State of the Nation’s Housing 2017

photo by woodleywonderworks

Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies has released its excellent State of the Nation’s Housing for 2017, with many important insights. The executive summary reads, in part,

A decade after the onset of the Great Recession, the national housing market is finally returning to normal. With incomes rising and household growth strengthening, the housing sector is poised to become an important engine of economic growth. But not all households and not all markets are thriving, and affordability pressures remain near record levels. Addressing the scale and complexity of need requires a renewed national commitment to expand the range of housing options available for an increasingly diverse society.

National Home Prices Regain Previous Peak

US house prices rose 5.6 percent in 2016, finally surpassing the high reached nearly a decade earlier. Achieving this milestone reduced the number of homeowners underwater on their mortgages to 3.2 million by year’s end, a remarkable drop from the 12.1 million peak in 2011. In inflation-adjusted terms, however, national home prices remained nearly 15 percent below their previous high. As a result, the typical homeowner has yet to fully regain the housing wealth lost during the downturn.

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Pickup In Household Growth

The sluggish rebound in construction also reflects the striking slowdown in household growth after the housing bust. Depending on the government survey, household formations averaged just 540,000 to 720,000 annually in 2007–2012 before reviving to 960,000 to 1.2 million in 2013–2015.

Much of the falloff in household growth can be explained by low household formation rates among the millennial generation (born between 1985 and 2004). Indeed, the share of adults aged 18–34 still living with parents or grandparents was at an all-time high of 35.6 percent in 2015. But through the simple fact of aging, the oldest members of this generation have now reached their early 30s, when most adults live independently. As a result, members of the millennial generation formed 7.6 million new households between 2010 and 2015.

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Homeownership Declines Moderating, While Rental Demand Still Strong

After 12 years of decline, there are signs that the national homeownership rate may be nearing bottom. As of the first quarter of 2017, the homeownership rate stood at 63.6 percent—little changed from the first quarter two years earlier. In addition, the number of homeowner households grew by 280,000 in 2016, the strongest showing since 2006. Early indications in 2017 suggest that the upturn is continuing. Still, growth in renters continued to outpace that in owners, with their numbers up by 600,000 last year.

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Affordability Pressures Remain Widespread

Based on the 30-percent-of-income affordability standard, the number of cost-burdened households fell from 39.8 million in 2014 to 38.9 million in 2015. As a result, the share of households with cost burdens fell 1.0 percentage point, to 32.9 percent. This was the fifth straight year of declines, led by a considerable drop in the owner share from 30.4 percent in 2010 to 23.9 percent in 2015. The renter share, however, only edged down from 50.2 percent to 48.3 percent over this period.

With such large shares of households exceeding the traditional affordability standard, policymakers have increasingly focused their attention on the severely burdened (paying more than 50 percent of their incomes for housing). Although the total number of households with severe burdens also fell somewhat from 19.3 million in 2014 to 18.8 million in 2015, the improvement was again on the owner side. Indeed, 11.1 million renter households were severely cost burdened in 2015, a 3.7 million increase from 2001. By comparison, 7.6 million owners were severely burdened in 2015, up 1.1 million from 2001.

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Segregation By Income on The Rise

A growing body of social science research has documented the long-term damage to the health and well-being of individuals living in high-poverty neighborhoods. Recent increases in segregation by income in the United States are therefore highly troubling. Between 2000 and 2015, the share of the poor population living in high-poverty neighborhoods rose from 43 percent to 54 percent. Meanwhile, the number of high-poverty neighborhoods rose from 13,400 to more than 21,300. Although most high-poverty neighborhoods are still concentrated in high-density urban cores, their recent growth has been fastest in low-density areas at the metropolitan fringe and in rural communities.

At the same time, the growing demand for urban living has led to an influx of high-income households into city neighborhoods. While this revival of urban areas creates the opportunity for more economically and racially diverse communities, it also drives up housing costs for low-income and minority residents. (1-6, references omitted)

One comment, a repetition from my past discussions of Joint Center reports. The State of the Nation’s Housing acknowledges sources of funding for the report but does not directly identify the members of its Policy Advisory Board, which provides “principal funding” for it, along with the Ford Foundation. (front matter) The Board includes companies such as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Zillow which are directly discussed in the report. In the spirit of transparency, the Joint Center should identify all of its funders in the State of the Nation’s Housing report itself. Other academic centers and think tanks would undoubtedly do this. The Joint Center for Housing Studies should follow suit.


