Thriving construction industry in 2018 will primarily build for wealthier firms/residents?

The recovery from the housing bubble and Great Recession of the late 2000s continues in the construction industry:

For all of 2017, construction added 210,000 jobs, a 35 percent increase over 2016.

Construction spending is also soaring, rising more than expected in November to a record $1.257 trillion, according to the Commerce Department. That was up 2.4 percent annually. Spending increased across all sectors of real estate, commercial and residential, with particular strength in private construction projects. The only weakness was in government construction spending.

Construction firms are clearly looking to hire more workers. Three-quarters of them said they plan to increase payrolls in 2018, according to a new survey from the Associated General Contractors of America. Industry optimism for all types of construction, measured by the ratio of those who expected the market to expand versus those who expected it to contract, hit a record high…

Contractors are most optimistic about construction in the office market, which has seen little action since the recession. Transportation, retail, warehouse and lodging were also strong in the survey. Respondents were less encouraged by the multifamily apartment sector, which is just coming off a building boom.

Although this article does not say much about this topic, it would not surprise me if most of the gains in new structures in 2018 tend to go to (1) wealthier areas and (2) wealthier occupants (whether companies/organizations or residents). A thriving construction sector could theoretically float all boats but it sounds like the bifurcated housing market (and perhaps office and commercial as well) will continue.

It is interesting to see that the office market could see some significant construction. How much of that new office space comes at the expense of older structures that are less desirable because of less popular locations or because rehab costs would be too high?


Suburbs in the American west still struggling to recover

In addition to the Rust Belt, suburbs of cities in the western United States are also finding it hard to come back after the housing bubble burst:

These towns are located in the suburbs of the American west, in regions hit hard by the housing crisis—Southern California, Las Vegas, and Arizona. Hemet, a suburb of Riverside, California, with a population of 84,000, ranked eighth on EIG’s most distressed small-and-mid-sized-cities list. In Hemet, according to the group’s report, employment fell 15.5 percent between 2011 and 2015, while it grew 9.4 percent nationwide. The number of businesses in Hemet dropped 4.8 percent over that time period. The median home price, at $237,000, is still 30 percent lower than it was in 2006.

Why hasn’t Hemet found surer footing? For one thing, the region where Hemet is located was decimated by the housing crisis, with among the highest foreclosure and unemployment rates in the nation; many families are still recovering. But Hemet’s problems are also the result of structural changes in the economy—changes that have been underway for decades but were masked by the heady days of the housing boom. Middle-class jobs have been disappearing while high-wage and low-wage jobs have grown—but in different geographic locations. High-wage jobs are often located in big cities, while low-wage jobs are in relatively cheap locations like suburbs and small cities. This dynamic changes the housing markets of these cities, too, with big cities getting more expensive as more high-wage workers migrate there, and low-wage workers leaving cities to seek more affordable housing in the far-away suburbs they can afford. Now that the dust of the recession has cleared, it is evident that the geography of poverty has changed in America. Hemet is emblematic of just how fast—and just how dramatically—this has happened…

Hemet problems are in some ways particular to the areas that suffered the most during the housing bust. Suburbs far away from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix, where people bought homes during the “drive til you qualify” housing boom, were plagued by a high number of foreclosures in the bust. After the homes went through foreclosure, they were purchased by investors and rented out, creating new, low-cost rentals. Before the recession, 63 percent of homes in Hemet were owner-occupied, today just 54 percent are, according to Census data…

In the end, Hemet is stuck. The city itself can’t convince companies to pay better wages, and it has no control over the rents in big cities that are pushing people out to the suburbs. It has tried to force absentee landlords to keep up their homes, but has limited resources to do so, and struggles to smooth over its transition from a community of homeowners to one of renters. Like many other suburbs and small cities across the country, the economic tide has turned against its residents, leaving them seemingly no path back to vitality. As Hemet and many suburbs like it are finding, growing poverty can lead to even bigger problems—lower tax revenues, fewer businesses able to stay put, worse services like schools and police. This, of course, makes them even less attractive for people who have other choices about where to live. Over time, the situation only gets worse. As nearby cities prosper, and the recession appears as just a bump in the road in the rearview mirror, distressed areas are still there, unable to move ahead.

While the fate of Hemet is tied here to the housing bubble of the late 2000s, it also represents the culmination of two older and widespread trends:

  1. The suburbanization of poverty.
  2. The economic issues facing a number of American suburbs with limited tax bases and lower-income residents.

The end of the article – the last paragraph quoted above – is depressing yet it is hard to see how many of these distressed suburbs will move ahead. They face a number of challenges, including just a lack of knowledge regarding how suburban areas can face significant economic and social issues. (In contrast, Americans tend to associate such problems with big cities.) There are a number of ways the communities could turn around but each option is fairly unlikely: a major employer with good jobs moves into town; a philanthropic organization or wealthy resident is willing to dump large sums of money into developments or changes that would benefit the whole community; state or federal governments come up with new programs or monies for suburban communities like this; or metropolitan revenue sharing is instituted and some of the money present in wealthy suburbs is made available to communities that desperately need it.

