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.


The State of the Union’s Housing in 2016

photo by Lawrence Jackson

The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University has released its excellent annual report, The State of the Nation’s Housing for 2016. It finds,

With household growth finally picking up, housing should help boost the economy. Although homeownership rates are still falling, the bottom may be in sight as the lingering effects of the housing crash continue to dissipate. Meanwhile, rental demand is driving the housing recovery, and tight markets have added to already pressing affordability challenges. Local governments are working to develop new revenue sources to expand the affordable housing supply, but without greater federal assistance, these efforts will fall far short of need. (1)

Its specific findings include,

  • nominal home prices were back within 6 percent of their previous peak in early 2016, although still down nearly 20 percent in real terms. The uptick in nominal prices helped to reduce the number of homeowners underwater on their mortgages from 12.1 million at the end of 2011 to 4.3 million at the end of 2015. Delinquency rates also receded, with the share of loans entering foreclosure down sharply as well. (1)
  • The US homeownership rate has tumbled to its lowest level in nearly a half-century. . . . But a closer look at the forces driving this trend suggests that the weakness in homeownership should moderate over the next few years. (2)
  • The rental market continues to drive the housing recovery, with over 36 percent of US households opting to rent in 2015—the largest share since the late 1960s. Indeed, the number of renters increased by 9 million over the past decade, the largest 10-year gain on record. Rental demand has risen across all age groups, income levels, and household types, with large increases among older renters and families with children. (3)

There is a lot more of value in the report, but I will leave it to readers to locate what is relevant to their own interests in the housing industry.

I would be remiss, though, in not reiterating my criticism of this annual report: it fails to adequately disclose who funded it. The acknowledgments page says that principal funding for it comes from the Center’s Policy Advisory Board, but it does not list the members of the board.

Most such reports have greater transparency about funders, but the interested reader of this report would need to search the Center’s website for information about its funders. And there, the reader would see that the board is made up of many representatives of real estate companies including housing finance giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; national developers, like Hovnanian Enterprises and KB Homes; and major construction suppliers, such as Marvin Windows and Doors and Kohler. Nothing wrong with that, but disclosure of such ties is now to be expected from think tanks and academic centers.  The Joint Center for Housing Studies should follow suit.

The State of the Nation’s Sustainable Housing

Harvard University Widener Library

The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University released its The State of the Nation’s Housing 2015 report. I typically focus on the discussion of the mortgage market in this excellent annual report.  Here are some of the mortgage highlights:

  • mortgage delinquency rates nationwide have fallen by half since the foreclosure crisis peaked. But the remaining loans that are seriously delinquent (90 or more days past due or in foreclosure) are concentrated in relatively few neighborhoods; (6)
  • According to CoreLogic, 10.8 percent of homeowners with mortgages were still underwater on their loans in the fourth quarter of 2014; (8)
  • Despite rising prices, homebuying in most parts of the country remained more affordable in 2014 than at any time in the previous two decades except right after the housing crash. In 110 of the 113 largest metros for which at least 20 years of price data are available, payment-to-income ratios for the median-priced home were still below long-run averages. And in nearly a third of these metros, ratios were 20 percent or more below those averages. (22)

The Joint Center believes that “Looser mortgage lending criteria would help. Given that a substantial majority of US households desire to own homes, the challenge is not whether they have the will to become homeowners but whether they will have the means.” (6) I am not sure what to make of that statement.  It seems to me that the right question is whether looser mortgage lending criteria would result in long-term housing tenure for new homeowners. In other words, looser mortgage lending criteria that result in future defaults and foreclosures are of no benefit to potential homebuyers. Too few commentators tie mortgage availability to mortgage sustainability. The Joint Center should take a lead role in making that connection.

One last 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 and Freddie Mac 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. Mainstream journalists would undoubtedly do this. I see no reason why an academic center should not.

