Rental Housing Landscape

A Row of Tenements, by Robert Spencer (1915)

NYU’s Furman Center released its 2017 National Rental Housing Landscape. My two takeaways are that, compared to the years before the financial crisis, (1) many tenants remain rent burdened and (2) higher income households are renting more. These takeaways have a lot of consequences for housing policymakers. We should keep these developments in mind as we debate tax reform proposals regarding the mortgage interest deduction and the deduction of property taxes. When it comes to housing, who should the tax code be helping more — homeowners or renters?

The Executive Summary of the report reads,

This study examines rental housing trends from 2006 to 2015 in the 53 metropolitan areas of the U.S. that had populations of over one million in 2015 (“metros”), with a particular focus on the economic recovery period beginning in 2012.

Median rents grew faster than inflation in virtually every metro between 2012 and 2015, especially in already high rent metros.

Despite rising rents, the share of renters spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent (defined as rent burdened households) fell slightly between 2012 and 2015, as did the share spending more than 50 percent (defined as severely rent burdened households). Still, these shares were higher in 2015 than in 2006, and far higher than in earlier decades.

The number and share of renters has increased considerably since 2006 and continued to rise in virtually every metro from 2012 to 2015. Within that period, the increase in renter share was relatively larger for high socioeconomic status households. That said, the typical renter household still has lower income and less educational attainment than the typical non-renter household.

Following years of decline during the Great Recession, the real median income of renters grew between 2012 and 2015, but this was primarily driven by the larger numbers of higher income households that are renting and the increasing incomes of renter households with at least one member holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. The real median income of renter households with members with just a high school degree or some college grew more modestly and remained below 2006 levels in 2015.

Thus, the recent decline in the share of rent burdened households should be cautiously interpreted. The income of the typical renter household increased as the economy recovered, but part of this increase came from a change in the composition of the renter population as more high socioeconomic status households chose to rent their homes.

For almost every metro, the median rent in 2015 for units that had been on the market within the previous year was higher than that for other units, suggesting that renters would likely face a rent hike if they moved. The share of recently available rental units that were affordable to households earning their metro’s median income fell between 2012 and 2015. And in 2015, only a small share of recently available rental units were affordable to households earning half of their metro’s median income. (3, footnote omitted)

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.

*     *     *

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.

*     *     *

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.

*     *     *

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.

*     *     *

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.


Minority Homeownership During the Great Recession

photo by Daniel X. O'Neil

Print by Andy Kane

Carlos Garriga et al. have posted The Homeownership Experience of Minorities During the Great Recession to SSRN. The paper concludes,

The Great Recession wiped out much of the homeownership gains attained during the housing boom. However, the homeownership experience was very different across racial and ethnic groups. Black and Hispanic borrowers experienced substantial repayment difficulties that ultimately led to a greater share of homes in foreclosure.

Given that home equity often represents a substantial share of household wealth, these foreclosure events severely damaged the balance sheets of minority families. The dynamics of delinquency and foreclosure functioned differently across the income distribution within racial and ethnic groups.

For the majority, higher income was associated with lower delinquency rates and fewer foreclosures as a group. However, for Hispanic families this relationship was surprisingly reversed. Hispanics with the highest incomes fared worse than those with the lowest incomes. This counterintuitive finding suggests how college-educated Hispanic families may have had worse wealth outcomes than their non-college-educated peers: Hispanic families with high income (potentially the result of high educational attainment) had a greater share of home equity lost in foreclosure than lower-income Hispanic families.

Logit regressions suggest that underwriting standards and loan structure explain a significant amount of the greater likelihood of foreclosure among Black and Hispanic borrowers. However, underwriting standards explained more of the gap for Black borrowers, while loan structure was a stronger factor among Hispanic borrowers. Regional concentration and variation in housing markets explained more of the Hispanic-White foreclosure gap than any other group. This is understandable given that Hispanic borrowers in our sample were heavily concentrated in housing markets that experienced some of the largest volatility. Despite accounting for these important factors, sizable gaps remain in foreclosures among Blacks and Hispanics relative to Whites. Incorporating measures of labor market outcomes into the analysis may offer further insights.

In sum, the homeownership experience during the Great Recession proved to be inimical for many families, but far more so for Black and Hispanic families. For these families, financially destructive foreclosure events delayed and potentially derailed the dream of homeownership. (164-65)

I am not sure what this all means for housing finance policy other than the obvious: consumer protection in the mortgage market is a good thing as it ensures that underwriting standards evaluate ability-to-repay and loan structures exclude abusive terms like teaser rates (thanks to the ATR and QM rules and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). There are probably other policies that we should consider to reduce the depths of our busts, but they do not seem likely to gain traction in the current political environment.

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?

Preserving Workforce Housing

"Affordable housing" by BrightFarm Systems

The Urban Land Institute has issued Preserving Multifamily Workforce and Affordable Housing: New Approaches for Investing in a Vital National Asset. Stockton Williams, the Executive Director of the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing, opens the report with a Letter from the Author,

Real estate investors seeking competitive returns increasingly view lower- and middle-income apartments as an attractive target for repositioning to serve higher-income households. In response, creative approaches are emerging for preserving the affordability of this critical asset class for its current residents and those of similar means—while still delivering financial returns to investors.

This report from the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing provides a broad-based overview of this rapidly evolving landscape. It profiles 16 leading efforts to preserve multifamily workforce and affordable housing, including below-market debt funds, private equity vehicles, and real estate investment trusts.

Collectively, the entities leading these efforts have raised or plan to raise more than $3 billion and have acquired, rehabilitated, and developed nearly 60,000 housing units for lower- and middle-income renters, with thousands of additional units in the pipeline. Several are actively raising more capital to expand their activities. They are meeting a pressing social need while delivering cash-on-cash returns to equity investors ranging from 6 to 12 percent.

