«reNtal HousiNg Policy iN tHe uNited states Volume 13, Number 2 • 2011 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development | Office of Policy ...»
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Abstract 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.
Finally, potential policy approaches to rental housing that avoid increasing rent risk are discussed. A simple way to maintain renters’ capacity to absorb rent risk is to avoid subsidies that result in an incentive to consume a larger rental housing quantity. Targeting rental subsidies to more mobile households or those living in low-volatility cities, where renting is less risky, should be considered. Long-term leases would provide an intermediate position between renting annually and owning but are currently rare.
Introduction Much of the discussion about government subsidies that are targeted at homeownership or renting focuses on the subsidies’ effects on the relative cost of owning versus renting. For example, how much do tax subsidies to homeownership lower the cost of owning? Is housing affordable, and do rental subsidies lower housing costs for low-income families? Are rents higher because renting is less economically efficient than owning because of misaligned incentives for renters and landlords?
Cityscape 105 Cityscape: A Journal of Policy Development and Research • Volume 13, Number 2 • 2011 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development • Office of Policy Development and Research Sinai Cost is just one of many differences between renting and owning, however. Another important distinction between the two tenure modes is risk. Both renters and homeowners face financial uncertainty in regard to their housing spending. How that uncertainty is manifested depends on a household’s choice of tenure mode. Renters do not have large housing capital amounts at stake and thus are not affected by house price swings in their current market. Renters face uncertainty, however, about how much rent will cost during their lifetimes and are also subject to highfrequency rent volatility. In addition, renters do not automatically have an investment position in the housing market; therefore, they are more susceptible to volatility in the future housing cost, both locally and in other cities.
Any discussion of whether owning or renting is better for households should account for risk, not just cost. For example, when housing policy is evaluated, consideration should be given not only to how policy distorts households away from the optimal dollar amount of housing consumption, but also to how policy encourages or discourages taking financial risks that are best suited for a household.
Because the risks of renting and owning are not universally bad, but are merely inappropriate for some households and more appropriate for others, policymakers should consider risk in several ways when formulating policy toward renting. First, recognize that such policy might have unintended consequences for household risk. Renting exposes a household to housing market volatility, with the magnitude depending on the geographical market. Second, avoid incentivizing renters to spend larger portions of their incomes on rent because higher housing spending raises risk for renters as well as owners. Third, tailor policy to encourage renting (or not encourage homeownership) for just those households that would experience relatively less renting risk. For example, some housing markets are inherently less volatile and renters there face little uncertainty. Fourth, consider that financial products that could enable long-term renters to mitigate risk, such as long-term leases, exist but are not popular. The reason such products are unpopular is unknown, but a possibility is that subsidies to homeownership simply make owning a cheaper way to obtain many of the same benefits.
This article is motivated in part by the recognition that rental subsidies need not be targeted solely to low-income households. Homeownership subsidies are available throughout the income spectrum (Poterba and Sinai, 2010) and one could imagine policymakers considering a parallel program for renting. When policy goals move beyond considerations such as using rental subsidies to target income transfers to needy households, or to ensure a minimum rental housing quality standard, policymakers need to be aware of potential consequences of a broad based shift to renting.
Ironically, despite the common perception that homeownership is risky, encouraging renting would induce many households to actually take on more risk. The next section describes some sources of financial uncertainty for renters and homeowners. The section on getting from volatility to risk details how housing uncertainty morphs into risk and explains how the riskiness of renting can vary between geographic space and household types. Next, the article reviews evidence that renters are keen enough to avoid that risk that they are often willing to pay a premium above the rental cost to become homeowners. The section on capacity for volatility explains how some households can absorb risk with fewer consequences. Rent risk implications for policies aimed toward rental housing are considered in the final section.
106 Rental Housing Policy in the United States Understanding and Mitigating Rental Risk The Volatility of Renting and Owning To begin, it is important to recognize that the choice of how much housing to consume can be divorced from the question of how to pay for it. Many peoples’ perceptions of the differences between renting and owning are colored by the fact that the residences that people tend to rent typically are quite different from the residences that people tend to buy. Rental residences are more likely to be in multifamily units, smaller, and less expensive within a given market. Thus the difference between renting and owning is often perceived as a decision about the quantity, the location, or the price point to consume. Despite the fact that owned and rented housing stocks are currently somewhat distinct, however, any given housing unit could be either purchased or rented—at some purchase price or rent amount. Indeed, if the United States were to shift away from its long history of subsidizing homeownership to something more akin to a level playing field or even a net subsidy to renting, the household types that currently tend to own could easily choose to rent instead, and housing units that currently tend to be owned could conceivably enter the rental stock. Of course, the implied annual cost of renting or owning the same unit can differ for a host of reasons, including differential tax treatment as an owner versus a landlord or renter, and the lower efficiency with which a landlord can monitor his or her rental property relative to an owner-occupier, especially if the dwelling is a single-family detached house.
Holding the housing unit and its annual cost the same across owning and renting, the financial difference between the two tenure modes comes down to the manner in which the service flow from that housing unit is paid for. Renters pay the flow cost of housing services as rent. By contrast, owners pay an upfront price to purchase a house. In addition, homeowners are responsible for property taxes and maintenance costs, whereas for a residential lease, the maintenance costs are typically included in the rent. Unlike renters, however, owners may receive money back when they sell their houses, taking either a capital gain or loss.
Another way to think about the difference in payments between renters and owners is that renters simply pay the spot price of housing services (the rent) whereas owners purchase an asset (the house) that pays a dividend exactly equal to the rent. In effect, owners use the yield from their housing asset to pay rent, with the two exactly netting out. By contrast, renters pay rent each year out of their pockets. Because renters do not have to make an initial investment in a house, however, they can instead use those funds to invest in other assets.
Both renters and owners start life with the same implicit future liability––they have to pay the market cost of obtaining housing every year for the rest of their lives. Beyond that, they make different portfolio decisions. Owners invest in houses whereas renters invest in some other set of assets. The usual equilibrium assumption, found in Hendershott and Slemrod (1983) and Poterba (1984), is that both portfolio positions should deliver the same risk adjusted return in expectation.
Therefore, renters and owners in this example are equivalently wealthy and have comparable expected incomes. In other words, the only way a marginal household could expect to retain more income net of housing costs by being a renter rather than an owner is either by consuming a lower level of housing quantity or quality as a renter or by taking more risk. If owning and renting costs were not equal, after adjusting for differences in risk, households would change tenure mode until the relative costs of owning and renting became equal. For example, if everyone perceived
renting to be cheaper than owning, then homeowners would sell their houses and become renters until rents rose and house prices fell enough to make the difference in cost disappear. Of course, this equivalence in rental and ownership costs holds only for some marginal homebuyers, leaving perhaps many households strictly favoring one tenure mode or the other. Ownership and rental clienteles can be driven by differences in tax treatment, fixed home buying costs combined with the expected length of stay in the residence, underlying desire for homeownership, or other possibilities.
Differences in how renters and owners pay for their housing each lead to different sources of volatility. Renters, for example, do not know in advance how much their housing is going to cost them. It is up to the market. If rents in their cities rise faster than they expected, their total costs will be higher than anticipated. If rent growth unexpectedly stalls out, their total costs will be lower. In either case, the total lifetime cost of obtaining a home is uncertain.