Foreclosure crisis to come in Puerto Rico

Even as the foreclosure crisis seems to have passed in recent years on the mainland, Puerto Rico is set to see foreclosures galore in the coming months:

Now Puerto Rico is bracing for another blow: a housing meltdown that could far surpass the worst of the foreclosure crisis that devastated Phoenix, Las Vegas, Southern California and South Florida in the past decade. If the current numbers hold, Puerto Rico is headed for a foreclosure epidemic that could rival what happened in Detroit, where abandoned homes became almost as plentiful as occupied ones.

About one-third of the island’s 425,000 homeowners are behind on their mortgage payments to banks and Wall Street firms that previously bought up distressed mortgages. Tens of thousands have not made payments for months. Some 90,000 borrowers became delinquent as a consequence of Hurricane Maria, according to Black Knight Inc., a data firm formerly known as Black Knight Financial Services.

Puerto Rico’s 35 percent foreclosure and delinquency rate is more than double the 14.4 percent national rate during the depths of the housing implosion in January 2010. And there is no prospect of the problem’s solving itself or quickly.

Even before the storm, Puerto Rico was mired in a severe housing slump. Home prices over the past decade have fallen by 25 percent, and lenders have foreclosed or filed to foreclose on 60,000 home loans, according to the Puerto Rico state court system. Last year, there were 7,682 court-ordered foreclosures — a roughly 33 percent increase from 2007. Some 13,000 foreclosure cases are pending, Black Knight estimates.

Without an easy fix and knowing that this is a longer-term issue that may not be solved with mild economic improvement, it will be interesting to see what happens. Some questions this raises:

  1. Will Puerto Rico and the involved parties (residents, mortgage lenders, local governments) be treated the same as mainland parties during the late-2000s housing slump?
  2. What lessons learned from the late 2000s will be applied here and can those lessons demonstrably help lessen the impact over time?
  3. Will institutional buyers of distressed properties see Puerto Rico as a potential gold mine? If so, how does this then affect Puerto Rico in the next few decades?
  4. What is a long-term plan to help boost the economic prospects of the island?

There are many ways this could play out but one would hope that since we have seen some of this before, the effects do not have to be so bad.

How a foreclosure can slow momentum toward the American Dream

The effects of foreclosures after the burst housing bubble may be long-lasting for many individuals and households:

A foreclosure is a one-time event, but for many families it’s something that never ends, wrecking years of their lives and the hopes they once had. The story of the Santillans’ foreclosure illustrates the way that the recession changed the American economy, and for millions of Americans, forever changed their lives. Some nine million families lost their homes to foreclosure or short sale between 2006 and 2014. But many lost more than that: They lost their momentum, too. Families like the Santillans had been moving up a ladder towards the American Dream, and fell off into a deep pit. They’re still at the bottom of the ladder a decade later, trying to get back to where they had been…

A foreclosure set them back them even further. Academic studies point to the many negatives associated with foreclosure: Families in foreclosure have more frequent emergency-room visits and worse mental-health outcomes. Their children do worse in school and have higher truancy rates. They are more likely than other families to rely on the social safety net. Losing a home can also mean becoming disconnected from the community where you lived, and the connections that might have helped you find a new job or get a loan, Roberto Quercia, the director of the Center for Community Capital at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told me. It’s for these reasons that many of those families are still struggling today. White families had largely recovered financially from the Great Recession by 2013, according to the Federal Reserve, while even today, the median income for black and Latino households has still not reached 2007 levels…

But they learned what many American families did during the financial crisis—that while America prides itself on being a place where people can climb up the economic ladder, it’s also a place where people can fall fast, and far. “We just can’t forget, that in any given moment, things can change,” Karina told me. This has implications beyond the fates of these individual families. The American economy thrives when people are in the jobs they want, being as productive as they can, and when they feel financially stable enough to make purchases that will raise their standard of living. The aftermath of the foreclosure crisis and recession means that many families have not felt secure like that in a long time.

Three points stick out to me:

  1. Social mobility in public conversation usually means moving up the class ladder but people also can fall down that ladder, particularly with major changes like loss of a job, foreclosure, or a major medical issue.
  2. It will be interesting to see how long it will take to truly recover from the burst housing bubble. Ten years? A full generation or two?
  3. There has long been a gap in homeownership and wealth between whites and both Latinos and blacks. The foreclosure issues only seem to have exacerbated these issues as whites as a whole have recovered while blacks and Latinos have not. How will these long-lasting ill effects of foreclosures affect inequalities between racial and ethnic groups?

