March existing home sales: slowdown for cheaper homes, increase for more expensive homes

The March existing housing reports showed a slowdown in one part of the housing market and a rise at the other end:

Sales of homes under $100,000 fell nearly 18% from March 2013 and those in the $100,000-$250,000 range fell about 10%. But sales of homes over $1 million rose almost 8%, according to supplemental data on the NAR website. The median existing-home price — half were below the median and half above — was $198,500.

The West is seeing the sharpest plunges in sales of lower-priced homes and has been for some time. Compared with a year earlier, March sales of under-$100,000 homes fell 45% in the West, 18% in the Midwest, 16% in the South and only 3% in the Northeast.

What’s behind this trend? Inventories at the lower end of the market are tighter than a couple of years ago as the number of bargain-priced foreclosures and other distressed properties for sale has dwindled. Many of those homes were snapped up by investors, who bid up prices, accelerating that segment’s rebound from the housing bust lows.

This is a continuation of a bifurcated housing market after the economic crisis: people with financial means are able to buy and sell while those at the bottom end with fewer resources and less available inventory can’t do as much. This continued sluggish bottom of the market affects a lot of sectors including employment (whether people have the mobility to chase available jobs), personal finances (plenty of people stuck in homes in which they owe a lot of debt or at the least can’t make any money from), and economic activity and jobs (in construction, real estate, banking, etc.).

Suburbs looking for ways to lure young adults back from cities

If young adults are going to the big city and staying in increasing numbers, how can suburbs get them back?

Demographers and politicians are scratching their heads over the change and have come up with conflicting theories. And some suburban towns are trying to make themselves more alluring to young residents, building apartment complexes, concert venues, bicycle lanes and more exotic restaurants…

Some suburbs are working diligently to find ways to hold onto their young. In the past decade, Westbury, N.Y., has built a total of 850 apartments — condos, co-ops and rentals — near the train station, a hefty amount for a village of 15,000 people. Late last year it unveiled a new concert venue, the Space at Westbury, that books performers like Steve Earle, Tracy Morgan and Patti Smith.

Long Beach, N.Y., with a year-round population of 33,000, has also been refreshing its downtown near the train station over the last couple of decades. The city has provided incentives to spruce up signage and facades, remodeled pavements and crosswalks, and provided more parking. A smorgasbord of ethnic restaurants flowered on Park Avenue, the main street…

Thomas R. Suozzi, in his unsuccessful campaign to reclaim his former position as Nassau County executive last year, held up Long Beach, Westbury and Rockville Centre as examples of municipalities that had succeeded in drawing young people with apartments, job-rich office buildings, restaurants and attractions, like Long Beach’s refurbished boardwalk. Unless downtowns become livelier, he said, the island’s “long-term sustainability” will be hurt because new businesses will not locate in places where they cannot attract young professionals.

This story should make New Urbanists happy. Because cities are attracting young adults with cultural amenities and jobs, suburbs have to respond with their own amenities. Simply existing as a bedroom community won’t cut it for attracting younger residents who want competitive housing prices as well as things to do. By appealing to these residents, suburbs can also win in two ways. First, their efforts to bring in more restaurants, stores, and cultural opportunities can help diversify their tax base. New commercial establishments and festivals help bring in visitors as well as residents who spend money. Second, these moves may also help make their downtowns and neighborhoods denser. This limits residents’ reliance on cars and makes streets more pedestrian friendly.

Of course, many of these suburbs will find it difficult to compete with (1) the big city and (2) other suburbs. Popular tactics in recent years across suburbs include transit oriented development involving condos and amenities near railroads or other mass transit and trying to build a more vibrant downtown around restaurants and small but unique shops.

Canada’s rising middle class the result of a housing bubble?

In eclipsing the American middle-class as the world’s richest, is the increasing wealth of the Canadian middle-class largely due to a housing bubble?

One word that doesn’t appear in the article, however, is housing. The U.S. is emerging from a catastrophic collapse of the housing market that obliterated household wealth for millions of middle-class families. Canada, however, is in the midst of a delirious housing boom and a personal debt craze that reminds some economists of the U.S. market exactly a decade ago (before you-know-what happened)…

One year ago, Matt O’Brien calculated that Canada’s price-to-rent ratio was the highest among advanced economies, making it the “biggest housing bubble” in the world. Canada’s historic housing boom (and our historic bust) comes at the precise moment in history that they pass us to grab the title of World’s Richest Middle Class. Just a coincidence?

