Linking Microsoft giving $500 million for Seattle area housing to tech companies and declining gov’t support for housing

Microsoft is pledging a substantial amount to address the important issue of housing in Seattle:

Microsoft plans to lend $225 million at subsidized rates to preserve and build middle-income housing in six cities near its Redmond headquarters. It will put an additional $250 million into low-income housing across the region. Some of those loans may be made through the federal programs that provide tax breaks for low-income housing.

The company plans to invest the money within three years, and expects most of it to go to Seattle’s suburbs.

The loans could go to private or nonprofit developers, or to governmental groups like the King County Housing Authority. As the loans are repaid, Mr. Smith said, Microsoft plans to lend the money out again to support additional projects.

This article frames the giving as part of the housing issues wrought by the actions of tech companies:

Microsoft’s money represents the most ambitious effort by a tech company to directly address the inequality that has spread in areas where the industry is concentrated, particularly on the West Coast. It will fund construction for homes affordable not only to the company’s own non-tech workers, but also for teachers, firefighters and other middle- and low-income residents.

From this point of view, the health of a region matters for companies. If workers, whether ones employed by a particular company or organization or others, cannot find affordable housing, it will be harder for the region to find and hold on to workers. Whereas businesses often focus on a good business climate (low taxes, tax breaks, business-friendly governments, etc.), housing is a big factor in finding a strong work force. Additionally, Microsoft can help show through these actions that they care about local conditions in ways that tech companies are often said to ignore because of their global status. Would Microsoft be the same if it were not in the Seattle region?

Another way to view this is that private companies are now taking on what the federal government should address:

The government spent about three times as much on housing programs in the 1970s as it does today, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. In the years since, the government has gotten out of the business of building public housing. And capital funds to repair the remaining public housing stock have been cut in half over the last 15 years.

Over this time, federal resources have increasingly shifted away from subsidizing the construction of affordable housing to subsidizing renters who find housing in the private market. And now most new below-market-rate housing is built not by public agencies, but by nonprofit developers leveraging tax credits. The value of those credits has declined recently as well, as a result of changes in the tax bill passed in 2017.

In a sense, Microsoft’s proposal is an extension of this story, as private actors continue to step in where the government once stood.

Ed Goetz, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied the history of public housing in America, said: “I don’t want to diminish the magnitude of what they’re doing. I think it’s important, and it will help. But it won’t solve Seattle’s problem.”

This argument suggests that private actors can only do so much to address housing issues. Because so much money is involved and the issue is so widespread, even $500 million may not do much in a single metropolitan region with high land and housing costs. Of course, the government is involved in the housing industry: the federal government for decades has supported single-family homes, primarily in the suburbs. At the same time, the government and the American people have always been more ambivalent about public housing. It is not as if  the housing market is a free market: the United States subsidizes mortgages.

At the least, this will be an interesting experiment: can Microsoft make even a small dent in the housing needs of the Seattle area? Will this help strengthen the metropolitan region or primarily serve as good publicity for the company?

Two-thirds of Chicago area jobs in the suburbs

The demise of Sears and its suburban headquarters, once famously downtown in a building that was the tallest in the world, does not mean that suburban jobs are disappearing:

Sears’ move to northwest suburban Hoffman Estates symbolized a trend: The economic ascendance of Chicago’s suburbs, which even in the early 1990s accounted for more than 60 percent of the region’s jobs.

At first glance, that dominance appears to be slipping as companies like McDonald’s make headline-grabbing moves back to the city from leafy suburban campuses.

But it would be wrong to point to Sears’ latest struggles, which eased Wednesday when the company’s chairman won a bankruptcy auction that prevented a liquidation of Sears, and conclude that the suburbs are down and out.

People working in the suburbs still provide two out of every three Chicago-area jobs, according to data provided by regional planners.

While the emphasis of this article is on the suburban Sears campus, the suburban jobs numbers stuck out to me. There are (at least) two ways to interpret the number that two-thirds of the jobs in the Chicago region are in the suburbs:

  1. Of course the majority of jobs in the Chicago region are in the suburbs: more than two-thirds of the region’s population lives in the suburbs. All those residents both help generate nearby jobs with their various consumer needs (from retail to food to building and construction) and help fill those jobs.
  2. This is a surprising figure. Chicago is a leading global city; how could so many jobs be in the suburbs when what really matters in the region is the strength of the Loop and nearby neighborhoods? Plus, it would be better if employers started in the city or moved back to the city to help create a strong base for the region as well as take advantage of the city’s economies of scale (including mass transit access) and cultural opportunities.

