Does Historic Preservation Limit Affordable Housing?

By Stefan Kühn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9413214

I answer that it can in CQ Researcher’s Historic Preservation:  Can The Past Escape The Wrecking Ball?

Many people fail to realize that land use policies like historic preservation involve big trade-offs. The most important one is that if you want to protect existing structures from demolition and modification, you can’t replace them with bigger ones that could house more people. Consider:

  • Historic preservation equals height and density restrictions. New building technologies (think steel girders and elevators) allow buildings to be built higher as time goes by. If a city landmarks a large percentage of its inner core, it restricts the ability of that core to go higher. This can lead to sprawl, as a growing population is pushed farther and farther from the city center.
  • Historic preservation favors the wealthy. Limited supply drives up housing prices and apartment rents, benefiting owners. And low-income and younger households are likely to suffer, as they are least able to bear the cost of the increases compared to other households. Future residents — think Midwesterners, Southerners and immigrants seeking to relocate to a city like New York for job opportunities — will also suffer.
  • It isn’t easy for historic preservation to be green. It feels environmentally responsible to protect older, low-density buildings in city centers because you have no dusty demolition, no noisy construction. But it actually comes at a big environmental cost. Denser construction reduces reliance on cars and thereby lowers carbon emissions. People living in a dense city have a much smaller carbon footprint than those in a car-oriented suburb.

Just because preservation comes at a cost does not mean it is bad. Much of our past is worth protecting. Some places benefit from maintaining their identities — think of the European cities that draw the most tourists year in and year out. But it is bad to deploy historic preservation indiscriminately, without evaluating the costs it imposes on current residents and potential future ones.

Cities that want to encourage entrepreneurship and affordable housing should deploy historic preservation and other restrictive land use tools thoughtfully. Otherwise, those cities will be inhabited by comparatively rich folks who complain about the sterility of their current lives and who are nostalgic for “the good old days” when cities were diverse and hotbeds of creativity.

If they fail to understand the trade-offs inherent in historic preservation, they won’t even understand that a part of the problem is the very policy they support to “protect” their vision of their community.

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.

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“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.”

Signs You Are In A Bubble

photo by Jeff Kubina

Trulia.com quoted me in Signs Your Local Real Estate Market Is A Bubble. It reads, in part,

If you were burned in 2008, the last time the housing bubble burst, you’re probably (and understandably!) gun-shy about jumping into the housing market again — especially if you think your local area could be experiencing another bubble. If you buy during a bubble, overpaying for your home, you might be forced to sell for less than the property is worth — either that or stay put longer than you’d like until you build up enough equity to sell. So if you’re thinking of buying, it’s important to have a sense of the signs that point to a real estate bubble. Here are five of them.

1. Shaky loans are common

As we learned from the 2008 recession, subprime lending (lending to anyone with a pulse) is not sound practice. And we have made changes. “Credit remains relatively tight,” says Jonathan Miller, CRE, CRP, and president of Miller Samuel Inc., a New York, NY, real estate appraisal company.

Yet the U.S. government still backs loans that some might consider risky, particularly ones that require only a 3.5% down payment, which the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) offers. Before you get too alarmed, keep in mind that the FHA has been helping people become homeowners since 1934. The underwriting standards are higher with FHA loans than with some of the subprime low-down-payment products offered in the early 2000s, explains David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, NY.

2. There’s lots of leverage

When you take out a mortgage, you’re leveraging your money — the smaller the down payment you make, the more you have leveraged the deal by using the lender’s money to make the purchase. “A bubble means lots of leverage,” says Miller. “And this [current] cycle has been remarkably devoid of leverage.” Miller cites New York City as an example. “About 45% of the transactions are cash. And for the price points below half a million dollars, the average person puts about 35% down.”

3. Home prices are rising faster than salaries

When housing prices are rising and your salary isn’t, you’re left with two options: continue to rent, or buy a house you can barely afford. If you think your market is in a bubble, you might want to wait to buy, especially if you’re really stretching to make ends meet.

“I would review the mean income levels and employment levels compared to real estate prices for signs of discord,” says Michael Kelczewski, a Pennsylvania and Delaware real estate agent. “Indicators of a local real estate bubble are asset values exceeding the local market’s capacity to absorb prices.” Reiss says that when home prices rise faster than salaries, “It could be the sign of froth in the market.”

Miller agrees that a “rapid run-up in prices that don’t match wage growth leads to discussions about bubbles.” But he says that as long as credit conditions from bank lenders are tight, you won’t have runaway price inflation. In New York, prices aren’t rising like they were, but they aren’t falling either. Miller says they’ve leveled off and are “stuck on a high plateau.”

So what do you do when affordability isn’t improving in pricey markets like New York, NY, San Francisco, CA, Los Angeles, CA, or any other high-cost urban market? Buy in the burbs. Miller notes that for New York, the market is booming in the outlying suburbs.