Maybe. As the LIS data in the Upshot article shows, Canada’s median earner has been gaining on America for decades, powered by a strong service economy, supported by a disproportionately large energy industry. Remarkably, U.S. GDP-per-capita has been more than 15 percent richer than Canada’s for the last 25 years (see graph below), even as the median American worker has fallen behind the median Canadian earner. That’s a pretty clear indictment of U.S. income inequality…

Still, as many economists like Atif Mian and Amir Sufi have have argued, strong housing markets support middle-class income growth just as housing busts wreck middle-class income growth. The effect can be direct (more houses means more construction jobs*) and indirect (when families feel richer from rising housing prices, they spend more across lots of industries, raising incomes). As Reihan Salam writes, “the central driver of the decline in employment levels between 2007 and 2009  was the drop in demand caused by shocks to household balance sheets.”

Housing is an important factor in a middle-class lifestyle from being able to own a house (more important in certain places like the United States as a sign that “we’ve made it” as well as providing for one’s family) to affording a good neighborhood (which is often associated with lots of other good outcomes like better schools, less crime, more local resources) to paying relatively less for housing than those with lower incomes.

All that said, there is no guarantee that housing will be a significantly positive financial investment in the long run. And what happens in Canada if such a housing bubble does burst?

Despite “info gap,” good number of Canadians still believe in life after death

A sociologist and a researcher note that although people have little information about life after death, a good number of Canadians still believe in it:

Our surveys confirmed the hunch. Close to 40 per cent of Canadians say they “definitely” or “possibly” will see people again who have died. Some 30 per cent say they don’t know, and only about 30 per cent have actually closed the door on the possibility, including just one in two of those who have “no religion.”

But what we have been taken aback by is the remarkable extent to which people believe that individuals who have died are interacting with us.

More than five in 10 Canadians think the deceased see us, know what we are up to, and share in our lows and highs. About four in 10 claim that they themselves “have been in touch with someone who has died” – up, by the way, from 25 per cent around 1980. Differences by age and religion are negligible. Similar levels and patterns are also found in both the U.S. and Britain – which have very different religious histories and trajectories – leaving us scratching our heads as to where these beliefs come from…

The findings underline a paradox in the Information Age: We know more than enough about just about everything in life. But we continue to know very little about what happens after death. Credible expertise is scarce. Academics are reluctant to touch the topic, and religious leaders tend to have little to say. The extensive market is left largely to channelers and charlatans, with the predictable result that claims are trivialized and claimants stigmatized.

Three thoughts:

1. The argument here is that there is not “credible expertise” about life after death. The implication is that people today tend to need such hard data to believe in things. Where is the evidence? Personal stories might be more influential than people think.

2. There are also hints here that while people in Canada and the United States are less inclined to identify with traditional markers of religion, some still hold to religious beliefs. Religious ideas may just have longer lives in individuals beyond formal institutions.

3. I’m intrigued by the suggestion that “religious leaders tend to have little to say” about life after death. Really? All religious leaders?

Just curious: do “channelers and charlatans” equal Hollywood movies like Heaven is for Real?

Determining whether “Boston Strong” has run its course requires more than a few interviews

The “Boston Strong” motto has been ever-present again this week – and one journalist suggests some Boston residents want to move on.

Inventory manager Make Nash, a resident of Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, is among those who have heard enough of the rallying cry.“Forget ‘Boston Strong.’ Be strong!” he says…

Freelance journalist R. Brock Olson disputed the idea that a hashtag slogan can hold the capacity to heal in a post titled “We are not #BostonStrong” on his “View From Boston” blog this week, which was republished on Salon on Friday.

“The #BostonStrong meme betrays our insecurities. If we were strong, we would not need to remind ourselves,” he wrote.

Two instances of people who want to move on from the slogan. At the least, the article might suggest there is disagreement about how long the term should be used. Yet, the article provides little evidence either way that these are sentiments held by a lot of residents or just a few.

This is a good example of the difference in approach by journalists and sociologists. While there may be some signs of discussion in Boston – and it is hard to know this without being there – sociologists would tend to want more evidence. How about a survey in the metropolitan region about the term “Boston Strong”? Couldn’t such a question be included in a survey about how residents feel about the bombings, whether they feel safer today, and whether there is still a sense of solidarity in the region? Or, if a survey with a representative sample of the region isn’t preferred, how about more interviews rather than a few for or against the motto?

