Housing and Invisible Problems

I’m on the train. It’s a Saturday and I’m with my girlfriend travelling to my parents house on the outskirts of London. Behind me a man talks about the merits of a 4 bedroom vs 2 bedroom apartment and how the former costs less per person. I’m a software engineer. Just over a year and a half into my career. I make 55k. It’s more than everyone in my family put together. I pay ~£1000 for my rent per month which is around 35% of my salary.

As the train moves I can see London passing by outside the window. It’s so large. So many people spend so much on housing. Either directly through the money they pay for rent or indirectly with the time they spend commuting. A one hour commute door to door is 2 hours a day. Two hours a day is 10 per week. 40 per month. A whole additional week working each month without pay or career progress. It’s such a waste.

It’s interesting how some problems are not talked about despite their impact. There are rational reasons to neglect high impact issues. They can be intractable. The result of adversarial political processes where any intervention will require prolonged conflict against strong coalitions; They can be too costly to solve. They can be solvable and tractable in theory but their structure can make coordination or coalition building difficult. If a problem cannot be solved by a single individual or institution and also cannot rally a coalition is becomes intractable. Still, is this really the case for housing? Maybe. Partially. But I think it’s something else.

The housing crisis has a few characteristics

  • There are seemingly no pareto optimal solutions. Even ignoring specific policies and looking at the problem in abstract, any policy which radically reduces housing prices or the rate of price growth harms homeowners.
  • There is no accountability. No single person or institution is responsible for housing. It is the crux of no one’s career. Neither bureaucrats nor politicians are incentivised enough to care about it.
  • It’s an invisible problem. The suffering, the poor pushed out of cities, the families damaged by absent parents who spend their lives on the train. All of these problems are slow and accumalatory. None are immediately visible or have monocausal impacts.

These are partly why there is so little political will devoted to the topic. Still, there’s one more important reason. Ignorance. Few people realize that the housing crisis is a product of our actions. Most see it as inevitable or normal or somehow a natural result of the market. Not as a result of insane overregulation and government failure. When a problem seems to be natural as opposed to man made, people care less.

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