The Housing Market Since the Great Recession

photo by Robert J Heath

CoreLogic has posted a special report on Evaluating the Housing Market Since the Great Recession. It opens,

From December 2007 to June 2009, the U.S. economy lost over 8.7 million jobs. In the months after the recession began, the unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent, reaching double digits for the first time since September 1982, and American households lost over $16 trillion in net worth.

After a number of economic stimulus measures, the economy began to grow in 2010. GDP grew 19 percent from 2010 to 2017; the economy added jobs for 88 consecutive months – the longest period on record – and as of December 2017, unemployment was down to 4 percent.

The economy has widely recovered and so, too, has the housing market. After falling 33 percent during the recession, housing prices have returned to peak levels, growing 51 percent since hitting the bottom of the market. The average house price is now 1 percent higher than it was at the peak in 2006, and the average annual equity gain was $14,888 in the third quarter of 2017.

However, in some states – including Illinois, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida – housing prices have failed to reach pre-recession levels, and today nearly 2.5 million residential properties with a mortgage are still in negative equity. (4, footnotes omitted)

By the end of 2017, ” the most populated metro areas in the U.S. remained at an almost even split between markets that are undervalued, overvalued and at value, indicating that while housing markets have recovered, many homes have surpassed the at-value [supported by local market fundamentals] price.” (10) This even split between undervalued and overvalued metro areas is hiding all sorts of ups and downs in what looks like a stable national average.  You can get a sense of this by comparing the current situation to what existing at the beginning of 2000, when 87% of metro areas were at-value.

And what does this all mean for housing finance reform? I think it means that we should not get complacent about the state of our housing markets just because the national average looks okay. Congress should continue working on a bipartisan fix for a broken system.


Two Cheers for Obama’s Housing Development Toolkit

photo by Daniel Schwen

As the Obama Administration nears the end, the White House released a Housing Development Toolkit. It opens,

Over the past three decades, local barriers to housing development have intensified, particularly in the high-growth metropolitan areas increasingly fueling the national economy. The accumulation of such barriers – including zoning, other land use regulations, and lengthy development approval processes – has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand. The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions. By modernizing their approaches to housing development regulation, states and localities can restrain unchecked housing cost growth, protect homeowners, and strengthen their economies.

Locally-constructed barriers to new housing development include beneficial environmental protections, but also laws plainly designed to exclude multifamily or affordable housing. Local policies acting as barriers to housing supply include land use restrictions that make developable land much more costly than it is inherently, zoning restrictions, off-street parking requirements, arbitrary or antiquated preservation regulations, residential conversion restrictions, and unnecessarily slow permitting processes. The accumulation of these barriers has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand.

Accumulated barriers to housing development can result in significant costs to households, local economies, and the environment. (2, emphasis in original)

Glaeser & Gyourko identified the tension between local land use policies and federal affordable housing policies a long time ago, but the federal government has never really done much about it. To its credit, the Obama Administration had touched on it recently, but never in this much depth. So one cheer for the toolkit’s focus on local land use policy as an issue of national concern.

And a second cheer for highlighting actions that states and local governments can take to promote more dynamic housing markets. They include,

  • Establishing by-right development
  • Taxing vacant land or donate it to non-profit developers
  • Streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines
  • Eliminate off-street parking requirements
  • Allowing accessory dwelling units
  • Establishing density bonuses
  • Enacting high-density and multifamily zoning
  • Employing inclusionary zoning
  • Establishing development tax or value capture incentives
  • Using property tax abatements (3)

I withhold the last cheer because the toolkit spends no time discussing how the federal government could use its immense set of incentives to encourage state and local governments to take steps to increase the housing supply in high-growth areas. The federal government used such incentives to raise the drinking age and it did it to lower the speed limit. Isn’t the nation’s affordable housing crisis important enough that we should use incentives (such as preferred access to HUD funds) to spur development that is good for Americans collectively as well as for so many Americans individually?

Walkers in the City

photo by Derrick Coetzee

The Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis at The George Washington School of Business has released Foot Traffic Ahead: Ranking Walkable Urbanism in America’s Largest Metros for 2016. The Executive Summary opens,

The end of sprawl is in sight. The nation’s largest metropolitan areas are focusing on building walkable urban development.

For perhaps the first time in 60 years, walkable urban places (WalkUPs) in all 30 of the largest metros are gaining market share over their drivable sub-urban competition—and showing substantially higher rental premiums.

