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A Century of Housing Shelter Prices: Is There a Downward Bias in the CPI?


  • Robert J. Gordon
  • Todd vanGoethem


Tenant rental shelter is by far the most important component of the CPI, because it is used as a proxy for owner-occupied housing. This paper develops a wide variety of current and historical evidence dating back to 1914 to demonstrate that the CPI rent index is biased downward for all of the last century. The CPI rises roughly 2 percent per year slower than quality-unadjusted indexes of gross rent, setting a challenge for this research of measuring the rate of quality change in rental apartments. If quality increased at a rate of 2 percent per year, the CPI was not biased downward at all, but if quality increased at a slower rate of 1 percent per year, then the CPI was biased downward at a rate of 1 percent. Our analysis of a rich set of data sources goes backward chronologically, starting with a hedonic regression analysis on a large set of panel data from the American Housing Survey (AHS) covering 1975-2003. Prior to 1975, we have large micro data files from the U. S. Census of Housing extending back to 1930. In addition to the hedonic regression data, we stitch together data on the diffusion of important quality attributes of rental units, including plumbing, heating, and electrification, over the period 1918-73. Our final piece of evidence is based on a study of quality-adjusted rents in a single local community, Evanston IL, covering the period 1925-99. Our overall conclusions are surprisingly consistent across sources and eras, that the CPI bias was roughly -1.0 percent prior to the methodological improvements in the CPI that date from the mid-1980s. Our reliance on a wide variety of methodologies and evidence on types of quality change and their importance, while leaving the outcome still uncertain, at least in our view substantially narrows the range of possibilities regarding the history of CPI bias for rental shelter over the twentieth century.

Suggested Citation

  • Robert J. Gordon & Todd vanGoethem, 2005. "A Century of Housing Shelter Prices: Is There a Downward Bias in the CPI?," NBER Working Papers 11776, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:11776
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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Brent R. Moulton & Karin E. Moses, 1997. "Addressing the Quality Change Issue in the Consumer Price Index," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 28(1), pages 305-366.
    2. Todd Sinai & Nicholas S. Souleles, 2005. "Owner-Occupied Housing as a Hedge Against Rent Risk," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 120(2), pages 763-789.
    3. Sheppard, Stephen, 1999. "Hedonic analysis of housing markets," Handbook of Regional and Urban Economics,in: P. C. Cheshire & E. S. Mills (ed.), Handbook of Regional and Urban Economics, edition 1, volume 3, chapter 41, pages 1595-1635 Elsevier.
    4. Bajari, Patrick & Benkard, C. Lanier & Krainer, John, 2005. "House prices and consumer welfare," Journal of Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 58(3), pages 474-487, November.
    5. Antonia Diaz & Maria Jose Luengo Prado, 2008. "On the User Cost and Homeownership," Review of Economic Dynamics, Elsevier for the Society for Economic Dynamics, vol. 11(3), pages 584-613, July.
    6. Randolph, William C, 1988. "Housing Depreciation and Aging Bias in the Consumer Price Index," Journal of Business & Economic Statistics, American Statistical Association, vol. 6(3), pages 359-371, July.
    7. Dougherty, Ann & Van Order, Robert, 1982. "Inflation, Housing Costs, and the Consumer Price Index," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 72(1), pages 154-164, March.
    8. Michael Gort & Jeremy Greenwood & Peter Rupert, 1999. "Measuring the Rate of Technological Progress in Structures," Review of Economic Dynamics, Elsevier for the Society for Economic Dynamics, vol. 2(1), pages 207-230, January.
    9. David Genesove, 2003. "The Nominal Rigidity of Apartment Rents," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 85(4), pages 844-853, November.
    10. Karl E. Case & Robert J. Shiller, 2003. "Is There a Bubble in the Housing Market?," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 34(2), pages 299-362.
    11. Richard Meese & Nancy Wallace, 1991. "Nonparametric Estimation of Dynamic Hedonic Price Models and the Construction of Residential Housing Price Indices," Real Estate Economics, American Real Estate and Urban Economics Association, vol. 19(3), pages 308-332.
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    Cited by:

    1. Shimizu, Chihiro & Nishimura, Kiyohiko G. & Watanabe, Tsutomu, 2010. "Residential rents and price rigidity: Micro structure and macro consequences," Journal of the Japanese and International Economies, Elsevier, vol. 24(2), pages 282-299, June.
    2. Robert J. Gordon, 2006. "The Boskin Commission Report: A Retrospective One Decade Later," International Productivity Monitor, Centre for the Study of Living Standards, vol. 12, pages 7-22, Spring.
    3. Bruce D. Meyer & James X. Sullivan, 2009. "Five Decades of Consumption and Income Poverty," NBER Working Papers 14827, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Shimizu, Chihiro & Imai, Satoshi & Diewert, Erwin, 2016. "Alternative Approaches to Housing Services and Japanese CPI: -Bias from Nominal Rigidity of Rents-," HIT-REFINED Working Paper Series 35, Institute of Economic Research, Hitotsubashi University.
    5. Diewert, W. Erwin & Imai, Satoshi & Shimizu, Chihiro, 2015. "New Estimates for the Price of Housing in the Japanese CPI," Economics working papers erwin_diewert-2015-14, Vancouver School of Economics, revised 17 Jul 2015.
    6. Rondinelli, Concetta & Veronese, Giovanni, 2011. "Housing rent dynamics in Italy," Economic Modelling, Elsevier, vol. 28(1), pages 540-548.
    7. Agnieszka Leszczynska & Aleksandra Halka, 2012. "What does the Consumer Price Index Measure? Bias Estimates for Poland," EcoMod2012 4370, EcoMod.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • C23 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Single Equation Models; Single Variables - - - Models with Panel Data; Spatio-temporal Models
    • E22 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Consumption, Saving, Production, Employment, and Investment - - - Investment; Capital; Intangible Capital; Capacity
    • L74 - Industrial Organization - - Industry Studies: Primary Products and Construction - - - Construction
    • N12 - Economic History - - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics; Industrial Structure; Growth; Fluctuations - - - U.S.; Canada: 1913-
    • N62 - Economic History - - Manufacturing and Construction - - - U.S.; Canada: 1913-

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