Published papers

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Superstar Cities

Differences in house price and income growth rates between 1950 and 2000 across metropolitan areas have led to an ever-widening gap in housing values and incomes between the typical and highest-priced locations. We show that the growing spatial skewness in house prices and incomes are related and can be explained, at least in part, by inelastic supply of land in some attractive locations combined with an increasing number of high-income households nationally. Scarce land leads to a bidding-up of land prices and a sorting of high-income families relatively more into those desirable, unique, low housing construction markets, which we label “superstar cities.” Continued growth in the number of high-income families in the U.S. provides support for ever-larger differences in house prices across inelastically supplied locations and income-based spatial sorting. Our empirical work confirms a number of equilibrium relationships implied by the superstar cities framework and shows that it occurs both at the metropolitan area level and at the sub-MSA level, controlling for MSA characteristics.

Superstar Cities with Joseph Gyourko and Christopher Mayer, American Economic Journal-Economic Policy vol 5, number 4 (November 2013), pp. 167-199   (PDF)

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Can Owning a Home Hedge the Risk of Moving?

Conventional wisdom holds that one of the riskiest aspects of owning a house is the uncertainty surrounding its sale price, especially if one moves to another housing market. However, households who sell a house typically buy another house, whose purchase price is also uncertain. We show that for such households, home owning often hedges their net exposure to housing market risk, because their sale price covaries positively with house prices in their likely new market. That expected covariance is much higher than previously recognized because there is considerable heterogeneity across city pairs in how much house prices covary and households tend to move between the highly correlated housing markets. Taking these two considerations into account increases the estimated median expected correlation in real house price growth across MSAs from 0.35 to 0.60. Moreover, we show that households’ decisions whether to own or rent are sensitive to this “moving-hedge” value. We find that the likelihood of home owning for a mobile household is more than one percentage point higher when the expected house price covariance rises by 38 percent (one standard deviation). This effect attenuates as a household’s probability of moving diminishes and thus the moving-hedge value declines.

Can Owning a Home Hedge the Risk of Moving? with Nicholas Souleles, American Economic Journal-Economic Policy vol 5, number 2 (May 2013), pp. 282-312 (PDF)

Does Home Owning Smooth the Variability of Future Housing Consumption?

We show that the hedging benefit of owning a home reduces the variability of housing consumption after a move. When a current home owner’s house price covaries positively with housing costs in a future city, changes in the future cost of housing are offset by commensurate changes in wealth before the move. Using Census micro-data, we find that the cross-sectional variation in house values subsequent to a move is lower for home owners who moved between more highly covarying cities. Our preferred estimates imply that an increase in covariance of one standard deviation reduces the variance of subsequent housing consumption by about 11 percent. Households at the top end of the covariance distribution who are likely to have owned large homes before moving get the largest reductions, of up to 40 percent relative to households at the median.

Does Home Owning Smooth the Variability of Future Housing Consumption? with Andrew Paciorek, Journal of Urban Economics vol. 71(2012), 244-257 (PDF)

Understanding and Mitigating Rental Risk

The decision of whether to rent or own a home should involve an evaluation of the relative risks and the relative costs of the two options. It is often assumed that renting is less risky than homeownership, but that is not always the case. Which option is riskier depends on the risk source and household characteristics.
This article provides a framework for understanding the sources of risk for renters. It outlines the most important determinants of risk: volatility in the total cost of obtaining housing, changes in housing costs after a move, and the correlation of rents with incomes. The article characterizes the magnitudes of those risks and discusses how the effects of risk vary across renter types and U.S. metropolitan areas. In addition, the article shows that renters spend less of their cash flow on housing than do otherwise equivalent owners and, thus, are better able to absorb housing cost risk
This article provides a framework for understanding the sources of risk for renters. It outlines the most important determinants of risk: volatility in the total cost of obtaining housing, changes in housing costs after a move, and the correlation of rents with incomes. The article characterizes the magnitudes of those risks and discusses how the effects of risk vary across renter types and U.S. metropolitan areas. In addition, the article shows that renters spend less of their cash flow on housing than do otherwise equivalent owners and, thus, are better able to absorb housing cost risk

Understanding and Mitigating Rental Risk , Cityscape vol.13, number 2 (July 2011) 105-125 (PDF)

Revenue Costs and Incentive Effects of the Mortgage Interest Deduction for Owner-Occupied Housing

We analyze how changes in the income tax deduction for mortgage interest would affect loan-to-value ratios on owner-occupied homes, the distribution of income tax liabilities, and the consumption of housing services. Using the 2004 Survey of Consumer Finances, we estimate that repealing the mortgage interest deduction in 2003 would have raised federal and state income tax revenues by $72.4 billion in the absence of any household portfolio adjustments, but by only $58.5 billion if homeowners drew down financial assets to pay down their mortgage debt.

