Preparing for the Next Housing Tsunami

Greg Kaplan et al. posted The Housing Boom and Bust: Model Meets Evidence to SSRN. The abstract reads,

We build a model of the U.S. economy with multiple aggregate shocks (income, housing finance conditions, and beliefs about future housing demand) that generate fluctuations in equilibrium house prices. Through a series of counterfactual experiments, we study the housing boom and bust around the Great Recession and obtain three main results. First, we find that the main driver of movements in house prices and rents was a shift in beliefs. Shifts in credit conditions do not move house prices but are important for the dynamics of home ownership, leverage, and foreclosures. The role of housing rental markets and long-term mortgages in alleviating credit constraints is central to these findings. Second, our model suggests that the boom-bust in house prices explains half of the corresponding swings in non-durable expenditures and that the transmission mechanism is a wealth effect through household balance sheets. Third, we find that a large-scale debt forgiveness program would have done little to temper the collapse of house prices and expenditures, but would have dramatically reduced foreclosures and induced a small, but persistent, increase in consumption during the recovery.

I think the last sentence is worth pondering a bit:  “a large-scale debt forgiveness program would have done little to temper the collapse of house prices and expenditures, but would have dramatically reduced foreclosures and induced a small, but persistent, increase in consumption during the recovery.” During the Great Depression, the federal government took steps that relieved the debt burden of over a million households by extending the terms of their mortgages and lowering the interest rates on them.

While this was no panacea, it did let millions stay in their homes during a period of great financial stress. The steps taken to help struggling homeowners during the recent Great Recession were much more timid than those taken during the Great Depression. This paper adds to a body of literature that suggests we should not be so timid the next time we are hit by an economic tsunami.

How Are First-Time Homebuyers Doing?

photo by designmilk

Genworth Mortgage Insurance Corporation released a a First-Time Home Market Report.  The big news from the report is that first-time homebuyers purchased fifteen percent more single-family homes in 2016 than in 2015.  The 2 million homes purchased in 2016 was the most since 2006, before the financial crisis. This is a positive sign for the housing market and for the homeownership rate which has fallen to long-time lows since the financial crisis. The Executive Summary reads,

First-time homebuyers represent an important segment of the housing market, generating significant revenue to real estate agents, homebuilders, and the mortgage finance industry. In this report, we adopt the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) definition of first-time homebuyers as homebuyers who did not own a home in any of the prior three years  . . . Compared to repeat homebuyers, first-time homebuyers play a more pivotal role in influencing housing inventory and home prices because they represent the shift of housing demand from rental to owner occupancy. Despite this well-recognized dynamic, there has been limited data available on the first-time homebuyer market, starting with market size. In this report, we estimate the size of the first-time homebuyer market going back to 1994 using a combination of government and mortgage industry data—20.1 million actual first-time homebuyers were identified. This data provides a historical perspective on the first-time homebuyer market as well as important recent trends. (2)

The report’s key findings include,

1. Between 1994 and 2016, first-time homebuyers purchased on average 1.8 million single-family homes each year, accounting for over one in three of all single-family homes sold, and 45 percent of the purchase mortgages originated.

2. First-time homebuyers have led the housing recovery, contributing over 60 percent of the sales growth in the housing market over the past five years and 85 percent of the growth in the past two years. The resurgence of the first-time homebuyer market has contributed to very tight housing supplies and accelerating home prices, especially at the “low” end of the housing market.

3. During the Housing Crisis, the number of single-family homes sold to first-time homebuyers saw a peak to trough decline of 900,000 units (43 percent) – reaching a trough of just 1.2 million units in 2011. Over the last 10 years, the housing market has seen 3 million fewer first-time homebuyers in aggregate compared to the historical average.

4. The first-time homebuyer market stagnated during the historic housing expansion of the 1990s and early 2000s, leading to a decline in first-time homebuyer mix. Instead, it was repeat homebuyers, including second-home buyers and investors, who led the surge in housing activity.

