Destroying houses in order to boost home prices

 Summary:  an economist joins FM in suggests that homes might be destroyed in order to stabilize home prices.  Inaction means that market forces — abandonment — will result in this harsh solution, but in an irrational and unnecessarily damaging way.  Of course, Americans of our time rely on hope and folly as our preferred solutions.

In A vital but widely misunderstood aspect of our financial crisis (18 September 2008) I wrote about the core of the housing problem:

The core of the housing crisis is overbuilding, which has created an excess supply of housing units (broadly defined). Today there are roughly 4 – 5 million vacant housing units above historical average rates (as a % all units). For example, the Census Department’s Housing Vacancy Survey shows that 2.8% of owner-occupied units (i.e., not rentals) are vacant, almost 2x the historical average of 1.5%.

… There are two powerful solutions

(1) Eventually our population will increase to fill these homes. But slowly.

Our population grows (net new households) from more children leaving home than households disappearing through death. And net migration into America. These rates change over time. Our slowing economy might already be slowing the rate of in-migration. A recession or political turmoil in Mexico might send floods of people north into America.

(2) Not so creative destruction

Many vacant homes will be destroyed, the fast track to fixing this problem. Empty houses get vandalized, destroyed by the owners (spite or insurance fraud), occupied by squatters or meth labs, or wrecked by the forces of nature. In regions with net out-migration (e.g., Detroit) homes remain vacant for long periods, often abandoned by their owners (valueless but costly due to taxes and maintenance). As anyone familiar with the history of the South Bronx knows, empty homes acts as an infectious blight that can devastate larger areas. After a decade or two, the result can look like Dresden after the bombing in 1945.

Here is one way the government can fix the housing crisis: buy and destroy homes. The government did this with food during the Depression, in order to increase food prices (to help farmers). That was tough on food consumers, just as destroying houses would increase living costs. Despite what politicians say, that is how most government programs work — aiding one group at the expense of another group (often a much larger but less organized group).

Judging from the comments, many readers reacted with outrage.  Hope is so much more emotionally satisfying than facts or logic.  Now three months later home prices continue to decline and developers continue to build — increasing the supply of vacant homes (but now very slowly, as construction slows).  And more people consider extreme solutions.

Two were cited in “Knocking down houses in order to save the village” on 20 October.  Such as economist David Rosenberg, who wrote on 2 December 2008:

The government has to either …

  1. Declare a moratorium on single family housing starts for the next two years – the builders, amazingly enough, are still adding to stock of single-family homes at a rate that exceeds underlying home sales by nearly 25%. Or,
  2. Create regional landbanks, ring fence the unsold inventory, and destroy it.

Nothing they are doing is going to stop home prices from going down until they treat it as an excess supply problem. There are 18.6 million vacant housing units in the USA today – a 14% overall vacancy, which is unprecedented. The pre-bubble norm was 10-11%. So, what this means is that in aggregate, we have an excess of nearly 4 million housing units overhanging the real estate market (this is both rental and homeownership but keep in mind that they compete with each other and with a near-10% vacancy rate alone in the rental sector, there is plenty of choice at likely attractive rents for people to choose from as they increasingly see real estate as shelter as opposed to an investment).


If you are new to this site, please glance at the archives below.  You may find answers to your questions in these.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp relevance to this topic:

Other posts about the housing crisis:

  1. Diagnosing the eagle, chapter I — the housing bust, 6 December 2007
  2. A vital but widely misunderstood aspect of our financial crisis, 18 September 2008 — Too many homes.
  3. Destroying houses in order to boost home prices, 16 December 2008
  4. The housing crisis allows America to look in the mirror. What do we see?, 9 March 2009
  5. Another step to solving the housing crisis: downsize cities by destroying neighborhoods, 2 April 2009

Post on the FM site about diagnosis, causes, and the larger context of the crisis:

  1. The post-WWII geopolitical regime is dying. Chapter One, 21 November 2007 — Why the current geopolitical order is unstable, describing the policy choices that brought us here.
  2. Diagnosing the eagle, chapter I — the housing bust, 6 December 2007
  3. Death of the post-WWII geopolitical regime, III – death by debt, 8 January 2008 – Origins of the long economic expansion from 1982 to 2006; why the down cycle will be so severe.
  4. Let us light a candle while we walk, lest we fear what lies ahead, 10 February 2008 – Putting the end of the post-WWII regime in a larger historical context.
  5. A vital but widely misunderstood aspect of our financial crisis, 18 September 2008 — Too many homes.
  6. A picture of the post-WWII debt supercycle, 26 September 2008
  7. Debt – the core problem of this financial crisis, which also explains how we got in this mess, 22 October 2008
  8. Causes of the financial crisis (no, its not the usual list), 29 October 2008
  9. Government policy errors and the Great Depession, 1 November 2008

42 thoughts on “Destroying houses in order to boost home prices”

  1. How can you say there is an excess of housing when the homeless population increases day by day? There is no excess of housing. The problem is there is a shortage of money. Thus, less profit for those who hold stock in the housing market.

    Grow up and take your losses like adults. Just as everyone else has to. Have a little perspective and a little less need. Be thankful you don’t have only part time work and have to live under a bridge with your wife and kids

    1. Jack,

      When speaking of supply and demand, people refer to buyers and sellers. People who are able to buy or sell.

      There is always a far greater demand for people without the resources to buy or sell. Since resources are finite, that is true everywhere and always. We could state that in every discussion of markets, but do you really believe that is necessary? All discussions take place in a context, unstated.

      “Grow up and take your losses like adults.”

      Rude much? Seems like the advice to “grow up” is good for you, too.

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