Revenue Costs and Incentive Effects of the Mortgage Interest Deduction for Owner-Occupied Housing with James Poterba, National Tax Journal vol. 64, number 2 (June 2011), 531-564 (PDF)

Commitment, Risk and Consumption: Do Birds of a Feather Have Bigger Nests?

We show that incorporating consumption commitments into a standard model of precautionary saving can complicate the usual relationship between risk and consumption. In particular, we present a model where the presence of plausible adjustment costs can cause a mean-preserving increase in unemployment risk to lead to increased consumption. The predictions of this model are consistent with empirical evidence from dual-earning couples. Couples who share an occupation face increased risk as their unemployment shocks are more highly correlated. Such couples spend more on owner-occupied housing than other couples, spend no more on rent, and are more likely to rent than own. This pattern is strongest when the household faces higher moving costs, or when unemployment insurance provides a less generous safety net.

Commitment, Risk and Consumption: Do Birds of a Feather Have Bigger Nests? with Stephen Shore, Review of Economics and Statistics vol . 92, number 2 (May 2010), pp 408-424 (PDF)

Feedback between Real-Estate and Urban Economics

This paper considers the implications of increasing land supply constraints in the United States on urban demand. First, because shifts in demand are now capitalized more into the price of land, house prices in some metropolitan areas have grown increasingly unaffordable to typical households. This might have an effect on the fundamental character of such cities. Second, the effect of home owners’ financial interests as landowners on their decisions about what regulations or investments in their communities to support may become stronger. Third, researchers may now be able to better use land prices to make inferences about urban demand. However, interpreting real estate prices still is tricky.

Feedback between Real-Estate and Urban Economics , Journal of Regional Science vol. 50, number 1 (February 2010), pp 423-448 (PDF)

Tax Expenditures for Owner-Occupied Housing: Deductions for Property Taxes and Mortgage Interest and the Exclusion of Imputed Rental Income

Federal income tax policy affects the cost of homeownership for many households. Popular discussions of the favorable tax treatment of owner occupied housing usually focus on the tax-deductibility of mortgage interest and property tax payments, as well as the specialized tax rules that affect housing capital gains. Academic discussions, in contrast, emphasize the exclusion of the imputed rental income on owner-occupied housing as the key tax benefit for homeowners. This paper summarizes the current distribution of the tax benefits associated with the mortgage interest and property tax deductions. It contrasts them with the distribution of tax benefits associated with the current tax regime for imputed rental income relative to one which taxed homeowners as if they were landlords. It also reports how removing either deduction, or taxing homeowners as landlords, would affect the user cost of owner-occupied housing.

Tax Expenditures for Owner-Occupied Housing: Deductions for Property Taxes and Mortgage Interest and the Exclusion of Imputed Rental Income with James Poterba, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, vol. 96, number 2 (May 2008) (PDF)

Do Low-Income Housing Subsidies Increase the Occupied Housing Stock?

A necessary condition for justifying a policy such as subsidized low-income housing, either via tenant-based rental assistance or construction of public or private projects, is that it has a real effect on market outcomes. In this paper, we examine one aspect of the real effect of subsidized housing—does it increase the housing stock? If subsidized housing raises the quantity of occupied housing per capita, either more people are finding housing or they are being housed less densely. On the other hand, if subsidized housing merely crowds out equivalent-quality low-income housing that otherwise would have been provided by the provate sector, the housing policy may have little real effect on housing consumption. Using both Census place and MSA-level data from the decennial census and from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, we ask whether housing markets with more subsidized housing also have more total housing, after accounting for household demand. We find that government-financed units raise the total number of units in a market, although on average one government-subsidized unit adds only one-third to one-half of a unit to the total housing stock. There is less crowd-out in more populous markets, and more crowd-out in places where there is less excess demand for subsidized housing, as measured by the number of government-financed units per eligible person. Tenant-based housing programs, such as Section 8 Certificates and Vouchers, seem to be more effective than project-based programs at targeting subsidized housing units to people who otherwise would not have their own.

