Claim: Millennials can’t buy a house so they are serfs

Joel Kotkin makes a bold claim regarding the inability of millennials to purchase a home:

Like medieval serfs in pre-industrial Europe, America’s new generation, particularly in its alpha cities, seems increasingly destined to spend their lives paying off their overlords, and having little to show for it.

No wonder that rather than strike out on their own, many millennials are simply failing to launch, with record numbers hunkering down in their parents’ homes. Since 2000, the numbers of people aged 18 to 34 living at home has shot up by over 5 million…

It’s time for millennials to demand politicians abandon the policies that have enriched the wealthy and stolen their future. That means removing barriers to lots of new housing in cities and, crucially, embracing Frank Lloyd Wright’s notion of Broadacre Cities, with expansive development along the periphery.

These new suburbs, like the Levittowns of the past, could improve people’s lives, while using new technology and home-based work  to make them more environmentally sustainable. They could, as some suggest, develop the kind of urban amenities, notably town centers, that may be more important to millennials than earlier generations. One thing that hasn’t changed is the demand for affordable single-family homes and townhomes. But the supply is diminishing—those under $200,000 make up barely one out of five new homes.

This is a familiar argument for Kotkin: millennials really do want to own homes in the suburbs – like many other Americans since the early 1900s – and economic policies limit their opportunities.

But, this argument is still overstated in its claim that millennials are serfs. Kotkin gets at a deeper question: is homeownership essential to the American way of life? More specifically, a suburban home in a nice community? There is much in American history to suggest that owning land and a home is key, even if it isn’t a right. Yet, does it necessarily have to always be part of American life? Could Americans decide that they value other things (and not be forced away from homeownership by forces outside of their control)?

Trying to predict the 2017 housing market

This summary of predictions for housing in 2017 includes 17 different estimates from various groups. Here is the one I’m most interested in:

Most observers expect home sales and prices to moderate in the coming year. They say suburbs will make a comeback while the days of low mortgage rates are over.

Suburbs will make a comeback you say? Perhaps there will indeed a Donald Trump effect for suburbs. Here is one more specific suggestion that might contribute to this:

The percentage of people who drive to work will rise for the first time in a decade as homeowners move farther into the suburbs seeking affordable housing.

Cheaper gas probably doesn’t hurt either.

Looking through these 17 predictions, few explicitly apply to suburbs. Most are about two things: millennials (with some help from baby boomers) are driving the housing market and there will be a slow rise in housing values.

One bonus summary statement:

One prediction you can always count on: No matter what’s happening with the economy, NAR is always going to say it’s a great time to buy. Its fourth quarter Housing Opportunities and Market Experience survey found that 70 percent of people say now is a good time to buy a home. NAR also predicts the rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage will rise to 4.6 percent by the end of 2017.

Perhaps there is one prediction missing: will the homeownership rate rise after dropping in previous quarters?

And who is going to check to see if these predictions for 2017 were successful?

Housing anxiety in America will lead to what kind of action?

A new poll suggests Americans are worried about housing:

According to a survey by the NHP Foundation, 75 percent of Americans are worried they could lose their homes, while 83 percent of respondents said that they were concerned about the rising costs of housing.

Some 30 percent of the respondents described themselves as “very concerned” that they or a close friend or relative could lose their housing, meaning that nearly one-third of Americans feels that a lack of affordable housing could represent a personal crisis. Another 27 percent described themselves as “concerned”—meaning more than half of respondents consider housing instability to be a looming danger.

Per the poll, about 40 percent of respondents say that they fear they could lose their homes due to job loss. This fear is not unfounded. Neil Gabler’s May cover story for The Atlantic cites Federal Reserve Board data that showed that almost half of U.S. households (47 percent) could not muster $400 in an emergency. A report by the Urban Institute shows that more than one-third of all American families (36 percent) have savings of less than $250. One-quarter of U.S. households have no savings at all…

The NHP Foundation finds that 80 percent of its respondents (1,000 Americans polled nationwide) say that they would welcome affordable housing in their communities. But affordable housing is rarely if ever posed to residents or voters as an up-or-down, yes-or-no question: “Would you like more affordable housing?” Sure, we all would. Except when it involves changes to the places where we live; then our neighbors flip out about it.

Perhaps builders will help with a shift toward constructing smaller homes. Or, as the quote above suggests, housing isn’t the primary issue: people anxiety about jobs which then affects housing.

