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Unlearned Lessons from the Housing Bubble

NEW HAVEN – There is a lot of misunderstanding about home prices. Many people all over the world seem to have thought that since we are running out of land in a rapidly growing world economy, the prices of houses and apartments should increase at huge rates.

That misunderstanding encouraged people to buy homes for their investment value – and thus was a major cause of the real estate bubbles around the world whose collapse fueled the current economic crisis. This misunderstanding may also contribute to an increase in home prices again, after the crisis ends. Indeed, some people are already starting to salivate at the speculative possibilities of buying homes in currently depressed markets.

But we do not really have a land shortage. Every major country of the world has abundant land in the form of farms and forests, much of which can be converted someday into urban land. Less than 1% of the earth’s land area is densely urbanized, and even in the most populated major countries, the share is less than 10%.

There are often regulatory barriers to converting farmland into urban land, but these barriers tend to be thwarted in the long run if economic incentives to work around them become sufficiently powerful. It becomes increasingly difficult for governments to keep telling their citizens that they can’t have an affordable home because of land restrictions.