Naperville #9 best city for new college graduates

Livability.com just named Naperville as the #9 city for college graduates. Here is the criteria they used:

To determine the best cities for recent college graduates, we analyzed factors such as the number of 25- to 34-year-olds living in each city, the availability of rental properties, unemployment rates, educational attainment levels, use of public transportation and the types of jobs these places offer. We also sought out cities that cater to a younger demographic by offering lots of recreational activities, hot nightlife and a hip vibe. What we found were places where new college graduates are likely to find jobs they’d actually want, homes they can afford and a social scene that allows them to more easily make new friends, fit in and engage with the community.

In assessing the best cities for new college grads, we took into account the top-hiring industries, which, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, are: educational services; professional, scientific and technical services; health care and social assistance; and government.

While it doesn’t say how these different factors are weighted, it seems to be a mix of job and quality of life opportunities. The list isn’t just about unemployment; it also includes cultural elements the “creative class” looks for in an exciting place to live.

And here is what they said about Naperville:

Just 30 miles west of Chicago and located along the DuPage River, Naperville, Ill., provides recent college grads with a blend of small-town charm and big-city amenities. It’s an ideal setting for young professionals who feel more comfortable in a suburban environment but want quick access to the offerings of a major metropolis.

An low unemployment rate of 5.5 percent among 25- to 34-year-olds, a high percentage of non-service industry jobs and excellent public transportation make Naperville an attractive area to start a job search. The city’s employment base includes technology firms, energy companies, retailers and factories. Citizens here are well-educated; more than 66 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in Naperville hold bachelor’s degrees or higher. Finding an affordable place to rent won’t be difficult as nearly a quarter of residential properties in the city are rentals, many of which cost less than 30 percent of an average resident’s annual income.

The city’s picturesque Riverwalk and community parks see lots of activity from residents who exercise, play sports or just relax. Naperville’s quaint downtown includes the Theater District, which is home to the widely attended North Central College theater program. Residents can choose from more than 260 restaurants, including the Spanish-themed Meson Sabika and the award-winning Café Buonaro’s Italian restaurant.

This summary hits the high points that most profiles of Naperville:

1. Big city (over 140,000) but small-town feel. Perhaps it is the quaint but bustling downtown that sums this up well: it isn’t too big to be overwhelming but it does offer lots of shopping and dining options.

2. Thriving jobs center. Though Naperville has a large population, it is not just a bedroom community. There are numerous major companies with offices in town and this attracts an educated workforce.

3. The Riverwalk is a scenic and well-designed outside feature. Few communities have such pedestrian-friendly options so close to a vibrant downtown.

A McMansion that can be built within Austin’s McMansion Ordinance

One Texas home designer shows off what he can build under Austin’s McMansion ordinance. Based on all 69 pictures of the house under construction, how different is it from a McMansion?

1. It looks relatively large. At the least, it is not a small house.

2. It is built in a more traditional style: no two-story entryway, no Palladian window, there is some lawn around the whole house (though not much on the sides of the house), there is a limited number of roof gables. There is a real front porch where residents can actually sit. At the same time, the siding is not too distinctive, there don’t appear to be too many windows on the sides of the house (the neighbors are fairly close), and the kitchen is fairly typical dark cabinets, granites countertops (including an island), and stainless steel appliances.

3. The first floor has an open floor plan where the living/family room to the right of the front door opens right up into the kitchen. There are at least two bathrooms. Oddly, there are photos of two laundry rooms.

Zillow suggests the home has 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, is 2,248 square feet, and is in a neighborhood with a range of home values. This particular house seems fairly muted compared to some of his other designs. It is hard to know exactly how much the Austin McMansion ordinance changed what could be done with this particular house but the McMansion designs elsewhere seem more stereotypical.

One last question: the designer appears to have labeled the home a McMansion. Given the loaded nature of this term, is this the best strategy?

Should cities worry about “city-killer” asteroids?

Big cities around the world have plenty of problems to face without considering “city-killer” asteroids:

This Earth Day, Tuesday, April 22, three former NASA astronauts will present new evidence that our planet has experienced many more large-scale asteroid impacts over the past decade than previously thought… three to ten times more, in fact. A new visualization of data from a nuclear weapons warning network, to be unveiled by B612 Foundation CEO Ed Lu during the evening event at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, shows that “the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a ‘city-killer’ sized asteroid is blind luck.”

Since 2001, 26 atomic-bomb-scale explosions have occurred in remote locations around the world, far from populated areas, made evident by a nuclear weapons test warning network. In a recent press release B612 Foundation CEO Ed Lu states:

“This network has detected 26 multi-kiloton explosions since 2001, all of which are due to asteroid impacts. It shows that asteroid impacts are NOT rare—but actually 3-10 times more common than we previously thought. The fact that none of these asteroid impacts shown in the video was detected in advance is proof that the only thing preventing a catastrophe from a ‘city-killer’ sized asteroid is blind luck. The goal of the B612 Sentinel mission is to find and track asteroids decades before they hit Earth, allowing us to easily deflect them.”