State of the Nation’s Housing Finance

The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University has released the 2014 edition of The State of the Nation’s Housing. As to the nation’s housing finance system, the report finds that

The government still had an outsized footprint in the mortgage market in 2013, purchasing or guaranteeing 80.3 percent of all mortgages originated. The FHA/VA share of first liens, at 19.7 percent, was well above the average 6.1 percent share in 2002–03, let alone the 3.2 percent share at the market peak in 2005–06. Origination shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were also higher than before the mortgage market crisis, but less so than that of FHA. According to the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center, the GSEs purchased or guaranteed 61 percent of originations in 2012 and 2013, up from 49 percent in 2002 and 2003.

Portfolio lending, however, has begun to bounce back, rising 8 percentage points from post-crisis lows and accounting for 19 percent of originations last year. While improving, this share is far from the nearly 30 percent a decade earlier. In contrast, private-label securitizations have been stuck below 1 percent of originations since 2008. Continued healing in the housing market and further clarity in the regulatory environment should set the stage for further increases in private market activity. (11)

As usual, this report is chock full of good information about the single-family and multi-family sectors. I did find that some of its characterizations of the housing market were lacking. For instance, the report states

Many factors have played a role in the sluggish recovery of the home purchase loan market in recent years, including falling household incomes and uncertainty about the direction of the economy and home prices. But the limited availability of mortgage credit for borrowers with less than stellar credit has also contributed. According to information from CoreLogic, home purchase lending to borrowers with credit scores below 620 all but ended after 2009. Since then, access to credit among borrowers with scores in the 620–659 range has become increasingly constrained, with their share of loans falling by 6 percentage points. At the same time, the share of home purchase loans to borrowers with scores above 740 rose by 8 percentage points.

Meanwhile, the government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) have also concentrated both their purchase and refinancing activity on applicants with higher credit scores. At Fannie Mae, only 15 percent of loans acquired in 2013 were to borrowers with credit scores below 700—a dramatic drop from the 35 percent share averaged in 2001–04. Moreover, just 2 percent of originations were to borrowers with credit scores below 620. The percentage of Freddie Mac lending to this group has remained negligible.

Yet another drag on the mortgage market recovery is the high cost of credit. For borrowers who are able to access credit, loan costs have increased steadily. To start, interest rates climbed from 3.35 percent at the end of 2012 to 4.46 percent at the end of 2013. This increase was tempered somewhat by a slight retreat in early 2014. In addition, the GSEs and FHA raised the fees required to insure their loans after the mortgage market meltdown, and many of these charges remain in place or have risen. The average guarantee fee charged by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac jumped from 22 basis points in 2009 to 38 basis points in 2012. In 2008, the GSEs also introduced loan level price adjustments (LLPAs) or additional upfront fees paid by lenders based on loan-to-value (LTV) ratios, credit scores, and other risk factors. LLPAs total up to 3.25 percent of the loan value for riskier borrowers and are paid for through higher interest rates on their loans. (20)

Implicit in this analysis is the view that lending should return in some way to its pre-bust levels. But, in fact, much of the boom lending was unsustainable for many borrowers. The analysis fails to identify the importance of promoting sustainable homeownership and instead relies on one dimensional metrics like credit denials for those with low credit scores. Until we are confident that borrowers with those scores can sustain homeownership in large numbers, we should not be so quick to bemoan credit constraints for people with a history of losing their homes to foreclosure.

The Center’s analysis also takes a simplistic view about guarantee fees.  The relevant metric is not the absolute size of the g-fee. Rather, the issue should be whether the g-fee level achieves its goals. At a minimum, those goals include appropriately measuring the risk of having to make good on the guarantee.

Finally, the Center demonstrates symptoms of historical amnesia when it characterizes an interest rate of 4.46% as “high.” This is an incredibly low rate of interest and one would expect that rates would rise as we exit from the bust years.