These figures are part of a larger trend that I think is underappreciated in the rise of American suburbs: the suburbs are jobs centers, not just a collection of bedroom communities. While the stereotypical American suburb is a community of subdivisions with occasional businesses, the suburbs are full of companies and firms doing all sorts of things. And it has been this way for decades.

Food delivery services and restaurants aiming for the unsaturated suburban markets

Skift Table suggests the suburbs are ripe for increased restaurant and food delivery activity:

Outside the urban cores, things get interesting. Earnest Research shows that in the rest of the U.S. market, it’s a head-to-head battle between DoorDash (31 percent market share) and Uber Eats (with 30 percent). In third place is Grubhub, coming in at 27 percent…

“Many suburban areas tend to have a larger number of chain restaurants than independent mom and pop restaurants, making it advantageous for Grubhub to offer takeout from these familiar chains to local residents who may not be accustomed to the idea of ordering delivery,” says Katie Norris, Senior Manager of Communications at GrubHub…

But not all restaurants need to be located on Main & Main to succeed, thanks to the ever-expanding reach of digital marketing and social media. And raising capital might also be within closer reach than once thought. “To mitigate high rents, many brands are opening in second-tier locations and that’s very attractive to investors,” says Chad Spaulding, Managing Director at the U.S.-based investment firm Capital Spring. “We spend more of our time seeking low-rent, low-investment type opportunities that provide a value to the consumer that you can count on in tougher times in the wider economy.”

Suburban locations not only fit this bill, they also solve the urban issue of oversaturation. There is simply less competition the farther afield you go. And now, you can actually go further than before. Because Uber Eats drivers and DoorDash dashers can soon be there to meet you — in 30 minutes or less.

There may be less competition and cheaper rents but there are certainly other costs such as increased driving distances to deliver food and finding ways to attract suburbanites to a physical location.

In the long run, it would be interesting to consider what it would take to raise the level of suburban food to that of major cities where awards, interest, and big name chefs seem to be much more common. Does fine dining and innovation in food require a density of restaurants, food workers, and well-heeled customers or could this all come together in some way in the suburbs? Could the suburbs of today who are often interested in developing entertainment and cultural districts really go after high-end and innovative food as a strategy to successfully compete against suburban fast food and chain restaurants?

Home value algorithms show consumers data with outliers, mortgage companies take the outliers out

A homeowner can look online to get an estimate of the value of their home but that number may not match what a lender computes:

Different AVMs are designed to deliver different types of valuations. And therein lies confusion.

Consumers don’t realize that there’s an AVM for nearly any purpose, which explains why different algorithms serve up different results, said Ann Regan, an executive product manager with real estate analytic firm CoreLogic. “The scores presented to consumers are not the same version that is being used by lenders to make decisions,” she said. “The consumer-facing AVMs are designed for consumer marketing purposes.”

For instance, more accurate models used by lenders do not include outliers — properties that sold for extremely high or low prices and that consequently would skew the averages and the comparable sales for a particular house, like yours. But models used by consumer websites, such as brokers’ sites and national listing sites, scoop in as much “sold” data as possible when concocting a valuation, because then they can claim to include all available data. That’s true, said Regan, but it’s more accurate to weed out misleading data.

AVMs used by lenders send along “confidence scores” that indicate how firm the estimate is. That is a factor typically not included alongside consumer AVMs, she added.

This is an interesting trade-off. The assumption is the consumer wants to see that all the data is accounted for, which makes it seem that the estimate is more worthwhile. More data = more accuracy. On the other hand, those that work with data know that measures of central tendency and variability can be thrown off by unusual cases, often known as outliers. If the value of a home is too high or too low, and there are many reasons why this could be the case, the rest of the data can be thrown off. If there are significant outliers, more data does not equal more accuracy.

Since this knowledge is out there (at least printed in a major newspaper), does this mean consumers will be informed of these algorithm features when they look at websites like Zillow? I imagine it could be tricky to easily explain how removing some of the housing comparison data is actually a good thing but if the long-term goal is better numeracy for the public, this could be a good addition to such websites.

