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.

 

Gen Z Eying Real Estate Trends

photo by Thomas Tolkien

The Washington Post along with its content partner National Association of Realtors quoted me in Eye on the Future. It reads, in part,

The suburbs as we know them are in flux. Many of the country’s bedroom communities have traditionally been known for their single-family homes and a lack of walkable public spaces. That’s changing as condos, sprawling townhome complexes and apartment buildings now dot areas where single-family homes would have been built.  Developers are building walkable public spaces to accommodate young families leaving cities but still seeking urban-like amenities.

 Another wave of change is expected in the next five to 10 years. That’s when members of Generation Z-those born on the heels of millennials-will become homeowners. Experts say they’ll transform areas that are sandwiched between major cities and suburbs into districts with an urban feel and amenities, without the hefty price tags major metros demand.

That transformation is already starting to happen. “Many of our ‘suburbs’ are actually neighborhoods in Los Angeles, particularly the San Fernando Valley,” said Kathryn Bishop, a real estate agent with Keller Williams Realty in Studio City, Calif. and member of the National Association of Realtors. “In the Valley, many neighborhoods have become mini ‘cores.’ Sherman Oaks, Encino and Woodland Hills have office towers, good restaurants and night-life business creating their own city areas.”

It’s no surprise that the younger generation needs to find an alternative to the sky-high costs of urban living. The Economic Policy Institute noted in 2016 that folks who live in San Francisco face a cost of living that’s 52.9 percent above the national average. For New Yorkers, living costs were 49.4 percent higher. The country’s least-affordable place to live was Washington D.C., where residents faced costs 63.5 percent higher than the national average.

*     *     *

“Since the financial crisis there has been an increase in multigenerational households, driven in large part by financial limitations and insecurity as well as by marital status and educational attainment,” said David Reiss, professor of law and research director at he Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School.  “Young adults are more likely to live at their parent’s home in recent years than they have been for more than a century.”

Small Multifamilies and The Affordability Illusion

house-window-wooden-old

Fannie Mae’s September Multifamily Market Commentary repeats a common misunderstanding about small multifamily properties that is worth addressing. By way of background, it opens,

Multifamily rental units can be found in high-rise structures or in garden-style buildings, but there are a number of properties that house between just five and 50 housing units. These properties are usually identified as small multifamily and can be found in many different metros across the country. In many places, they can also be a key source of affordable rental units. (1)

While the data is not definitive, there appears to be somewhere between “296,000 and 360,000 small multifamily properties” with between 2.3 million and 4.4 million units of housing among them. (1) These units appear to be concentrated in about ten states that contain three quarters of the stock.  California and NY have the most small multifamilies by a wide margin and the cities with the most come as no surprise:  LA, NYC, SF-Oakland, Chicago and San Diego.

Here’s where I have issues with the analysis:

Fewer Small Multifamily Properties in the Pipeline

According to data from the Dodge Data & Analytics Construction Pipeline, the number of new multifamily projects being started has been declining since peaking in the second quarter of 2015, falling to 678 projects during the first quarter of 2016 . . . . The average number of units rose, however, to about 117 units per project.

Given the high land acquisition and construction costs in most metros, this trend of maximizing square footage in multifamily development, rehabilitation, and renovation should not be surprising. Unfortunately, it does have implications for the small multifamily segment, which in many places tends to offer more affordable rents when compared to newer properties.

An Uncertain Future for Small Multifamily

Over the next decade, the nation’s multifamily stock will likely see an influx of higher unit count properties. As older small multifamily rental properties age and/or fall into disrepair, they will likely be replaced with properties with more density per square foot. Developers will likely create more, but much smaller, units on the same size lot. As a result, these small multifamily properties may end up moving out of the 5-50 unit category and push up into the 50+ unit category, making preservation of the existing stock of small multifamily rental properties offering more affordable rents even more critical.(6)

The logic of this last sentence is faulty, but it is also oft-repeated by sophisticated housing market commentators. Small multifamilies are not cheap because they are small, they are cheap because they are old. Old housing is generally cheaper than new housing. So this notion that we should preserve old housing for its own sake is faulty. Generally, we would want to see an expansion in the supply of housing, so replacing an aging small building with a bigger new one would generally be a positive development. We also would like to see investments in upgrades to the housing stock, either through rehabilitation or replacement. Effectively, this Fannie Mae Commentary is saying that we should preserve very old small multifamilies instead of upgrading those properties. That is short-sighted because while it may keep particular units affordable, it will also tend to raise rents more generally (by restricting supply) and lowering the overall quality of the housing stock (by disincentivizing investment).

The Commentary acknowledges that “it seems that there are a variety of financing sources available in the financing of small multifamily rental properties, indicating there is sufficient and ongoing liquidity for this property type. ” (5) Perhaps it is best to treat small multifamilies just like the bigger ones and let the market determine the highest and best use of each parcel zoned for multifamily construction.

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.