5. The expansion of government lending programs and the implementation of the first-time homebuyer tax credit provided temporary support to first-time homebuyers. Between 2008 and 2010, first-time homebuyers represented 35 percent of all single-family home sales, which is close to its historical average. However, the percentage of single-family home sales to first-time homebuyers declined once the tax credit expired, and stayed below 30 percent for these three years.

6. First-time homebuyers have always demonstrated a greater need for low down payment mortgage products. Between 1994 and 2016, 73 percent of first-time homebuyers chose such products compared to 30-50 percent for repeat homebuyers. Mortgage products with a lower down payment will likely have a higher first-time homebuyer mix.

7. Private mortgage insurance and FHA (government-backed mortgage insurance) are the two leading products for first-time homebuyers and have together accounted for close to 1 million first-time homebuyers a year since 1994. They have played a key role in reviving the first-time homebuyer market in the current recovery, accounting for approximately 80 percent of its growth in the past two years.

8. First-time homebuyers purchased 2 million single-family homes in 2016, 15 percent more than 2015 – and the most since 2006. During the first quarter of 2017, there were more first-time homebuyers than any other year since 2005. A total of 424,000 single-family homes were sold to first-time homebuyers, up 11 percent from a year ago, and accounting for 38 percent of all single-family home sales. (3)

The Land Use Report of the President


The Economic Report of the President contains an important analysis of local land use policies in a section titled “Constraints on Housing Supply:”

Supply constraints provide a structural challenge in the housing market, particularly in high-mobility, economically vibrant cities. When housing supply is constrained, it has less room to expand when demand increases, leading to higher prices and lower affordability. Limits on new construction can, in turn, impede growth in local labor markets and restrain aggregate output growth. Some constraints on the supply of housing come from geography, while others are man-made. Constraints due to land-use regulations, such as minimum lot size requirements, height restrictions, and ordinances prohibiting multifamily housing, fall into the man-made category and thus could be amended to support more inclusive growth. While these regulations can sometimes serve legitimate purposes such as the protection of human health and safety and the prevention of environmental degradation, land-use regulations can also be used to protect vested interests in housing markets.

Gyourko and Molloy (2015) argue that supply constraints have worsened in recent decades, in large part due to more restrictive land-use regulations. House prices have risen faster than construction costs in real terms, providing indirect evidence that land-use regulations are pushing up the price of land.

According to Gyourko and Molloy (2015), between 2010 and 2013, real house prices were 55 percent above real construction costs, compared with an average gap of 39 percent during the 1990s. Several other studies note that land-use regulations have been increasing since roughly 1970, driving much of the real house appreciation that has occurred over this time (Glaeser, Gyourko, and Saks 2005; Glaeser and Ward 2009; Been et al. 2014). This pattern is noteworthy because of the positive correlation between cities’ housing affordability and the strictness of their land use regulations, as measured by the Wharton Residential Land Use Regulation Index (Gyourko et al. 2008). Cities to the lower right of the figure which include Boston and San Francisco, have stringent land-use regulations and low affordability. Cities at the upper left, which include St. Louis and Cleveland, have low regulation and high affordability. Supply constraints by themselves do not make cities low in affordability. Rather, the less responsive housing supply that results from regulation prevents these cities, which often happen to be desirable migration destinations for workers looking for higher-paying jobs, from accommodating a rise in housing demand.

In addition to housing affordability, these regulations have a range of impacts on the economy, more broadly. Reduced housing affordability—whether as an ancillary result of regulation or by design—prevents individuals from moving to high productivity areas. Indeed, empirical evidence from Molloy, Smith, and Wozniak (2012) indicates that migration across all distances in the United States has been in decline since the middle of the 1980s. This decreased labor market mobility has important implications for intergenerational economic mobility (Chetty et al. 2014) and also was estimated in recent research to have held back current GDP by almost 10 percent (Hsieh and Moretti 2015).