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When there are no signs

Of course, you might think your market is (or isn’t) in a bubble, but you could be wrong. “The problem with bubbles is that we don’t know them when we see them,” says Reiss. He explains that San Francisco, CA, for example, a hugely unaffordable city for most people, isn’t in a bubble just because prices are high. “Bubbles do not refer to rapid price appreciation. They refer to unsustainable rapid price appreciation. [The market] is unsustainable because fundamentals do not support the appreciation.”

The bottom line is, it’s difficult to know whether it’s really a bubble. “If homeowners buy a house that works for their family and that they can afford over the long haul, they will have made a decision that benefits them every day, even if real estate prices drop significantly,” says Reiss. But heed his warning: “If homeowners instead buy a house that is a financial stretch in the belief that it will appreciate down the road and fund their retirement, there is a good chance that they have set down a road to ruin.”

Creating Safe and Healthy Living Environments

photo by Will Keightley

The Center for American Progress has released Creating Safe and Healthy Living Environments for Low-Income Families. It opens,

A strong home is central to all of our daily lives. People in the United States spend about 70 percent of their time inside a residence. As the Federal Healthy Homes Work Group explained, “A home has a unique place in our everyday lives. Homes are where we start and end our day, where our children live and play, where friends and family gather to celebrate, and where we seek refuge and safety.” Understanding how fundamental homes are to everything we do, it is troubling that more than 30 million housing units in the United States have significant physical or health hazards, such as dilapidated structures, poor heating, damaged plumbing, gas leaks, or lead. Some estimates suggest that the direct and indirect health care costs associated with housing-related illness or injuries are in the billions of dollars. The condition of housing is even more important for children, the elderly, and people with disabilities who need housing structures that support their particular needs.

The condition and quality of a home is often influenced by the neighborhood in which it is located, underscoring how one’s health and life expectancy is determined more by ZIP code than genetic code. According to a recent report by Barbara Sard, vice president for housing policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, living in neighborhoods of “concentrated disadvantage”—which are characterized by high rates of racial segregation, unemployment, single-parent families, and exposure to neighborhood violence—can impair children’s cognitive development and school performance. Residents of poor neighborhoods also tend to experience health problems—including depression, asthma, diabetes, and heart disease—at higher-than-average rates. This is particularly troubling given that African American, American Indian and Alaskan Native, and Latino children are six to nine times more likely than white children to live in high-poverty communities.

The country’s affordable housing crisis is partially to blame for families and individuals tolerating substandard housing conditions and unhealthy neighborhoods. Half of all renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing—the threshold commonly deemed affordable—while 26 percent spend more than half their income on housing. While housing assistance programs such as public housing and the Housing Choice Voucher program, commonly referred to as Section 8, provide critical support to families struggling to meet housing costs, only one in four households eligible for rental assistance actually receives it due to limited federal funding. Furthermore, millions of Americans face evictions each year. As work by Harvard University sociologist Matthew Desmond has highlighted, eviction is not just a condition of poverty but a cause of it, trapping families in poverty, preventing them from accessing and maintaining safe housing or communities, and corresponding with higher rates of depression and suicide.

This report provides an overview of the conditions of the nation’s housing stock, barriers to accessing housing for people with disabilities, the effects that neighborhood safety has on families, and recommendations for improving these conditions. Given how central homes and communities are to people’s lives, federal and local leaders must work to ensure low-income families have access to living environments that are conducive to their success. (1-2, footnotes omitted)

There were rapid improvements in housing healthy and safety over the 20th century. Since the time of Jacob Riis’ How The Other Half Lives, we went from outhouses being common to the public subsidy of modern apartment buildings in cities and the suburbanization of the rest country.

As a result, many people do not realize the extent to which many households continue to live in substandard housing. Lead paint exposure is perhaps the most known of the  risks, but it is not the only one.

This CAP report also highlights the risks that neighborhoods can present to their residents. Being safe in your home does not mean that you are safe on your street, on your walk to school or on your daily commute.

The report provides provides a useful overview of the challenges that low-income households face, inside and out of their homes.

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.

Thursday’s Advocacy & Think Tank Round-Up

  • Community Builders, an initiative of the Sonoran Institute has released Place Value: How Communities Attract, Grow and Keep Jobs and Talent in the Rocky Mountain West recommends walkability and quality of life conscious development of communities .
  • According to the National Association of Realtor’s analysis of the New Housing Starts data homebuilders are increasingly developing high density housing with “walkability” suburban and single family housing has been deemphasized.
  • The Urban Institute released its Housing Finance at a Glance monthly chartbook, which Prof. Reiss finds to be a very helpful holistic view of the mortgage industry.
  • The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Office of Policy Development and Research has developed the Creating Connected Communities: A Guidebook for Improving Transportation Connections for Low and Moderate Income Households in Small and Midsize Cities – the guidebook contains recommendations geared toward cities with 250,000 or fewer residents which among other things suggest a refocus of financial resources on critical needs and improvement of the alignment between housing and transportation investments.
  • Zillow has announced that home prices are rising faster than incomes for most Millenials (no surprise there).  This report also finds that first time home buyers rent for longer before buying typically more expensive homes which are paid for with a larger share of income.

Wednesday’s Academic Roundup