Homeownership continues to drop, housing costs rise

Twin trends in American housing: homeownership is down while housing costs increase. First, on homeownership:

Only about a decade ago, in 2004, 69.2 percent of all homes were occupied by their owners; the home ownership rate has since fallen to 63.4 percent, the lowest in almost fifty years despite some of the most attractive mortgage interest rates on record. In part this is due to the difficulty young couples have in qualifying for a mortgage, as once-burned, twice-fined and increasingly risk-averse banks, looking over their shoulders at their regulators, raise their lending standards.

But even a further loosening of credit standards that have already been relaxed for “jumbo” loans (in excess of $417,000 and $625,500, depending on the region) is unlikely to change the trend towards renting rather than owning, last month’s increase in construction of single-family homes notwithstanding. Jordan Rappaport and Daniel Molling, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas, find that adults in their 20s and early 30s, so called millennials, are not alone in preferring to rent rather than buy. Ageing baby boomers, now in their 50s and 60s, have tired of mowing, hunting for plumbers, fixing leaky roofs and coping with the nightmares that accompany realization of the one-time American dream of home ownership. They have accounted for the bulk of new renters, and are likely to continue to “be the main drivers of multifamily [apartment] construction as they age through their senior years,” conclude the Bank’s economists.

Second, on housing costs:

Consumer prices rose modestly in July, and according to the U.S. Labor Department those gains were largely due to a 0.4 percent increase in the cost of shelter—the government’s measure of housing costs. This was the largest increase in the shelter index since 2007.

While inflation for other Consumer Price Index (CPI) basket items has been decelerating, the inflation of shelter has only been going up since 2010. Compared with July of last year, shelter prices are up by 3.1 percent. In the coming months, shelter inflation is expected to continue…

Rising housing costs, paired with stagnant wages, are a big concern for most Americans because not only is rent often already the largest part of monthly expenses—it is increasingly becoming more expensive. One study found that half of all renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and utilities.

Interestingly, this is getting very little attention from politicians. Let’s say a politician wanted to appeal to the masses in the United States. One traditional way of doing this has been to push homeownership, a strategy pursued from Presidents since the 1920s. Owning a home might be the modern equivalent of a chicken in every pot for Americans. Since owning a home has been viewed as an essential part of the American Dream, most politicians want to be viewed as in favor of expanding this opportunity. (Of course, there are other reasons for pushing homeownership including boosting the economy and fighting communism.)

Perhaps other issues are more pressing at the moment. Or, I suspect few leaders really know what to do about reviving housing given the efforts in the early 2000s to expand homeownership that contributed to a big economic bust. Yet, since most major politicians today want to appeal to the middle class (and they don’t pay much attention to the poor – another story for another day), this would be one easy way to go if they could just figure some sort of plan.

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