The report is written with the following primary audiences in mind:

■ Developers and owners looking for new sources of capital to acquire, rehabilitate, and develop multifamily workforce and affordable properties;

■ Local officials and community leaders seeking options for attracting or creating new sources of financing to meet their rising rental housing needs for lower- and middle-income families; and

■ Real estate investors and lenders interested in more fully understanding their range of options for a product type that offers financial as well as social returns.

As the country continues to grapple with the worst housing crisis for lower- and middle-income renters it has ever known, the private sector and community-based institutions must play an ever-greater role in ensuring that existing affordable properties remain available to the many who need them, while doing what they can to produce new units where possible. The financing vehicles profiled here show what is possible and suggest opportunities for further progress. (iv)

I found Part II particularly useful, with its overview of financing vehicles. Many readers of this blog will benefit from a description of below-market debt funds, private equity vehicles and real estate investment trusts, particularly as they are illustrated with real world examples like the Bay Area Transit-Oriented Affordable Housing Fund, Avanath Capital Management and the Community Development Trust.

Primer on NYC Affordability Crisis

"2014 July NYC's 432 Park Avenue" by The Hornet

Enterprise has released a report, 2015 New York City Housing Security Profile and Affordability Housing Gap Analysis. Its conclusions are not shocking, but they are sobering:

  • Of 2 million renter households in New York City, nearly 640,000 are low-income and severely cost-burdened.
  • There is not a single neighborhood in NYC that provides enough affordable housing to match the number of very low-income households in that community.
  • Both the regulated and unregulated rental housing markets of NYC are not meeting the affordable housing needs of low-income renters.
  • Even though the market added rent stabilized units between 2011 and 2014, the stock affordable to lower income families declined.
  • Competition exacerbates the gap between the number affordable units and the number of low-income renters, forcing many to pay beyond their means. (33)

As with many such studies, it offers a cogent analysis of the problem but offers very little by way of possible solutions. It hints at one such solution when it notes that

By any measure, the demand for affordable housing in New York City outstrips supply – even on the rent regulated market. Low-income households are squeezed even further by competition from higher income households for the cheapest units. The acute shortage forces the majority of lower income households in housing that costs beyond their means. (27)

Increasing the supply of housing will, if everything else is equal, reduce the cost of housing. The de Blasio Administration is certainly on board with an approach to increase density in NYC but many other elected officials are not — or at least resist it when it comes to their own backyards.  While more housing is not a sufficient solution to the affordability problem in NYC, it is certainly a necessary component of a solution.

The report also does not deal with the big elephant in the affordable housing policy room — the social demographics of NYC are undergoing a secular shift as the city gets hotter and hotter for global elites. It is unclear how much government can affect that trend, particularly at the local level.

Inclusionary Housing and Equitable Communities


The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has released a policy focus report, Inclusionary Housing: Creating and Maintaining Equitable Communities. The Executive Summary opens,

After decades of disinvestment, American cities are rebounding, but new development is often driving housing costs higher and displacing lower-income residents. For cities struggling to maintain economic integration, inclusionary housing is one of the most promising strategies available to ensure that the benefits of development are shared widely. More than 500 communities have developed inclusionary housing policies, which require developers of new market-rate real estate to provide affordable units as well. Economically diverse communities not only benefit low-income households; they enhance the lives of neighbors in market-rate housing as well. To realize the full benefit of this approach, however, policies must be designed with care. (3)

The report uses the term inclusionary zoning to refer to

a range of local policies that tap the economic gains from rising real estate values to create affordable housing—tying the creation of homes for low- or moderate-income households to the construction of market-rate residential or commercial development. In its simplest form, an inclusionary housing program might require developers to sell or rent 10 to 30 percent of new residential units to lower-income residents. Inclusionary housing policies are sometimes referred to as “inclusionary zoning” because this type of requirement might be implemented through an area’s zoning code; however, many programs impose similar requirements outside the zoning code. (7)

The report notes that

Policy makers are understandably concerned that affordable housing requirements will stand in the way of development. But a review of the literature on the economics of inclusionary housing suggests that well-designed programs can generate significant affordable housing resources without overburdening developers or landowners or negatively impacting the pace of development. (4)

The report is obviously addressing two of the most important issues facing us today — the housing affordability challenge that many households face as well as the increasing stratification of communities by income and wealth.

There is a lot of value in the survey of the academic literature on inclusionary housing policies that is provided by this report. At the same time, there is some fuzzy thinking in it too. For instance, the report states that, “As the basic notion of supply and demand suggests, the addition of new units in a given market will inevitably put some downward pressure on the cost of existing units. But the larger effect tends to be upward pressure on housing costs because new homes are primarily built for higher-income residents.” (12)

This analysis ignores the well-accepted concept of filtering in urban economics. Filtering describes the process by which occupants of housing units go from higher-income to lower-income as the unit ages, becomes outdated and is subject to wear and tear. If higher-income households move to the newest housing, then other another household, typically of lower-income, can move into the vacant unit. If the number of households remains constant, then housing prices should decrease as housing development increases.

Because the real world does not look like an economic model, many people think that new housing causes increased housing prices. But the cause of the increased housing prices is often the same thing that is causing new housing construction:  increased demand.

Take NYC for instance. In recent years, it issues permits for 10,000-20,000 or so new units of housing a year, but its population has grown by about 60,000 people a year. Combine this with the fact that new housing construction is both a sign and result of gentrification in a particular neighborhood, it is no wonder people think that housing construction pushes prices higher. While this is an understandable line of thought for the man or woman in the street, it is less so for the Lincoln Institute.

My bottom line: this is worth a read, but read with care.