This research shows that metros with the highest levels of walkable urbanism are also the most educated and wealthy (as measured by GDP per capita)— and, surprisingly, the most socially equitable. (4)

This strikes me as a somewhat over-optimistic take on sprawl, but I certainly welcome the increase in walkable urban places over a broad swath of metropolitan areas. The report’s specific findings are that

There are 619 regionally significant, walkable urban places—referred to as WalkUPs—in the 30 largest U.S. metropolitan areas. These 30 metros represent 46 percent of the national population (145 million of the 314 million national population) and 54 percent of the national GDP.

The 30 metros are ranked on the current percentage of occupied walkable urban office, retail, and multi-family rental square feet in their WalkUPs, compared to the balance of occupied square footage in the metro area. The six metros with the most walkable urban space in WalkUPs are, in rank order, New York City, Washington, DC, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Economic Performance: There are substantial and growing rental rate premiums for walkable urban office (90 percent), retail (71 percent), and rental multi-family (66 percent) over drivable sub-urban products. Combined, these three product types have a 74 percent rental premium over drivable sub-urban.

Walkable urban market share growth in office and multi-family rental has increased in all 30 of the largest metros between 2010-2015, while drivable sub-urban locations have lost market share. The market share growth for 27 of the 30 metros is two times their market share in 2010. This is of the same or greater magnitude as the market share gains of drivable sub-urban development during its boom years in the 1980s, but in the reverse direction.

Indicators of potential future WalkUP performance show that many of the metros ranked highest for current walkable urbanism are also found at the top of our Development Momentum Ranking—namely, the metros of New York City, Boston, Seattle, and Washington, DC. This indicates that these metros will continue to build on their already high WalkUP market shares and rent premiums.

There are also some surprising metros in this top tier of Development Momentum rankings, including Detroit, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

The most walkable urban metro areas have a substantially greater educated workforce, as measured by college graduates over 25 years of age, and substantially higher GDP per capita. These relationships are correlations, and determining the causal relationships requires further research to prove.

Walkable urban development describes trends resulting from both revitalization of the central city and urbanization of the suburbs. For nearly all metros, the future urbanization of the suburbs holds the greatest opportunity; metro Washington, DC, serves as a model, splitting its WalkUPs relatively evenly between its central city (53 percent) and its suburbs (47 percent).

Social Equity Performance: The national concern about social equity has been exacerbated by the very rent premiums highlighted above, referred to as gentrification. Counter-intuitively, measurement of moderate-income household (80 percent of AMI) spending on housing and transportation, as well as access to employment, shows that the most walkable urban metros are also the most socially equitable. The reason for this is that low cost transportation costs and better access to employment offset the higher costs of housing. This finding underscores for the need for continued, and aggressive, development of attainable housing solutions. (4, footnote omitted)

There is a lot of import here. Is there more than a correlation between walkability and the educational level of the workforce and, if so, why? Why don’t more housing affordability studies take into account transportation costs when evaluating the affordability of a given community? What is the trend line of this new direction toward urbanism and how far can it go in the face of decades of investment in car-based communities? This annual study will help us answer those questions, over time.

Mortgaging the Future

The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s most recent Economic Letter is titled Mortgaging the Future? In it, Òscar Jordà, Moritz Schularick, and Alan M. Taylor evaluate the “Great Mortgaging” of the American economy:

In the six decades following World War II, bank lending measured as a ratio to GDP has quadrupled in advanced economies. To a great extent, this unprecedented expansion of credit was driven by a dramatic growth in mortgage loans. Lending backed by real estate has allowed households to leverage up and has changed the traditional business of banking in fundamental ways. This “Great Mortgaging” has had a profound influence on the dynamics of business cycles. (1)

I was particularly interested by the Letter’s Figure 2, which charted the ratio of mortgage debt to value of the U.S. housing stock over the last hundred years or so. The authors write,

The rise of mortgage lending exceeds what would be expected considering the increase in real estate values over the same time. Rather, it appears to also reflect an increase in household leverage. Although we cannot measure historical loan-to-value ratios directly, household mortgage debt appears to have risen faster than total real estate asset values in many countries including the United States. The resulting record-high leverage ratios can damage household balance sheets and therefore endanger the overall financial system. Figure 2 displays the ratio of household mortgage lending to the value of the total U.S. housing stock over the past 100 years. As the figure shows, that ratio has nearly quadrupled from about 0.15 in 1910 to about 0.5 today. (2)

An increase in leverage for households is not necessarily a bad thing. it allows households to make investments and to smooth their consumption over longer periods. But it can, of course, get to be too high. High leverage makes households less able to handle shocks such as unemployment, divorce and death. it would be helpful for economists to better model a socially optimal level of household leverage in order to guide regulators. The CFPB has taken a stab at this with its relatively new Ability-to-Repay regulation but we do not yet know if they got it right.