Thinking longer term, I wonder what it would take to advance more drastic solutions to housing issues. Some possible turning points:

The homeownership rate continues to drop. Some might say this limits the American Dream while builders could note that this limits their profits and industry (which is also connected to jobs).

-Housing prices rise to where a larger segment of the market is paying substantially more than 30% of their income for housing. Even then, how exactly would this group turn their grievances into collective action?

-Another economic downturn leads to higher employment and more housing issues. Higher foreclosure and eviction rates could cause issues.

-A political candidate makes housing a major issue. As this article notes, no one is really talking about this.

-Could there be a major building or financial scandal that leads to reform?

I’m not sure any of these would lead to anything but temporary measures. Or, perhaps housing in the United States will simply slowly change: wealthier residents will be able to afford newer housing in better locations, people with fewer resources will have fewer and fewer options, homeownership will become less desirable, and all of this will be more clear in a few decades.

2016 State of Housing report: not so good

The State of the Nation’s Housing 2016 was released last week and there are a number of unfortunate historic points highlighted in the executive summary:

But at 1.1. million units, new home construction was still running near historic lows last year. A key factor holding back housing starts is the sustained falloff in household growth…

The US homeownership rate has tumbled to its lowest level in nearly a half-century. The decade-long declines are especially large among the age groups in the prime first-time homebuying years…

Just as exits from homeownership have been high, transitions to owning have been low. Tight mortgage credit is one explanation…And given that the homeownership rate tends to move in tandem with incomes, the 18 percent drop in real incomes among 25-34 year olds and the 9 percent decline among 35-44 year olds between 2000 and 2014 no doubt played a part as well…

On the renter side, the number of cost-burdened households rose by 3.6 million from 2008 to 2014, to 21.3 million. Even more troubling, the number with severe burdens (paying more than 50 percent of income for housing) jumped by 2.1 million to a record 11.4 million…While nearly universal among lowest-income households, cost burdens are rapidly spreading among moderate-income households as well, especially in higher cost coastal markets.

The conclusion suggests stability – homeownership should stabilize with increased household formation – as the effects of the housing bubble continue to fade. However, the glory years of housing seem to be far off as housing costs plague many Americans and the housing industry concentrates on higher end units.

As the economic crisis slowly fades into history, the question remains: is American housing transformed for decades (lower rates of homeownership, more high-cost renting, fewer housing starts)?

American homeownership was originally not about an investment

One writer suggests Americans have bought into the lie that houses are good investments:

Would it surprise you to know that if there are two equally expensive houses—one for rent, one to buy—the person who buys will pay 40 percent to 50 percent more each month? That’s what happens when you factor in property taxes, insurance, maintenance fees and assorted fees like repairs—which almost nobody does…

The truth is, most of what we’ve been raised to believe about owning a house simply isn’t true…

Run the numbers. Yale economist Robert Shiller found that from 1890 to 1990, the return on residential real estate was just about zero after inflation.

ZERO.

This trend toward seeing homes as a good return on investment is a recent development. Perhaps it hints at the commodification – and a need to see a potential return on investment – of everything.

But, if owning a home is not a great investment, why do Americans still privilege homeownership? Here are some historic reasons:

  1. Land is valuable. In the past, people needed land to some degree to survive. Think of all those tenant farmers in the Middle Ages who always had to pay someone else. Or think of sharecroppers in the United States. Land equaled food or the ability to run a business on your property. Additionally, having your own piece of property meant that you could get away from others as well as the government. It is that the home is your castle thing.
  2. Owning a home is a sign of material prosperity. When you are a homeowner, you have made it enough to be able to own and maintain your own property. In other words, you have the resources to waste it. This is the realization of the American Dream as George W. Bush once put it.
  3. Additionally, homeownership is a sign of dedication to your local community. Renters are assumed to be lower-income, transient, and not committed to civic organizations. Homeowners have a stake in their community because they (1) will be there for an extended time and (2) want to protect their property values (though this is also a more recent development).
  4. Combining #2 and #3, homeownership was assumed to keep people invested in capitalism as opposed to socialism. Again, if you own your own property, you want to see it do well rather than hand it over to an outside manager (the state or a landlord).