Do Low-Income Housing Subsidies Increase the Occupied Housing Stock? with Joel Waldfogel, Journal of Public Economics vol. 89, number 11-12 (December 2005), pp. 2137-2164 (PDF)

Assessing High House Prices: Bubbles, Fundamentals and Misperceptions

We construct measures of the annual cost of single-family housing for 46 metropolitan areas in the United States over the last 25 years and compare them with local rents and incomes as a way of judging the level of housing prices. Conventional metrics like the growth rate of house prices, the price-to-rent ratio, and the price-to-income ratio can be misleading because they fail to account both for the time series pattern of real long-term interest rates and predictable differences in the long-run growth rates of house prices across local markets. These factors are especially important in recent years because house prices are theoretically more sensitive to interest rates when rates are already low, and more sensitive still in those cities where the long-run rate of house price growth is high. During the 1980s, our measures show that houses looked most overvalued in many of the same cities that subsequently experienced the largest house price declines. We find that from the trough of 1995 to 2004, the cost of owning rose somewhat relative to the cost of renting, but not, in most cities, to levels that made houses look overvalued.

Assessing High House Prices: Bubbles, Fundamentals and Misperceptions with Charles Himmelberg and Christopher Mayer, Journal of Economic Perspectives vol. 19, number 4 (Fall 2005), pp. 67-92 (PDF)

Owner-Occupied Housing as a Hedge Against Rent Risk

Many people assume that the most significant risk in the housing market is that homeowners are exposed to fluctuations in house values. However, homeownership also provides a hedge against fluctuations in future rent payments. This paper finds that, even though house price risk endogenously increases with rent risk, the latter empirically dominates for most households so housing market risk actually increases homeownership rates and house prices. Further, the net effect of rent risk on the demand for homeownership increases with a household’s expected length of stay in its home, as the cumulative rent volatility rises and the discounted house price risk falls. Using CPS data, the difference in the probability of homeownership between households with long and short expected lengths of stay is 2.9 to 5.4 percentage points greater in high rent variance places than low rent variance places. The sensitivity to rent risk is greatest for households that devote a larger share of their budgets to housing, and thus face a bigger gamble. Similarly, the elderly who live in high rent variance places are more likely to own their own homes, and their probability of homeownership falls faster with age (as their horizon shortens). This aversion to rent risk might help explain why older households do not consume much of their housing wealth. Finally, we find that house prices capitalize not only expected future rents, but also the associated rent risk premia. At the MSA level, a one standard deviation increase in rent variance increases the house price-to-rent ratio by 2 to 4 percent.

Owner-Occupied Housing as a Hedge Against Rent Risk with Nicholas Souleles, Quarterly Journal of Economics vol. 120, number 2 (May 2005), pp. 763-789 (PDF)

Geography and the Internet: Is the Internet a Substitute or Complement for Cities?

We study the tendency to connect to the Internet, and the online and offline shopping behavior of connected persons, to draw inferences about whether the Internet is a substitute or a complement for cities. We document that larger markets have more locally-targeted online content and that individuals are more likely to connect in markets with more local online content, suggesting the Internet is a complement to cities. Yet, holding local online content constant, people are less likely to connect in larger markets, indicating that the Internet is also a substitute for cities. We also find that individuals connect to overcome local isolation: notwithstanding a large digital divide, blacks are more likely to connect, relative to whites, when they comprise a smaller fraction of local population, making the Internet a substitute for agglomeration of preference minorities within cities. Finally, using online and offline spending data, we find that connected persons spend more on books and clothing online, relative to their offline spending, if they are farther from offline stores. This indicates that the Internet functions as a substitute for proximity to retail outlets.

Geography and the Internet: Is the Internet a Substitute or Complement for Cities? with Joel Waldfogel, Journal of Urban Economics vol. 56, number 1 (July 2004), pp. 1-24 (PDF)

The Asset Price of Capital Gains Taxes: Evidence from the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 and Publicly-Traded Real Estate Firms

We provide new evidence that corporate-level investment subsidies can be substantially capitalized into asset prices by examining the relative stock price performance of publicly traded companies in the real estate industry that should have been differentially affected by the capital gains tax rate reduction enacted in the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. By comparing real estate firms that have an organizational structure that allow property sellers to defer capital gains taxes and plan to use it to acquire property with those that do not, we isolate the effect of the tax cut from industry trends and firm-level heterogeneity. When we examine the time period surrounding the reduction in the capital gains tax rate, our results suggest the tax change was substantially capitalized into lower share prices for these firms and that the benefit of the seller’s capital gains tax deferral accrued mainly to the buyer of an appreciated property. The validity of our estimation strategy is supported by further tests showing that these firms did not experience any relative movement in share prices during the previous year when capital gains tax rates did not change.

