Cities are the engines of U.S. economic growth, but housing costs put them out of reach for many Americans. One major reason is that cities severely limit new residential construction, especially apartment buildings. For example, San Francisco permits tall buildings only in its northeast corner and Bayview, which together comprise less than a sixth of the city. Housing laws that favor tenants also reduce the incentive for developers to supply new apartments, as Milton Friedman and George Stigler observed as far back as the 1940s. Recently New York state approved a permanent extension of rent control in nearly one million apartments, and Oregon has made it more difficult to evict nonpaying tenants.
The problem is that local voters have an interest in restricting the housing supply. Existing homeowners worry that new housing will lower the prices of their homes. Existing tenants want price controls to limit rents. While prospective residents want new housing in cities, they don’t get to vote in local elections.
Fortunately, there’s a solution to this impasse. New residents are willing to pay significantly more for additional housing than it costs to build it. They could compensate existing property owners for the reduction in prices caused by new construction and still gain from moving to the city. Such a compromise is possible until the point at which new construction reduces the value of existing homeowners’ property by an amount greater than the value it affords new residents. Allowing incoming residents to compensate homeowners would help cities grow to their ideal size, at which the cost of adding one more resident is equal to that resident’s benefit to the city’s economy.