Black homeowners not seeing the same rebound in home values

As if residential segregation and disparities in homeownership (and wealth) weren’t enough, black homeowners haven’t benefited as much from the housing recovery:

The communities in South DeKalb are almost entirely African American, and they reflect a housing disparity that emerges across the Atlanta metropolitan area and the nation. According to a new Washington Post analysis, the higher a Zip code’s share of black residents in the Atlanta region, the worse its housing values have fared over the past turbulent housing cycle.

Nationwide, home values in predominantly African American neighborhoods have been the least likely to recover, according to the analysis of home data from Black Knight Financial Services. Across the 300 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, homes in 4 out of 10 Zip codes where blacks are the largest population group are worth less than they were in 2004. That’s twice the rate for mostly white Zip codes across the country. Across metropolitan Atlanta, nearly 9 in 10 largely black Zip codes still have home values below that point 12 years ago.

And in South DeKalb, the collapse has been even worse. In some Zip codes, home values are still 25 percent below what they were then. Families here, who’ve lost their wealth and had their life plans scrambled, see neighborhoods in the very same county — mostly white neighborhoods — thriving…

These disparities, though, are not simply about income, about higher poverty levels among blacks, or lower-quality homes where they live, according to economists who have studied the region. The disparities exist in places, like neighborhoods in South DeKalb County, where black families make six-figure incomes.

Race strikes again in America. While the issues may not be the same as past actions such as official redlining or blockbusting or restrictive covenants, even in wealthier communities – ones like these that tend to look like the white suburban dream of a big house in a nice community – race continues to affect home and property.

This also reminds me of the book Crisis Cities which I had my urban sociology class read for the first time this past sentence. The one sentence summary: government and private sector actions after major urban crises like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina tend to privilege the already wealthy and do little to help the poorer residents of major cities. Similarly, poorer and minority residents were hurt disproportionately by the economic crisis (through means like subprime loans – another quote from the article: “Nationwide, black families earning around $230,000 a year, according to research by sociologist Jacob Fa­ber, were more likely at the height of the bubble in 2006 to be given a subprime loan than white families making about $32,000”) and then don’t share as much in the recovery. We need urban and housing policies that at least help everyone, if not provide more for those who need more help.

Why would we want to promote more HOAs with a tax break?

A new proposal in Congress would allow members of a HOA to deduct their association fees from their federal taxes:

Upward of 67 million people live in these communities — ranging from sprawling master-planned subdivisions down to individual condominium or cooperative developments. As of 2014, they contained nearly 27 million housing units. Their homeowners associations often provide the functional equivalents of municipal and county services, and residents nationwide pay roughly $70 billion a year in regular assessments to fund road paving and maintenance, snow removal, trash collection, storm water management, maintenance of recreational and park facilities, and much more.

The same residents also pay local property taxes to municipal, county or state governments. But unlike other homeowners, only their local property tax levies are deductible on federal tax filings. Their community association assessments that pay for government-type services are not.

Now a bipartisan group of congressional representatives thinks that’s inequitable and needs to be corrected. Under a new bill known as the HOME Act (H.R. 4696), millions of people who live in communities run by associations would get the right to deduct up to $5,000 a year of assessments on federal tax filings, with some important limitations…

The bill’s primary author is Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif. Co-sponsors include Reps. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., and Barbara Comstock, R-Va.. Though the bill has little chance of moving through the House or Senate during this election year, it sends a message to the legislative committees now working on possible tax code changes for next year: Congress needs to acknowledge the role the country’s community associations play in providing municipal-type services. The way to do it is to allow deductions on a capped amount of the money residents are required to pay to support community services.

It will be fascinating to see what sort of formula is used to calculate these deductions as the fees paid to associations do not cover all sorts of municipal services used outside of the association.

At the same time, won’t this promote more HOAs, or at least make them more attractive? And do we really want more? They certainly are popular but they continue a trend that is not necessarily good for society: privatizing municipal goods and helping neighbors guarantee their property values. For the first, instead of paying a municipal government, a new layer of private government is enabled to take care of certain services. Americans tend not to like more and more layers of fees and government. However, this might be outweighed by the second factor: the HOAs help keep the neighbors in line without owners directly having to interact with other neighbors. Instead of possibly having to live next to the neighbor who paints their house purple and starts a garden in the front yard, the HOA polices this. In other words, this tax break might help more and more Americans work out civic life through private associations that they see as a necessary evil.

Given all of the HOAs, is there any analysis that shows they pay off financially in the long run either for the property owners or the municipalities?