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.”

Reiss on Green Bonds

Law360 quoted me in Green Bond Bandwagon Promises Cash Returns For NYC (behind a paywall). It opens,

A New York City proposal to market billions in so-called green bonds could reduce debt costs for the city by enticing investors who have stampeded toward guilt-free returns elsewhere, but buyers must tread carefully lest their money ends up funding projects not seen as environmentally relevant.

New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer put forth a plan last week that would see the city’s capital spending program add municipal bonds for financing environmentally friendly projects to its plans to issue $30 billion in new debt over four years.

The proposal, which Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is studying, suggests moving quickly while there this still a focus on reinforcing the city after Superstorm Sandy and amid the strong demand for green bonds in the private sector as well as in California, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. As soon as next year, the city could being to convert a large portion of its Municipal Water Finance Authority debt — some $1.5 billion per year — into green bonds and could allocate up to $200 million per year in Transitional Finance Authority and general obligation bonds to similar use.

“Green bonds should be another example of how New York City leads the nation in finding solutions that work,” Stringer said.

While experts in public debt investment largely see the proposal as a promotional bid to market New York City debt, they note that the city’s high national profile could make such a move profitable amid investor hunger to capitalize environmentally friendly projects.

“The big question is: How much demand would this create? One of the main points of the green bonds would be to increase demand,” said Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss, an expert in real estate finance and community development. “If there really is pent-up demand, and New York City acts as an early mover, it might get a short-term benefit in the cost of borrowing.”

Stringer’s prediction that New York City could spark others to follow suit would also likely come true, Reiss said.

“If this is demonstrated to materially drive down borrowing costs, you’ll see others doing the same thing,” he said. “I’m a little skeptical, over the long term, that you’d have serious savings. But in the shorter term, you might.”

Compact Units: Mountain or Molehill?

NYU’s Furman Center has posted a short Research Brief, Compact Units:  Demand and Challenges. The brief notes that there is no formal definition of a compact or micro unit of housing, but

the term is typically used to refer to units that contain their own bathroom and a kitchen or kitchenette, but are significantly smaller than the standard studio apartment in a given city. Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are self-contained units located on the property of a single-family home. Sometimes ADUs are separate structures, like a cottage on the same lot as a primary dwelling; sometimes they are attached to the primary structure, located in a basement, in an extension, or over a garage.

Proponents of compact units argue that they allow seniors to live independently, respond to changing household sizes and demographics, reduce sprawl through urban infill, mitigate the environmental effects of larger developments by reducing energy consumption, free up larger units for families, and help cities provide housing affordable to a wider range of households. (2)

The brief is a very useful overview of the debate concerning compact units but my own take is that they represent a mere molehill of possibility when it comes to affordable housing. No new construction in cities, unless heavily subsidized, is geared toward low-income households and probably only a small portion of such new construction is geared to moderate-income households. The economics of new construction just don’t allow it.

This is not to say that New York City shouldn’t change its larger-than-average minimum unit size regulations (400 square feet) so that they are in line with those of other cities (220 square feet). These small units could work well for all sorts of one-person households, which, by the way, make up more than half of all households in NYC. They just wouldn’t be low-income households. But, by expanding the total number of units available, they can put at least some downward pressure on rents.

My bottom line: compact units are good, but they will not provide the mountain of affordable housing that some claim they can.

Location Affordability

Following up on an earlier post on NYC’s (Affordable) Housing Crisis, I turn to the Citizen Budget Commission’s report on Housing Affordability Versus Location Affordability. The report opens,

How much more would you pay for an apartment just a short walk from your job than for an equivalent apartment that required an hour-long commute by car to work?

This question highlights two important points about the links between housing costs and transportation costs. First, transportation costs typically are a major component of household budgets, usually second only to housing. Second, a tradeoff between housing costs and transportation costs often exists, and taking both into account can provide a better measure of residential affordability in an area than only considering housing costs.

In recognition of these important points, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has developed a Location Affordability Index (LAI) that measures an area’s affordability based on housing and transportation costs relative to income. This policy brief uses the HUD data to compare costs for a typical household in New York City to those in 21 other cities . . .. (1, footnote omitted)

The report finds that “Low transportation costs and high incomes make New York City relatively affordable: New York City is in third place in location affordability. Housing and transportation costs for the typical household are 32 percent of income in New York City, with lower ratios only in Washington, D.C. (29 percent) and San Francisco (31 percent). This is well within HUD’s 45 percent affordability threshold for combined costs as a percent of income.” (1)

This report makes a very important point about the cost of living in different cities. It should also reframe some of the national discussion about affordable housing policy. It would be great if there were a way to account for length of commute in the Location Affordability Index to make a better apples to apples comparison among cities when it comes to the housing choices that are available to households.

NYC’s (Affordable) Housing Crisis

The Citizen’s Budget Commission is releasing a series of Policy Briefs on affordable housing in New York City. They raise interesting questions. The first policy brief, The Affordable Housing Crisis: How Bad Is It in New York City, compares the affordable housing situation in 22 large American cities and finds that NYC is not the worst, notwithstanding how many New Yorker’s feel about it. Some of the particular findings included,

  • New York City relies more heavily on rental, as opposed to owned, housing than all other large cities; more than two of every three occupied housing units are rental.
  • The increase in housing supply since 2000 was slower in New York City than in every other large city with population growth.
  • New York City does not have the highest average rents. New York City median rent ranks sixth most expensive among the 22 cities, slightly worse than 2000, when it ranked seventh.
  • New York City is not the most unaffordable: New York City ranks ninth worst in rental affordability, defined as the percent of households spending more than 30 percent of income on gross rent. This is slightly better than its eighth worst ranking in 2000, although the share of renters with burdensome rent increased from 41 percent to 51 percent.(1)

For me, the real story is the second bullet point.  New York City had the fourth slowest growth in the number of housing units out of the 22 cities, notwithstanding the fact that it has always had a limited supply and compounded by the fact that its population has been growing significantly for quite some time. It is depressing to learn that “the number of housing units in New York City increased” only 5.8 percent between 2000 and 2012. (2) This leaves New York City with a vacancy rate of 3.6 percent in 2012, which means that we are a long way off from making a serious dent in the affordability problem. The de Blasio administration has made affordable housing a centerpiece of its agenda. This report reminds us that part of the solution to the affordable housing puzzle is just building more housing overall. We have lots of pent up demand, we just don’t have the supply. That is one reason the rent is too damn high!