The Asset Price of Capital Gains Taxes: Evidence from the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 and Publicly-Traded Real Estate Firms with Joseph Gyourko, Journal of Public Economics vol 88, number 7-8 (July 2004), pp. 1543-1565 (PDF)

The Spatial Distribution of Housing-Related Ordinary Income Tax Benefits

We estimate how tax subsidies to owner-occupied housing are distributed spatially across the United States and find striking skewness. At the state level, the mean tax benefit per owned unit in 1990 ranged from $917 in South Dakota to $10,718 in Hawaii. The dispersion is slightly greater when benefit flows are measured at the metropolitan-area level. Even assuming the subsidies are funded in an income progressivity-neutral manner, a relatively few metro areas, primarily in California and the New York–Boston corridor, are shown to gain considerably while the vast majority of areas have relatively small gains or losses.

The Spatial Distribution of Housing-Related Tax Benefits in the United States. with Joseph Gyourko, Brookings Institution Discussion_paper, July 2001. (PDF)

Network Effects, Congestion Externalities, and Air Traffic Delays: Or Why Not All Delays Are Evil

We examine two factors that might explain the extent of air traffic delays in the United States: network benefits due to hubbing and congestion externalities. Airline hubs enable passengers to cross-connect to many destinations, thus creating network benefits that increase in the number of markets served from the hub. Delays are the equilibrium outcome of a hub airline equating high marginal benefits from hubbing with the marginal cost of delays. Congestion externalities are created when airlines do not consider that adding flights may lead to increased delays for other air carriers. In this case, delays represent a market failure. Using data on all domestic flights by major US carriers from 1988-2000, we find that delays are increasing in hubbing activity at an airport and decreasing in market concentration but the hubbing effect dominates empirically. In addition, most delays due to hubbing actually accrue to the hub carrier, primarily because the hub carrier clusters its flights in short spans of time in order to maximize passenger interconnections. Non hub flights at hub airports operate with minimal additional travel time by avoiding the congested peak connecting times of the hub carrier. These results suggest that an optimal congestion tax would have a relatively small impact on air traffic delays since hub carriers already internalize most of the costs of hubbing and a tax that did not take the network benefits of hubbing into account could reduce social welfare.

Network Effects, Congestion Externalities, and Air Traffic Delays: Or Why Not All Delays Are Evil with Christopher Mayer , American Economic Review vol. 93, number 4 (September 2003), pp. 1194-1215 (PDF)

Capital Gains Realizations and Tax Rates: New Evidence from Time Series

Using data from the 1986 through 1997 period, we update the time series evidence on the response of capital gains realizations to tax rates. In general, we find higher long-run elasticities than reported in many previous studies, but the estimates decrease substantially when the influence of 1986 is effectively removed. We explore several explanations for a diminished behavioral response in the period following fundamental tax reform, finding some suggestive evidence that the response may be dulled in part by a succession of rate changes in a relatively short period and the increasing role of mutual funds in households’ portfolios.

Capital Gains Realizations and Tax Rates: New Evidence from Time Series with Matthew Eichner, National Tax Journal vol 53, number 3 (September 2000), pp. 663-681

The REIT Vehicle: Its Value Today and the Future

The real estate investment trust (REIT) structure has come under increasing scrutiny given the problems the structure poses for finns wishing to retain earnings in depressed real estate equity and debt markets. We estimate the net benefits of the structure to be no more than 2%-5% of industry equity market capitalization, although the benefits are larger for firms with lower payout ratios. In addition, the value of the format doubles as the share of tax exempt/deferred investment in REITs increases to 40%, the fraction obtaining in the broader equity market. Educating this investor clients on the benefits of the REIT structure is an important goal for REIT management.

The REIT Vehicle: Its Value Today and the Future with Joseph Gyourko, Journal of Real Estate Research vol 18, number 2 (September/October), pp. 355-376 [Reprinted in Properties, number 2 (Winter 2000), pp 35-56] (PDF)

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