Housing Policy Matters: A Global Analysis

By Shlomo Angel | Go to book overview

9
Housing Subsidies

For many of the key actors in the housing sector, the issue of housing subsidies -- and by extension of housing-related taxes 1 -- is considered the central issue of housing policy. It has been unfortunate that discussions of subsidies have dominated so many housing policy debates, with the result that the effects of other aspects of the policy environment -- from property rights to the regulatory regime -- on the performance of the housing sector as a whole, and especially on housing the poor, have been neglected. This is not to suggest, however, that housing subsidies and taxes are not essential parts of housing policy. They are essential and they should continue to be, in the face of the present onslaught on most housing subsidies as fiscally irresponsible, risky, distorting, regressive, humiliating, or failing to achieve their designated goals. In our definition of enabling housing policies -- that is, setting boundaries and providing support, while relinquishing control -- subsidies are, in essence, one of the fundamental supports needed to make the housing sector work efficiently and equitably and to overcome market and policy failures.

All housing subsidies are inherently political. They come into being when broad political coalitions press for them, and they are kept alive when new coalitions can sustain them. When support is no longer forthcoming, they are sometimes withdrawn, rarely without a struggle, and sometimes they are kept on the books with a force of inertia that is impossible to resist. The quintessential example is rent control. Introduced (among many long-abandoned price controls) in the war economies of World War I, it is still with us nearly a century later.

The presence or absence of housing subsidies cannot be understood outside the broader framework of overall fiscal policy. These subsidies are just a part of a wide range of subsidies and taxes that together form the budgets of federal, regional, and municipal governments. Earlier in the twentieth century they were often driven by utopian dreams of planned societies; by the need to rebuild cities ravaged by war; by the surpluses generated by continuous economic prosperity; by government spending to reverse economic decline; or by the conviction that the allocation of resources by government is inherently more desirable than

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