are high, and there are often restrictions such as owners that won’t rent to single women or muslims out of social conservatism. Our failures on property as a fundamental right, and on achieving a capable judiciary, have led to the risk of expropriation when the renter is elderly, a journalist or a lawyer. This has the perverse effect of diminishing access to rented houses for such persons.
- Contracts are frequently disrupted, which induces costs of moving and frictions such as fees to brokers.
- Less than professional owners imply that many practical issues such as smoothly functioning utilities don’t work out properly. Under home ownership, a person has the incentive to make sure that utilities work correctly. With renting, this falls between the cracks and the service level is often poor.
The game is thus highly stacked in favour of owning. We need to level the playing field in favour of more renting.
The problems of home ownership
From first principles, the ownership of an illiquid asset (a home) diminishes flexibility. A person who lives in a home is much less likely to move.
In India, we need to achieve massive migration flows. Large scale migration will generate better matching between the requirements of the labour market at various locations all over India, and the requirements of production. Large scale migration will break down tribal and ethnic loyalties.
A country where people easily up and move is one in which the labour market is more flexible. This is a blessing and has consequences such as milder business cycle fluctuations. That’s a different kind of market failure. The State should favour renting as this gives a more flexible labour market which yields milder business cycle fluctuations, which induces gains for all. Every person who owns a house imposes a negative externality upon everyone else in the form of a more inflexible labour market.
On this theme, here is a fascinating new NBER WP by Blanchflower and Oswald. The abstract says: We explore the hypothesis that high home-ownership damages the labor market. Our results are relevant to, and may be worrying for, a range of policy-makers and researchers. We find that rises in the home- ownership rate in a U.S. state are a precursor to eventual sharp rises in unemployment in that state. The elasticity exceeds unity: a doubling of the rate of home-ownership in a U.S. state is followed in the long-run by more than a doubling of the later unemployment rate. What mechanism might explain this? We show that rises in home-ownership lead to three problems: (i) lower levels of labor mobility, (ii) greater commuting times, and (iii) fewer new businesses. Our argument is not that owners themselves are disproportionately unemployed. The evidence suggests, instead, that the housing market can produce negative ‘externalities’ upon the labor market. The time lags are long. That gradualness may explain why these important patterns are so little-known.
Turning to international finance, the objective of international risk sharing is to remove home bias. In the real estate context, what works best is for a person in Bombay to rent a flat owned by Japanese investors and for a person in Tokyo to rent a flat owned by Indian investors. This achieves risk sharing: each party avoids the risk of real estate fluctuations that are correlated with the main portfolio which includes human capital. Capital controls that interfere with such investments are an obvious mistake that need to be removed. But as in trade integration, once overt restrictions are removed, an array of institutional factors that impede cross-border interaction come to prominence.For the risk-sharing outcome (homes in Tokyo owned by investors in Bombay and vice versa), we need real estate to be owned by professional companies that rent it out. The shares of these professional companies, or securitisation instruments that generate cashflows out of rental streams, can then be purchased by foreign investors. As long as real estate ownership is in the hands of individuals in India, we will suffer from home bias with too much of the portfolio of residents being invested in local instruments. This is another dimension of owning versus renting that we need to keep in mind; we are better off when there is less home ownership.
Most people assume that home ownership is a good thing, that a country is better off if more people own homes. Like most interesting questions in public policy, the story is more complex than meets the eye. There are two different externality-based market failures running in different directions.
At present, in India, the first externality (more home ownership makes people better citizens) is absent since urban governance is unresponsive to voters. The only externality at work is running in the opposite direction (more home ownership gives a less flexible labour market). In the short term, policy should work on pushing towards more renting.
In the long run, urban governance in India might improve, and then we would need to understand the magnitude of these two opposing effects, and then one could choose whether it’s worth pushing in one or the other direction. If one can’t quantitatively estimate these things, then a cost benefit analysis is not feasible. The best thing is then to do nothing.
In either event, the mainstream view — that policy makers should push in favour of more home ownership — needs to be questioned.
This piece is cross-posted from Ajay Shah’s Blog with permission.