Comparing Rental Housing Across the Atlantic

photo by Tiago Fioreze

The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies has released a working paper, Rental Housing: An International Comparison. The abstract reads,

This report compares rental housing in 12 countries in Europe and North America, using individual records from household surveys. Differences in housing characteristics, conditions, and costs across countries reflect a number of factors, including demographics, geography, culture, and government policies. A lack of comparable data can make international comparisons difficult to execute, but such analysis is valuable for understanding and contextualizing differences in affordability and other characteristics of renter households and housing.

The analysis revealed the US, along with Spain, as notably unaffordable for renter households, based on a number of measures. The greater apparent cost burdens reflected a variety of factors, including differences in characteristics of the housing stock and differences in tax burdens, as well as measurement problems.

However, two major influences – differences in the size and availability of housing allowances and the degree of income inequality – emerged as the main drivers of differences in housing affordability. The effects of supply-side factors such as the extent of social housing supply, supply subsidies, and rent controls were unclear, due to problems with the identification and description of below-market rentals in the household survey data. (1)

The housing stock and political context is so different among countries, but this type of analysis is still very useful and can offer valuable lessons to the United States:

One factor that appears to contribute to the pervasive affordability problems in the US is the degree of income inequality. That is not a feature of the housing market per se, but there may be opportunities to address the consequences of income inequality through appropriate housing policies.

Other countries have devoted more resources to ameliorating the problems of unaffordable housing. The US provides fairly generous housing benefits to only a small share of needy households. In the UK, a broadly available system of housing allowances offsets what would otherwise be a much more severe affordability problem than exists in the US. In other countries, affordable rental housing supplied by governments or nonprofits helps to address affordability issues, although the efficiency of that practice, relative to the provision of housing allowances, has been questioned, as it has been in the US. The EU-SILC data used in this analysis did not adequately identify or describe below-market-rate housing, making it impossible to adequately assess the effects of such housing.

The somewhat larger size and perhaps higher quality of units in the US rental stock also affects relative affordability, although relative quality and its effect on cost differences are difficult to assess using the available data. The large share of single-family detached rentals in the US reflects preferences, the demographic mix among renters, land availability, etc., but it could also reflect zoning and other regulations limiting the supply of less expensive multifamily rentals. It is hard to imagine that regulations are more stringent in the US than in some of the more dirigiste nations of Europe, but regulations elsewhere may dictate, rather than constrain, density and cost reductions. The size and quality of the housing occupied by low-income renters in the US reflect the fact that most of those units were originally built for owner occupancy or for higher-income renters. That’s probably true in other countries as well. Whether the extent of such filtering is greater or less in various countries is perhaps worth exploring in the future. (37-38)

Income inequality, housing subsidies and land use reform — the report hits on a trifecta of key issues that housing policy should be dealing with. While I do not see much of an appetite for major reform of the first two items in today’s political climate, there might be support for some loosening of land use restrictions on housing construction. I wonder if there is some room for movement on that third front. Can local jurisdictions be incentivized by the federal government to build more housing?

The Rental Crisis and Household Formation


The Mortgage Bankers Association has posted a Special Report: Diverted Homeowners, the Rental Crisis and Foregone Household Formation. The report’s bottom line is that people who should have been homeowners have displaced people who should have been renters. Those displaced people have been left in their original households, typically those headed by their parents.

The Report’s Executive Summary states that among the long term impacts of the Great Recession

have been the emergence of a rental housing shortage and an intensified affordability crisis in the rental market. In this report, we analyze various supply and demand factors that have led to this crisis.

In so doing, we provide detailed analysis of the shifts in homeowner and rental demand. As we note, these shifts cannot be analyzed without understanding the shifts in household formation that have occurred. We utilize data from the U.S. Census and focus the analysis on 3 distinct time periods (2000, 2006, 2012) to highlight housing epochs that are relatively normal, at the peak, and near the bottom of the market. Special attention is also placed on those younger than age 45 because they represent the households most commonly making first time decisions to form a household and to own a house.