I assume the typical big city would claim this is a national or international problem rather than a problem single cities can tackle. American cities alone, while wealthy by global standards, would have a hard time finding resources and expertise to address this.

At the same time, shouldn’t major cities have plans in place for something like this? The planning might not be too different than planning for a possible nuclear bomb attack, the sort of attack in a place like New York City that keeps President Obama occupied. Given a few days or few hours of warning, what could be done? Or perhaps some of these strikes might simply be so large that cities can’t worry too much about one and just have to play the odds, particularly when compared to other possible issues like natural disasters or civil unrest which might happen more frequently.

Which drives McMansions: supply or demand?

Thomas Frank argued last week that America has a system that enables McMansions but another commentator suggests McMansions reflect the desires of Americans:

Still, it fascinates — are not horror films and comedies blockbusters too? — and, lest we snark too much, in this case on McMansions, let us remember these objects reflect consumers’ demand — our collective taste — not the other way around.

And just as soon as I try and boast of some superlative insight or immunity to things and stuff myself, I will have thrown a stone at a glass house — even if it is a two-story Palladian window, even if it’s draped in Pepto-mauve and installed over an entry door — and I bet a crumpled buck you will have too. I say we observe, look for the humor reflected therein (it’s there) and continue to try and learn from our own selves.

Classic question: do Americans buy McMansions because the system supplies them and makes them possible or do they exist because the demand is there from American residents?

This question is not a new one in the field of studying suburbs. On one hand, some argue that suburbs (and McMansions by proxy) exist because this is what Americans want. Joel Kotkin argues that Americans vote with their feet and when given the opportunity, will tend to choose more space and freedom in the suburbs (and the Sunbelt). Jon Teaford says in his book The American Suburb: The Basics that Americans tend to desire more local control and space to be individuals, traits that work well in suburbs. In contrast, some would argue the other side. Suburbs had to be sold to Americans; compare this to European desires to be closer to the central city. Suburbs were constructed by developers who wanted to make money and had to drum up demand. Frank’s argument echoes those of James Howard Kunstler who suggests the suburbs are a subsidized project – often through government action and money – that hollowed out our cities.

As a sociologist, I would argue both sides of the equation are present though we tend to emphasize the demand side in American discourse without realizing how the supply side is shaped. Sure, some Americans may want McMansions but where do these desires come from? Why would they choose to spend their money on a certain kind of large home rather than buying a smaller place in a more urban area or spending more on other luxury goods? Take the example of highways: Americans did take to the automobile quickly but major systems of roads and highways also arose in part because of lobbying efforts from motorist and industry groups, governments decided to spend relatively more money on roads than mass transit, and certain restrictions made it difficult for streetcars and other mass transit to compete (see Kenneth Jackson in Crabgrass Frontiers for more details). Consumer desires don’t simply come out of nowhere; they are shaped by social forces.

Liechtenstein losing the equivalent of a McMansion

The Wall Street Journal notes how the small country of Liechtenstein just got a little smaller, about the size of a McMansion.

Last month, Liechtenstein’s government said it altered its official map, part of a move to a more precise, satellite-based surveying system. The result: Bits and pieces amounting to about a quarter of an acre disappeared.

The land, cumulatively big enough for a McMansion, didn’t abruptly leave anyone living in a new country. So locals viewed the tweak as little more than a curious result of advancing technology…

The lost territory, which only shows up on the most precise technical maps, might have singed national pride or prompted a call to arms in some places. Not in Liechtenstein, a country of roughly 37,000 people who relish their homeland’s diminutive stature the way Texans prize enormousness.

This could lead to some discussions of how more precise mapping leads to boundaries changes like this. But, the comparison to a McMansion is more interesting here. If you had to make a size comparison, why choose a McMansion? The article notes that land lost was about a quarter of an acre. This is about 11,000 square feet. Is the suggestion that this is a typical lot size for a McMansion? One definition of a McMansion is a big house squeezed into a small lot such that the house dominates the lot. Is a McMansion too big for this space? Or, is a quarter-acre lot enough space for some lawn and a McMansion? McMansions themselves aren’t typically 11,000 square feet.

Statistics for new homes in 2012, averaging 2,505 square feet, suggest the average new home was built on a 15,634 square foot lot. Perhaps the better comparison in this article might have been this: the amount of area lost by Liechtenstein was less roughly 66% of the size of an average new house lot in the United States.