I have made the point before that the Center’s work seems to reflect the views of its funders. The funders of this report (not identified in the report by the way) include the National Association of Home Builders; National Association of Realtors; National Housing Conference; National Multifamily Housing Council; and a whole host of lenders, builders and companies in related fields that make up the Center’s Policy Advisory Board. These organizations benefit from a growing housing sector. This report seems to reflect an unthinking pro-growth perspective. It would have benefited from a parallel focus on sustainable homeownership.

State of the Union’s Rental Housing


The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University released its report, America’s Rental Housing: Evolving Markets and Needs. The report notes that

Rental housing has always provided a broad choice of homes for people at all phases of life. The recent economic turmoil underscored the many advantages of renting and raised the barriers to homeownership, sparking a surge in demand that has buoyed rental markets across the country. But significant erosion in renter incomes over the past decade has pushed the number of households paying excessive shares of income for housing to record levels. Assistance efforts have failed to keep pace with this escalating need, undermining the nation’s longstanding goal of ensuring decent and affordable housing for all. (1)

The report provides an excellent overview of the current state of the rental housing stock and households. Of particular interest to readers of this blog is how the report addresses the federal government’s role in the housing finance system. The report notes that

During the downturn, most credit sources dried up as property performance deteriorated and the risk of delinquencies mounted. Much as in the owner-occupied market, though, lending activity continued through government-backed channels, with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) playing an important countercyclical role.

But as the health of the multifamily market improved, private lending revived. According to the Mortgage Bankers Association, banks and thrifts greatly expanded their multifamily lending in 2012, nearly matching the volume for Fannie and Freddie. Given fundamentally sound market conditions, multifamily lending activity should continue to increase. The experience of the last several years, however, clearly testifies to the importance of a government presence in a market that provides homes for millions of Americans, particularly during periods of economic stress. (5)

 The report, to my mind, reflects a complacence about the federal role in housing finance:

Although some have called for winding down Fannie’s and Freddie’s multifamily activities and putting an end to federal backstops beyond FHA, most propose replacing the implicit guarantees of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with explicit guarantees for which the federal government would charge a fee. Proposals for a federal backstop differ, however, in whether they require a cap on the average per unit loan size or include an affordability requirement to ensure that credit is available to multifamily properties with lower rents or subsidies. While the details are clearly significant, what is most important is that reform efforts do not lose sight of the critical federal role in ensuring the availability of multifamily financing to help maintain rental affordability, as well as in supporting the market more broadly during economic downturns. (8)

The report gives very little attention to what the federal housing finance system should look like going forward, other than implying that change should be incremental:

To foster further increases in private participation, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA—the regulator and conservator of the GSEs) has signaled its intent to set a ceiling on the amount of multifamily lending that the GSEs can back in 2013. While the caps are fairly high—$30 billion for Fannie Mae and $26 billion for Freddie Mac—FHFA intends to further reduce GSE lending volumes over the next several years either by lowering these limits or by such actions as restricting loan products, requiring stricter underwriting, or increasing loan pricing. With lending by depository institutions and life insurance companies increasing, the market may well be able to adjust to these restrictions. The bigger question, however, is how the financial reforms now under debate will redefine the government’s role in backstopping the multifamily market. Recent experience clearly demonstrates the importance of federal support for multifamily lending when financial crises drive private lenders out of the market. (27)

I would have preferred to see a positive vision from the Center for how the federal government should go about ensuring liquidity in the market during future crises and how it should support an increase in the affordable housing stock. Perhaps that is asking too much of such a broad report, although the fact that Fannie and Freddie are members of the Center’s Policy Advisory Board which provided funding for the report may have played a role as well. [I might add that I found it odd that the members of the Policy Advisory Board were not listed in the report.]

I do not want to end on a negative note about such a helpful report. I would note that it takes seriously some controversial ideas about increasing the supply of affordable housing.  The report advocates for the reduction of regulatory constraints on affordable rental housing construction. I interpret this as a version of the Glaeser and Gyourko critique of the impact of restrictive local land use regimes on housing affordability. As progressives like NYC’s new Mayor know, restrictive zoning and affordable housing construction are at cross purposes from each other.