Are TV portrayals of NYC housing realistic? An (incomplete) analysis

Earlier this year, the Washington Post ran an interesting analysis of how realistically the housing for numerous New York City characters was portrayed:

TVhousinginNYCWashingtonPostApr17

The article has a detailed breakdown of the housing in Girls and then has summaries for everything else.

Although this does not include every major television show depicted in New York City (I could think of a number off the top of my head), there are two noticeable patterns in the shows discussed in this particular article:

  1. Three popular and influential shows from the 1990s, all ones that supposedly made the city attractive to new generations, showed unrealistically large apartments. The city may look like a fun place to be when everyone has plenty of space and cool stuff.
  2. The number of working class shows here is limited. Television does not do a great job in general portraying the working class – see the documentary Class Dismissed – and this article deals mostly with shows with higher class aspirations.

Additionally, it seems like it would be important to also discuss the field of housing prices within New York City over the last sixty years. Manhattan is one of the most expensive places in the world now but was it always this bad? Additionally, the fates of the boroughs have changed over time.

 

Emergencies due to homelessness in major cities on the West Coast

The rising real estate prices on the West Coast have not helped those on the economic edges find places to live:

—Official counts taken earlier this year in California, Oregon and Washington show 168,000 homeless people in the three states, according to an AP tally of every jurisdiction in those states that reports homeless numbers to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That is 19,000 more than were counted in 2015, although the numbers may not be directly comparable because of factors ranging from the weather to new counting methods.

—During the same period, the number of unsheltered people in the three states climbed 18 percent to 105,000.

—Rising rents are the main culprit. The median one-bedroom apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area is more expensive than it is in the New York City metro area, for instance.

—Since 2015, at least 10 cities or municipal regions in California, Oregon and Washington have declared emergencies due to the rise of homelessness, a designation usually reserved for natural disasters.

This is not an easy social problem to address in places that are already expensive. Still, what would it take to mobilize a good portion of the population in these cities and regions to do something about providing affordable housing? The article mentions a recent vote in Los Angeles to provide money for 10,000 affordable housing units but it will be interesting to see how long it takes to build these, where they will be located, and what the long-term effects of such housing will be.

Two new options for those aspiring to a mortgage: take on an investor or list on Airbnb

Axios highlights two businesses trying out some models that could help potential homeowners acquire a home:

James Riccitelli, CEO of Unison Home Ownership Investors, says in an interview with Axios that he is consistently surprised that nobody in the decades-long history of U.S. housing finance had thought of the company’s business model. Unison co-invests with prospective homebuyers—typically putting 10% down along with a bidder’s own 10%, helping them qualify for a standard 20%-down home loan. Depending on the lender Unison partners with, a homebuyer can end up putting as little as 5%:

  • Unison’s investors—who Riccitelli says are typically large pension funds with long investment time horizons—realize a profit only when the home is sold. The product is attractive to such investors because they need assets that match their liabilities, i.e. pension payments sometimes 30 or 40 years away.
  • Other than a few private equity funds that bought up cheap single family homes at the housing market’s bottom between 2010-2012, there are few ways for investors to own a diversified pool of residential real estate, a market that at $30 trillion is more valuable than the U.S. stock market
  • A homeowner can buy Unison out at any point after three years—as long it recoups its original investment. A homeowner can sell the home to another party at any point, however, even if it results in Unison taking a loss.
Loftium has an alternative strategy. It will will contribute $50,000 for a down payment, as long as the owner will continuously list an extra bedroom on Airbnb for one to three years and share most of the income with Loftium.

This strategy might be particularly appealing in booming markets like Seattle, where rent prices are rising even faster than home values themselves, and which are popular tourist destinations.

These present alternatives to the traditional mortgage market with one emphasizing long-term payoffs (and assuming that housing values continue to rise at investment-level rates) and the other trying to capitalize on rental opportunities in the next few years. It will be interesting to see if such options (1) become popular (and if so, how traditional lenders fight back) and (2) whether there are negative consequences to such alternatives (and reactions to them including regulation).

No cheap homes left at the bottom of the housing market

One downside of increasing housing values is that the lower end of the market also rises:

More telling is that at the start of 2013, when home prices were just beginning to bounce off the bottom of the housing crash, the share of homes sold above $500,000 was just 9 percent of all sales. Today that share is more than 14 percent. The share of lowest-priced home sales today is less than half of what it was then as well.

“On the lower end, there is virtually no property at a very low price level anymore,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors. “The same property has been moved up to a different price bucket just because the prices have been rising strongly, over 40 percent price appreciation in the past five years. We are not getting the transactions on the lower end because there is virtually no inventory on the lower end.”