Our primary findings:

• A sharp downturn in homeowner growth since 2006 suggests that 6.0 million would-be homeowners (the expected number compared to actual) have been shifted to renting or have left the housing market.

• These diverted homeowners triggered a cascade of adjustments throughout the rental housing sector that are measurable in different ways.

• A sizable portion (roughly a third) of the diverted homeowners likely have been absorbed into single-family rentals, especially among households aged 25 to 54.

• Although larger than expected, growth in the rental sector was too small to account for both the expected rental growth and also the large number of diverted homeowners. Before disruptions to the owner-occupied market, the rental sector had been expected to grow by 4.4 million occupied units after 2006, due to the arrival of the large Millennial generation. While diverted homeowners resulted in demand for nearly 6 million additional rental units, rental housing only grew by 5.2 million.

• New construction was crippled during the financial crisis and aftermath, slowing its response to the swelling rental demand, although multifamily construction volume nearly doubled in 2012 compared to 2010, and increased another third in 2014 compared to 2012.

• The clear inference is that slightly more than 5 million otherwise-expected renters left or never entered the housing market, their growth displaced by the diverted homeowners, and diminishing overall household growth far below expectations. (1)

• A further consequence of the resulting increase in demand and shortfall in supply in the rental market was an increase in rents, with rental affordability problems surging to record heights in 2010 and 2012. This dynamic created an increased incidence of high rental cost burdens that was remarkable for its relative uniformity across the nation.

There has been a fair amount written recently about household formation (here and here, for instance), but this Report is notable for its description of the cascading effect that the financial crisis has had on today’s housing market. We are around the fifty-year low for the homeownership rate.  If that rate has hit bottom, perhaps the trends identified in the MBA report are about to reverse course.

Equitable Transit-Oriented Development

Forest Hills RR Station

Enterprise Community Partners has issued a white paper, Promoting Opportunity Through Equitable Transit-Oriented Development (eTOD): Making the Case. The Executive Summary opens,

Investments in transportation infrastructure can catalyze regional growth and improve mobility. Given limited public funds, public officials and transportation planners have increasingly recognized the benefit of coordinating transportation investments with land use, housing and economic development investments and policies. In particular, there has been a specific emphasis on facilitating transit-oriented development (TOD) – a growth model characterized by compact development, a mix of land uses, and multi-modal transportation connectivity. When properly planned, such development can support transit ridership and revenues, boost property values and enhance economic competitiveness.

While TOD can take many forms, for a variety of reasons there has been increased demand for transit-oriented neighborhoods with a critical mass of population, neighborhood-serving retail establishments, employment opportunities and/or economic activity. Some prefer these transit-oriented, amenity-rich neighborhoods based on lifestyle preferences. However, for others – particularly people with lower incomes or for whom driving is difficult or impossible – the accessibility that TOD offers is crucial to reaching jobs and life’s other necessities in an efficient and economical manner.

Unfortunately, a number of factors – most notably the prevalence of zoning codes that separate residential from commercial and retail uses – have limited the number of compact, mixed-use, multi-modal neighborhoods. To the extent that demand for housing in such neighborhoods – as a result of either choice and/or necessity – remains strong, scarcity of housing in these neighborhoods can increase property values. Significant price increases can lead to additional cost burdens, potential displacement and/or barriers to entry for low- and moderateincome households. If these households are displaced it can also reduce likely riders’ access to transit and limit employees’ and customers’ access to businesses.

One solution to these challenges is equitable TOD (eTOD), which is well-planned and implemented development near transit that accounts for the needs of low and moderate-income people, largely through the preservation and creation of affordable housing. eTOD can expand mobility options, lower commuting expenses and enhance access to employment, child care, schools, stores and critical services. This development model also conveys ancillary benefits to the broader community, the economy, the environment and the transportation system. (5-6)

This is all to the good, but the report does not struggle with a fundamental problem: local governments do not want to build housing for low- and moderate-income households because they tend to be a net drain on municipal budgets a opposed to the typical household living in a single-family home. Even local politicians who are sympathetic to eTOD will face many roadblocks from their constituents if they try to make it happen. Enterprise promises a second report that will address barriers to eTOD. Hopefully, it will address this issue head on.