Housing bubble fallout: lost jobs in land subdivision

The long-lasting consequences of the housing crisis of the late 2000s continues: an analysis of the American industries losing the most jobs by percentage includes the land subdivision sector.

9. Land subdivision

• Employment change 2008-17: -49.3%
• Employment total: 40,207
• Wage growth 2008-17: +35.5%
• Avg. annual wage: $71,744

The U.S. housing market is beginning to return to normal following the Great Recession and housing market crash. Housing starts in 2017 were similar to 2007 levels, before the crash. The land subdivision industry, which divides land into parcels for housing and other purposes, suffered as a result of the market’s struggles. As of 2017, industry employment is just about half of what it was a decade before.

This was never a large sector but a drop in jobs of nearly 50% is substantial.

Since I know little about what land subdivision requires on a daily basis, I wonder if this decrease is primarily because of a slowdown in housing starts or are there other significant changes in the industry such as new efficiencies and approaches?

American battle: weirdness vs. wealth

In a closer look at what is happening to retailers in New York City, Derek Thompson suggests two contrary forces are at work in urban America:

A war is playing out in American cities between wealth and weirdness. The former encourages the pursuit of national trends and national brands—high-end fitness studios adjoining Sweetgreen franchises—for the purpose of maximizing profit on a per-lease basis. That spirit runs counter to the desire for diversity and experimentation, which requires policies that actively promote the survival of small companies in an economy that would otherwise eat them up.

I would suggest this goes further than just big cities. One could argue this is a larger battle fought since at least the end of World War Two involving revered ideals in American culture.

On one side are the powers of standardization, efficiency, predictability, and national chains. Think the rise of McDonald’s, Walmart, and Google. These companies came to represent whole sectors of business and their actions helped lead to predictable user experiences and outcomes across different geographic contexts. They are good at efficiency, offering customers a cheap service while turning out billions in profit.

On the other side are the powers of small businesses, entrepreneurs, diversity, and American individualism. Think the quirky and interesting shopping districts that attract visitors. Many of the establishments offer unique experiences that are difficult to replicate elsewhere. Think businesses that reflect the traits of their owners. These are people trying out ideas and participating in the local community. Non-conformity and cool are still sought after.

Both of these types of businesses reflect American ideals. Many of the national chains we know today started as the more unusual business options that became wildly successful. Some owners and founders want to remain small and others want to try for everything they can get. Obtaining a good balance of these approaches is likely hard to do from a policy level.

Building a Sears mail-order home

The Chicago Tribune offers a summary of Sears mail-order homes from the first half of the twentieth century:

From the early 1900s until 1942, Sears, Roebuck and Co., more commonly known as Sears, sold thousands of mail-order kit homes, which buyers could pick from a catalog. The Barrington, for example, cost $2,606 and came with everything from trim, windows, millwork and flooring — some 30,000 pre-cut and numbered parts shipped by rail for assembly by owner or a local contractor. Housing styles were in the hundreds, floor plans customizable and prices from around $100

Ohio has the largest number of Sears kit homes, followed closely by Illinois, according to Solonickne, who started researching the topic seven years ago thanks to her daughter’s school project. Because many of the original sales records weren’t easily accessible, Solonickne decided to take on the task herself…

As of late summer, Solonickne counts 213 Sears homes in Elgin, 149 in Carlinville, 146 in Rockford and 69 in Downers Grove…

A number of companies — such as Aladdin Co. of Bay City, Mich., and Chicago-based firms Montgomery Ward and Harris Brothers — produced and sold mail-order homes. Each of these companies, including Sears, offered large luxury models (around 10 rooms) as well as two- and three-room vacation cottages, said Hunter.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this to me is the number of people who might live in such homes without knowing it. When you purchase a home, you actually do not find out much about the past of the home unless the seller goes out of their way to provide that information (and if they do, they are likely to doing so to justify a higher selling price).

It is also a bit strange to me that Sears itself would not have kept records (or those records did not survive) of to whom they sold home kits. Given the size of the order, wouldn’t Sears keep track of this information?

If Amazon is a direct descendant of Sears, we can expect Amazon to at some point sell homes or kits. Perhaps they would sell you all the materials and then offer an Amazon Expert to build it for you.