In the wake of the housing crisis, investors bought thousands of low-priced, distressed homes, putting a price bottom on the market but also removing lower-priced inventory. The expectation at the time was that if prices jumped, the investors would sell. For the most part, they did not. In fact, investors continue to buy properties, even at peak prices today because both the rental market and the market to flip these homes are so lucrative…

Homebuilders are continuing to increase production and selling homes they haven’t even built at a historically fast pace. They are not, however, putting up low-priced homes, even though demand there is high. They argue they cannot make the margins work, given the high costs of land, labor, materials and regulation. The median price of a newly built home recently hit a record high.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. I thought letting this go to the markets would solve the problem. In other words, if there is a need for cheaper housing, shouldn’t the market correct? It does not appear this is happening as builders do not want to have smaller margins. Some interventions may be necessary if no businesses see an opportunity.
  2. This makes the issue of affordable housing even more difficult. Many big cities already have major shortages of affordable housing. If prices keep increasing and little is being built at the lower end, might be drastic consequences?

The middle class finding it difficult to find city housing – what to do?

Some urban neighborhoods are hot but this can lead to housing prices that limit how many middle class residents can move in:

The casualties in this war are mostly the middle class. In 2016, rents continued their years-long rise, incomes stratified further, and the average price to buy a home in major US cities rose. The strain pushed the middle class out of cities like Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Austin—the so-called “hot cities.” Some families move to the suburbs. Others flee for less expensive cities. But across the US, the trend holds: cities are increasingly home to high-rollers who can pay the high rents or down payments and lower income people who qualify for subsidized housing.

Macroeconomists say this a good problem to have. These cities are growing. People want to live in them. Stagnating economies in the Rust Belt might envy this kind of trouble. From the perspective of the overall wealth of cities, the middle class being pushed out doesn’t matter. But it matters on the human level, the neighborhood level. In Fort Hill, it means that a teacher at the local elementary school cannot afford to live in the neighborhood where she works. The effects on inequality, mobility, and the demographic composition of cities are very real, their causes multifold, and the solutions difficult…

“It’s very hard to get people to understand that the affordable housing crisis is not for the very poor,” says lawyer Mechele Dickerson of the University of Texas, an expert in housing and the middle class. It’s for people with good jobs who are not poor enough to qualify for subsidized housing, nor rich enough to pay the rising housing prices. “A family that makes $100,000 can’t afford to buy a house in most US cities,” Dickerson says…

The incoming administration has given experts no reason to expect it will prioritize fixing the affordability crises for the middle class. “In terms of the federal government, I see no hope,” Dickerson says. But as with immigration reform and climate change, housing affordability is something that states and cities can tackle on their own. In 2017, this trend toward decentralized power will continue—that is, if cities make retaining middle class residents a priority. That means relaxing the zoning laws to permit more housing stock to enter the market. This is the single most helpful thing the city of San Francisco could do, for example, to counter the tech money forcing prices on the limited housing stock up, says Shulman.

Four quick thoughts:

  1. This article seems to suggest that the government should do something to help middle class residents live in cities and the Trump administration may not help much. So, we do still in America subscribe to the idea that the federal government should subsidize middle class housing (whether in suburbs or cities)?
  2. I’m a little skeptical that the real problem is middle class housing rather than housing for poorer residents. Either this is a very broad definition of the middle class – which is entirely possible since most Americans consider themselves to be middle class – or cities really don’t care about poor and working class residents. I know cities want to keep middle-class residents but about people with less education and job prospects with less pay?
  3. This is an area that could really use some innovation. Big government doesn’t seem to have all the answers (what is the long-term effect of HUD?) nor does the free market (which tends to lead to residential segregation by race/ethnicity and class). What could really work well here is for a number of cities to try new ideas and see what might work.
  4. As the article notes, one of the biggest barriers is existing residents who don’t want to be near “affordable housing.” I’m not sure how you can get around this though there have been some indications that well-designed affordable housing limits some of the stigma. How do you get Americans (urban or suburban) to get past the mentality of pulling up the drawbridge after they move into their desirable neighborhood?

Prediction that the 2017 housing market in the Chicago region will be country’s worst

Realtor.com just released a prediction that the Chicago housing market will not do very well next year compared to the country’s other largest markets:

Both prices and sales will increase, but at a stunted rate compared with other areas, according to a forecast by Realtor.com, a website for the National Association of Realtors. The prices of homes throughout the Chicago metropolitan area are expected to climb just 1.95 percent, and sales of new and existing homes are expected to increase 2.27 percent…

Chicago’s problem is a combination of slow growth in both population and jobs, said Jonathan Smoke, an economist at Realtor.com. The area’s population is expected to increase only 1 percent next year.