Washington Post declares that McMansions are back

The second largest economic crisis of the last 100 years was not enough to kill off the McMansion:

If there’s anything that typifies the boom times before the Great Recession, it is the McMansion. These sprawling houses proliferated around the country in the 2000s, as banks shelled out easy credit to fuel a housing bacchanalia they thought would never die…

As Americans have started building and flipping houses again, they are once again buying McMansions. Since 2009, construction of these homes has steadily trended upward, data from Zillow, a real estate website, shows. The median home value of McMansions is also rising, at a pace that eclipses the value of the median American home…

Many casual onlookers have forecast the death of the suburbs in recent years, especially as younger renters and buyers turn an eye to city centers. Skylar Olsen, a senior economist at Zillow, says that young people today have far more interest in living in urban environments. “That’s where jobs had been growing fastest over the course of this economic recovery over the past five years,” says Olsen.

Yet younger people who are starting families are still moving to the suburbs for more room, she says. About half of all millennials that purchased a home last year did so in the suburbs, according to Zillow data.

In recent years, the media has vacillated between McMansions are dead (see a summary of my posts on this here) and McMansions are still alive. This new analysis in the latter category uses a similar framing as the earlier stories: McMansions arose to prominence at the end of the late 20th century and interest in them waned after the housing bubble burst. This might be technically true since housing starts did decrease significantly in the housing bubble. At the same time, the construction of McMansions never stopped – indeed, the proportion of new homes over 3,000 square feet actually increased (see earlier post here). And this is with the withering criticism that often accompanies McMansions. The story above follows in this line with the primary analysis coming from the creator of McMansion Hell. Still, the analysis hints that McMansions have a longer shelf life than many would want and a good portion of Americans – not really discussed in this article – are willing to consider them as a viable housing option.


NAR economist: “major housing shortage” in the US

The chief economist for the National Association of Realtors suggests there is a major housing shortage:

“A major housing shortage exists in this country,” Yun said in a statement. “It is therefore disappointing to witness in March the continued lackluster performance in new-home building, which was the second lowest activity over the past six months. Home prices have risen by 41 percent and rents have climbed 17 percent over the past five years at a time when the typical worker wage has grown by only 11 percent. To relieve housing costs, there simply needs to be more homes built.”

My first thought on this reading this: builders and developers are still skittish from the 2000s housing bubble. Instead of risking overextending themselves, compared to the past they are now focusing on more expensive homes or rental properties. Oddly though, I have seen little media coverage regarding builders and developers. They may be a secretive bunch generally but why isn’t there more scrutiny of their actions and motivations?

My second thought: if there is indeed a housing shortage, what does this say about the state of the economy? A booming construction sector is often related to a good economy. It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way in the future, particularly if there is a shift away from sprawl and homeownership of detached single-family homes, even if it was true in the post-World War II era.

Finally, who might be held responsible if there is indeed a housing shortage? It is hard to rally potential homebuyers into a cohesive group. Is there a way to prod politicians and business leaders to act and if so, could their actions even effect much change?

More on the reduced geographic mobility of Americans

A new book from economist Tyler Cowen discusses how the geographic mobility of Americans has declined:

Nowadays, moving from one state to another has dropped 51 percent from its average in the postwar years, and that number has been decreasing for more than 30 years. Black Americans, once especially adventurous, are now especially immobile. A survey of blacks born between 1952 and 1982 found that 69 percent had remained in the same county and 82 percent stayed in the same state where they were born…

One reason people don’t move where the jobs are is because of real-estate prices — which in turn are kept at high levels by regulatory restrictions and NIMBY-ism. In New York City in the 1950s a typical apartment rented for $60 a month, or $530 today if you adjust for inflation. Two researchers found that if you reduced regulations for building new homes in places like New York and San Francisco to the median level, the resulting expanded workforce would increase US GDP by $1.7 trillion. That won’t happen, though: More homes would diminish the property values of existing homeowners.

That locked-in syndrome is a factor in economic stagnation, too: A recent Wells Fargo survey found that white-collar office productivity growth was zero. As the economy was supposedly recovering from the financial crisis, from 2009 to 2014, American median wages fell 4 percent. Men’s median incomes today are actually below 1969 levels. Had we retained our pre-1973 rates of productivity growth, the typical household would earn about $30,000 a year more than it does.

Despite all the hype attached to a few tech companies, far fewer companies are being formed than in the 1980s, and fewer Americans are working for startups. Such new companies are linked with rapid job creation. We’re coming close, Cowen says, to realizing the 1950s cliche (not really true then) of everyone clinging to a job at a handful of huge, soul-crushing companies.

As I’ve seen a number of stories about declining mobility (see earlier posts here, here, and here), I wonder if the period between the early 1900s and 1960s was simply unusual. The American economy was doing well (except for the Great Depression and the World Wars) and other factors including legal segregation in the South drove mobility. What if more limited mobility is “normal” outside of unusual time periods? Should we expect that Americans should be willing to pick up and move just because there may be a job or an opportunity elsewhere? I would guess humans default toward less geographic mobility because moves limit the ability to develop communities. In fact, it has only been in recent centuries that more of the population has even had the opportunity to travel or move large distances from where they were born. Perhaps the real question here is to find out more of what would lead people (whether in the United States or elsewhere) to move significant distances.