Sunday, March 8, 2015

Auto Costs and Housing Costs, or, One Reason the Suburbs are So Appealing

Simon Vallee has a post from some time back about filtering vs. gentrification in which he analogizes the process of gentrification, in North America, to the car market in Cuba, noting that restrictions on supply will tend to boost prices and limit availability of a desired good.  Although the comparison is intended to be illustrative, I think it also highlights a substantive difference which, in effect, subsidizes automobiles at the expense of housing.  First, though, some background.

Going back for a moment to the subject matter of a Nathan Lewis post, we can note that, land costs aside, the sticker price of manufactured housing as compared to a new vehicle is not as different as one might think.  A two-bedroom manufactured home, for instance, of about the size of the average new home of the 1950s, costs only around $41,500 as compared to the price of a popular new sedan (I chose the Altima, one of the best-selling cars in the United States) at around $27,000:

However, when car costs are compared to overall home values, including site-built as well as manufactured homes, a different story emerges.  In 1940, the median home was valued at only 2.3 times the retail price of the average new car.  By 2010, in spite of the crash in home prices, this ratio had risen to 6.4.  Car operating costs have also generally fallen as fuel efficiency and vehicle reliability have improved.  Median rents, not shown here, have grown at an even faster rate than home values.

In short, over the last seven or so decades, car ownership (or leasing) has become dramatically less expensive relative to home ownership or tenancy.  Partly this must be due to labor-saving technologies that have affected car production more than homebuilding: even manufactured homes still require extensive human labor, which has become much costlier (though more productive) since 1940, whereas the formerly labor-intensive car assembly process has been heavily automated and accelerated.  The process of robotically assembling houses, or even apartment buildings, remains in its infancy.

Are long-term, over-inflation increases in home values also linked to increases in land values caused by general urban population increase and restrictive zoning?  It goes without saying that rural land values are lower than urban land values, and the Census homeownership figures show that housing values are lower, and homeownership higher, in more rural states in spite of lower incomes.  Relatively poor and rural West Virginia has the nation's highest homeownership rate, while 100% urbanized Washington D.C. has had its lowest in every Census since 1930.  As Luis Bettencourt writes:
"There are several important consequences for general land use in cities. First, the price of land rises faster with population size than average incomes. This is the result of per capita increases in both density and economic productivity, so that money spent per unit area and unit time, i.e. land rents, increases on average by 50% with every doubling of city population size! It is this rise in the price of land that mediates, indirectly, many of the spontaneous solutions that reduce per capita energy use and Carbon emissions in larger cities. Cars become expensive to park, and taller buildings become necessary to keep the price of floor space in pace with incomes, thus leading to smaller surface area to volume."   The Kind of Problem a City Is.
Urbanization in the era of the automobile in turn causes frictions which lead to pressure for zoning.  American municipal zoning, in its initial formulation and as is still practiced today, is fundamentally a device to politically manage these frictions by restricting the intensity of residential land use.  Though not its stated purpose, it has the effect of increasing land scarcity that is already inherent in the urbanization process, and thereby provides a positive feedback mechanism that puts additional pressure on housing values.

What does this all have to do with cars?  As noted above, the cost of a manufactured home, in isolation, is only slightly more than that of a typical sedan.  As urbanization increases, however, the increasing value of land makes cars, which do not have their land storage cost bundled into the sticker price (unlike Japan does, effectively), seem like a relative bargain.  Some time ago, Cap'n Transit wrote a fascinating series on how New York came to tolerate and eventually permit free overnight on-street parking in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  We would find it ludicrous if someone were to purchase a manufactured home and to drive it into Manhattan on a flatbed expecting the city to provide free land on which to site it, but that was how the story went with cars:
"This [middle-class] conception of the benefits of car ownership has always had a huge bait-and-switch component to it. In New York City in the 1940s it was no exception. When people looked at the price of a car, they didn't figure in $20-35 per month in garage rental. When they got their cars, many couldn't afford to pay and took their chances on the street. Garage owners now had to compete with free street parking and lowered their rates accordingly, which meant that they didn't have enough income to expand their facilities, and resorted to bribing the police. 
"These social-climbing drivers felt cheated, but they didn't take their anger out on the car dealers. No, they felt that the city owed them the free parking necessary to make their cars as affordable as they thought." The right to free parking in 1940s New York
There are therefore two clashing trends: as cities grow in size, the cost of a buying a car declines relative to increases in income and housing cost, yet the actual cost of storing a vehicle is, or should be, increasing rapidly, since cars, like houses, occupy a significant amount of valuable space.  Rather than taking the common-sense Japanese approach of the shako shomeisho (proof of parking), however, American states and cities have engaged in onerous mandatory inclusionary zoning for cars (parking minimums), zoning exemptions (e.g. not counting garages toward FAR limits and allowing parking, but not housing, in mandated setbacks), tax exemptions (only 16 states maintain a personal property tax that covers automobiles) and fringe benefits (the commuter parking benefit), in addition to rent-free public housing for cars (overnight on-street parking).  Whereas in 1940, buying and operating a car to escape urban housing costs simply shifted the balance of expenses, with a car costing almost half as much as the median home, in 2010 the prospect of doing so was much more economically feasible.  No doubt many of those New Yorkers of the 1940s and 1950s eventually drove those cars out of their subsidized parking spaces and off to the far reaches of Nassau, Bergen and Westchester Counties, and who could blame them?

Perhaps the biggest effect of all though, going back to the beginning of the post, relates to the obvious but important point that while housing production, and particularly in-city housing production, is subject to political constraints, car production is not (well, mostly not).  There even seems to be a difference in Americans' moral characterization of those who build homes and cars for profit: while a search for the phrase "greedy developers" returns over 60,000 hits, "greedy automakers" returns only 1,000.  From that perspective, the so-called "drive 'til you qualify" phenomenon, much questioned and criticized, is an entirely reasonable response to this economic reality, particularly given widespread lack of highway tolls. 

Making a full accounting of the political choices that have been made with regard to both housing and transportation is a daunting task, but it does help illuminate the residential patterns we see without the need to resort to moral judgments about those choices.

Related posts: Was the Rise of Car Ownership Responsible for the Midcentury Homeownership Boom in the US?


  1. The site for the Japan Proof of Parking blog post is not working for me - if its not working for anyone else, here is an archive:

    1. Thanks Zeph. I tried re-linking it so hopefully it is working now.

      About the post itself, I'm a bit conflicted even as to my own analysis. Subsidizing the cost of urban car ownership might, in theory, make urban living more appealing (since urban car storage costs are much higher than suburban/rural, so that subsidizing urban car storage would actually be subsidizing urban residential rather than suburban). On the other hand, restrictions on urban residential supply and the bundling of parking into housing costs seem to greatly outweigh this, such that urban housing seems disproportionately expensive, and using the car as a means of escaping those costs is economically rational behavior. Based on housing costs in the New York area that does seem to be the case, with the cost of a car almost trivial in comparison to urban real estate.

  2. Socialism for the rich is as American as apple pie.

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