Given the size of Chicago, the city should be among the nation’s top three markets for job creation, Smoke said. Instead, Chicago is ranked eighth, with job growth much stronger in areas such as Dallas and Phoenix…

Nationally, Chicago has been among the slowest areas to recover from the housing market crash. According to the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Index released this week, Chicago’s home prices on average remain about 20 percent below July 2007 levels. Meanwhile, the average price for the largest 20 metropolitan areas is now above pre-crash levels.

Not good news for a region that is still the third largest in the country but suffers from a number of problems: its central city is losing residents, the state government is a mess with no long-term budget deals in sight, it doesn’t seem to have enough innovative companies or industries, and there are negative perceptions about violence. Add a slow housing recovery and both the people living there as well as those who might consider moving there may not see much to celebrate.

Actually, this is an interesting question to consider: what positives would Chicago region residents note compared to other regions? What would attract those who have the ability to choose where they want to live? Chicago may be an important global city but it doesn’t want to slowly slip into being a center solely for the Midwest.

One important trait of the Chicago region isn’t going away anytime soon: even in the world of the Internet and jet travel, it has a prime location in the middle of the United States and is a key piece of many transportation and freight networks.

Housing policy that encourages both affordable housing and rising home values

This article points out a contradiction in housing policy: can we promote affordable housing while at the same time suggesting housing should be a good investment?

So how are these two conflicting ideas to be reconciled? Well, that’s the basic challenge of housing policy. Perhaps a start would be to acknowledge that there is, in fact, a tension here—that “protecting” or “promoting” property values is the same thing as “making housing more expensive.” It’s somewhat discouraging, for example, when community organizations claim that “affordability doesn’t mean housing values have to remain stagnant,” without acknowledging that if housing values aren’t stagnant—i.e., they’re growing—that means they’re also becoming less affordable.

But there is some hope. One thing that could help is robust production of housing that isn’t priced by the market, and therefore isn’t affected by rising market prices. That can be accomplished through public housing, privately-developed affordable housing with programs such as the low-income housing tax credit and housing vouchers. At the moment, few places produce non-market housing at anything close to a scale that would provide broad affordability, but there are encouraging examples: Portland, for instance, has created 2,300 units of affordable housing in its redeveloping Pearl District, adjacent to downtown, financed largely by taxes.

In many places, having a wide variety of housing types and sizes can also make room for people with a wide variety of incomes. My street in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago, for example, contains a handful of single-family homes, whose value at this point probably reaches into the six figures; expensive newer condo buildings; older multifamily buildings, some of which have large, luxuriously updated units, and others whose apartments are somewhat smaller, or have less up-to-date finishes; and a few single room occupancy buildings, with minimal accommodations. As a result, there is market-rate housing for everyone from upper-middle-class professionals to working-class immigrant families to low-income elderly adults. Of course, that sort of diversity is typical of a pre-zoning “illegal neighborhood”: A vanishingly small proportion of American neighborhoods allow that sort of mix to be created today, which is a large part of the problem. Making these kinds of neighborhoods more common might make America’s housing policy a little more cohesive and less contradictory.

In the explanation of why we have two contradictory positions, I think two key pieces are missed. One is the political dimension of these two goals for housing. Both have broad appeal – people want to be able to move to better neighborhoods even as they want higher housing values – and politicians continually push homeownership for the average American.  This has been a common theme going back to the 1920s (see an example from 1931). To put it bluntly, it helps secure votes. Second is the role of residents themselves who continue to want both outcomes. Policy, particularly at the federal level, is important here and a number of scholars have noted how decisions about mortgages and urban renewal privileged homeownership in the suburbs. Still, numerous residents practice NIMBY behavior, resisting change once they have their secure position within the home and neighborhood they want. Given the amount of money required to buy a home – it is the biggest single investment many people will make – this is understandable but it certainly doesn’t help others.

Both of the proposed solutions above are difficult to pull off. Using public money for public housing or affordable housing has been opposed since the early 1900s. Having mixed use and mixed income neighborhoods may be popular with some (New Urbanists, young people moving to the city) but it doesn’t get the same level of support from the broader public. To have housing for all or many would mean giving up some on the idea of housing as investment but those with more means – from the middle class on up – will not like this idea one bit.