Land-use regulations may also make it more difficult for the housing market to accommodate shifts in preferences due to changing demographics, such as increased demand for modifications of existing structures due to aging and increased demand for multifamily housing due to higher levels of urbanization (Goodman et al. 2015). A number of Administration initiatives, ranging from the Multifamily Risk-Sharing Mortgage program to the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, try to facilitate the ability of housing supply to respond to housing demand. Ensuring that zoning and other constraints do not prevent housing supply from growing in high productivity areas will be an important objective of Federal as well as State and local policymakers. (87-89, figures omitted and emphasis added)

It is important in itself that the Executive Branch of the federal government has acknowledged the outsized role that local land use policies play in the economy. But the policies that the Obama Administration has implemented don’t go very far in addressing the problems caused by myopic land use policies that favor vested interests. The federal government can be far more aggressive in rewarding local land use policies that support equitable housing and economic development goals. It can also punish local land use policies that hinder those goals.

Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko get much of the credit for demonstrating the effect that local land use policies have on federal housing policy. Now that the President is listening to them, we need Congress to pay attention too. This could be one of those rare policy areas where Democrats and  Republicans can find common ground.

Homeowners Heading to Pottersville?


Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life

The Urban Institute has issued a report, Headship and Homeownership: What Does The Future Hold? The report opens,

Homeownership rates averaged around 64 percent until about 1990, when they began to climb dramatically, reaching 67.3 percent in 2006. The housing crisis that began in 2007 and the ensuing recession, from which the US economy is recovering slowly, resulted in a fall in the homeownership rate to 63.6 percent, according to the latest ACS numbers. Such a trajectory has generated important questions about the future of homeownership at all ages. The issues with young adults seem particularly acute. Will young adults want to own houses? Even if they do, will they be able to afford homeownership? The answers to these questions are still unclear, especially because millennials are not just slower to start their own households and purchase homes: they also are more likely to live in their parents’ homes than any generation in recent history. The rapidly changing racial and ethnic composition of the population also has profound implications for household formation and homeownership.

In this report, we dive deeply into the pace of household formation and homeownership attainment—nationally and by age groups and race/ethnicity over the past quarter-century—and project future trends. Considering the great uncertainty about household formation and homeownership, single-point forecasts of homeownership rates and housing demand could seriously mislead policymakers and obscure the potential implications of their decisions. Instead, we offer plausible competing scenarios for household formation and homeownership that generate a range of future national housing demand projections. (1)

I am not in a position to evaluate how well the report projects future trends, but some of its conclusions are worth considering together:

  • the homeownership rate will decline from 65.1 percent in 2010 to 61.3 percent in 2030; (46)
  • the rapid growth of the renter population will create significant demand for new rental housing construction and encourage shifting of owner-occupied dwellings to rentals; (47)
  • very tight credit availability standards will retard homeownership attainment and may exacerbate the growing shortage in rental housing; (48) and
  • the erosion of black homeownership needs to be addressed by more than mortgage policy. (48)

Taken together, these conclusions all point to a backsliding in the housing market: the American Dream disappearing for millions of Americans, particularly African Americans, who will end up living in overcrowded Pottersvilles straight out of It’s A Wonderful Life. Just like George Bailey, we have choices to make before that nightmare becomes a reality. But before we decide anything too hastily, we should consider the fundamental goals of housing policy.

I have argued that a “fundamental goal of housing policy is to assist Americans to live in a safe, well-maintained and affordable housing unit.” I am less convinced than most housing scholars that homeownership, given the state of today’s economy, is such a sure road to stable housing and financial well-being. So, instead of blindly focusing on increasing the homeownership rate, I would focus on increasing opportunities for sustainable homeownership. I believe the report’s authors would agree with this, but I think that housing scholars in general need to focus on policies that keep households in their housing, given how much income instability they now face.

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup