Black homeownership rate barely improved since 1970

One marker of success in the United States is homeownership, particularly in the suburbs. Yet, the Black homeownership rate has not increased much over the last five decades:

After this chart at the top, the rest of the article is an in-depth look at race, lending, and housing in the Los Angeles area. While some of the story involves factors pre-1960s, there is also much after the Civil Rights Movement that has limited homeownership. All groups on the chart had higher homeownership rates into the early 2000s but conditions changed for Blacks such that they experienced a decline.

All of this makes the recent efforts in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago, all the more interesting. The discussions of reparations there have settled on providing funds for housing. From the City of Evanston FAQs:

In July 2019, the Equity and Empowerment Commission held community meetings to solicit feedback from community members on what reparations would look like for the City of Evanston. Affordable housing and economic development were the top priorities identified during those meetings. A report was submitted to the City Council for consideration and was the basis for  Resolution 126-R-19, “Establishing the City of Evanston Reparations Fund and the Reparations Subcommittee.”

Reparations, and any process for restorative relief, must connect between the harm imposed and the City. The strongest case for reparations by the City of Evanston is in the area of housing, where there is sufficient evidence showing the City’s part in housing discrimination as a result of early City zoning ordinances in place between 1919 and 1969, when the City banned housing discrimination.

View the Evanston Policies and Practices Directly Affecting the African American Community, 1900 – 1960 (and Present) draft report written by Dino Robinson of Shorefront Legacy and Dr. Jenny Thompson of Evanston History Center.

With housing underlying much wealth in the United States, it is important to address this issue in the long run.

Will those who won COVID-19 housing bidding wars want to ease the path for others?

Henry Grabar puts forth an interesting idea: the many bidding wars of housing during COVID-19 might help many push for more housing so that others do not have to go through such a process.

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Sadly, those who win these all-out bidding wars will probably, suddenly feel that there is enough housing, and yes, we need affordable housing, but really affordable housing, you know? (And not here!)

But for every winner there will be many losers, and maybe the process can radicalize these would-be buyers, and their friends, and their parents, and the people they talk to. There really aren’t enough places to live. Those people can channel their frustration with bidding wars into political activism aimed at housing suppressants like parking requirements, restrictive zoning, and density limits. If appeals to neither historical wrongs nor economic growth get the job done, a strong dose of self-interest can’t hurt.

Here are three reasons why I would not hold my breath waiting for the successful homeowners to advocate for cheaper housing:

  1. Americans often subscribe to the idea that their individual successes are due to their actions, not necessarily due to systems. The winners of individual bidding wars can talk about the particular factors that led to their success. Those who did not win can adjust their individual strategies. It is a leap for many to think that their individual choices matter less than the conditions that empower or constrain their choices. (Site note: this sounds like explaining the basics of sociology in an individualistic society.)
  2. Suburbanites for decades moved into subdivisions and communities and then limited similar opportunities for others. The postwar suburban boom did not provide opportunities for all in a variety of ways. This could come out this way: people might yearn for and then move into a new development but subsequently complain about similar developments proposed right around them as a potential threat to their way of life. Can suburbs be frozen in time at the point at which people first moved in? Or, are suburbs and all communities in some sort of constant flux? Combine this with #1 and I could imagine some saying, “We bid successfully, we do not necessarily want a lot more of people like us being successful because this would change the community we bought into, and now we will resist future efforts.”
  3. Regarding putting pressure on politicians and others: how many homeowners were in this position and how would they join together in a movement? Housing is very difficult to address at a national level because of local particularities and politics. At the local level, proposals often run into issues with #1 and #2 above. People may be in support of the abstract notion of more housing or cheaper housing but they often prefer it somewhere else. Significant social and/or political change often requires tipping points or catalysts whereby interests come together and action is possible. COVID-19 could be one of those situations for housing but it would require much sustain effort.

How searching for houses online became sexy

With SNL poking fun at the ways people in their late 30s use Zillow to look at housing, what makes online home shopping such a current phenomena? I thought of the numerous factors that had to come together – here is an incomplete list:

SNL “Zillow”
  1. The rise of online real estate sites and apps. These have been around for years but between Zillow.com, Redfin.com. Realtor.com, Trulia.com, and more, potential sellers and buyers have a lot of easily accessible platforms. These options are now ubiquitous: people can search at any time from any location for any length of time. And now that some online listings have video tours and/or 3D models, viewers can get a good sense of what a property is like without ever getting near it.
  2. COVID-19 adds much to existing patterns. With some people interested in moving out of cities and health risks making it more difficult to see homes, online viewing may be the primary option.
  3. The SNL spoof targeted a particular age group – people in their late-30s – who might be in the middle of a housing dilemma. By this age, those interested in settling down somewhere may or may not have the resources (think school loans, unstable employment during COVID-19 and the last economic crisis in the late 2000s) to buy in the places they want. But, the browsing is free and all sorts of homes in all sorts of locations are available.
  4. The single-family home has always been an important part of the American Dream. Today, this is true and in new ways. The home is a respite away from COVID-19 and political polarization. It is an important investment as buying the right home is not just about enjoying day-to-day life; it should pay off in the future when the homeowner wants to sell and housing values have continued to rise.
  5. Americans also like to consume and compare their social status or possessions to others. With homes occupying such an important part of American mythology, these larger patterns carry over to these sectors. Browsing homes online allows for window shopping and comparisons on one of the most expensive investments. And homes are not just dwellings; they offer windows into lifestyles and neighborhoods.

Put all of these together and you get an SNL reflection on how home searching and purchasing happens today.

Missing any conversation about housing in the 2020 presidential campaign

The Democrat presidential primary for 2020 contained occasional talk of housing on the campaign trail or in debates. But, leading up to Election Day 2020, there has been little attention paid to housing. A few notes on this:

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  1. Some broader campaign themes could be related to housing: talking about the middle-class, taxes, providing opportunities for more Americans. But, these typically do not directly address housing even if it may be implied (such as being middle-class includes the ability to own a home, often in the suburbs).
  2. COVID-19 has had a direct effect on a number of areas. While there has been much said about jobs and the economy, the connection to housing is missing. For many, employment status directly affects housing status and there have been moratoriums regarding rent and evictions. Yet, the primary focus is on the direct means of making money (jobs, stock market, etc.) rather than what many hope their earnings translate into (a nice residence to own or rent in a good neighborhood). Additionally, the housing and real estate industry contribute to the broader economy but little has been said about activity here outside of some people are leaving cities.
  3. Even without the 2020 election and COVID-19, housing is related to a number of other key forces in American society: local schools, property values, building wealth, local neighbors and social networks, access to jobs, health care, amenities, and local services. Yet, it continues to merit little mention or go under the radar all together. Even as it is a difficult issue to address at the national level due to local complications and a complicated and controversial history in the United States, ignoring the issue does little.

Rasmussen poll finds few Americans want the federal gov’t involved in deciding where people live

New poll data from Rasmussen suggests Americans would prefer the federal government not be involved in where people can live:

photo of houses during daytime

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The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey finds that 83% of Likely U.S. Voters say the federal government should not play a role in deciding where people can live. Just 10% disagree. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

Sixty-five percent (65%) still say it is not the government’s job to diversify neighborhoods in America so that people of different income levels live together. But that’s down from 83% when Rasmussen Reports first asked this question in mid-2015 as the Obama administration prepared to release its new housing regulations. Twenty-three percent (23%) now say that diversifying neighborhoods is a government role, up from eight percent (8%) five years ago…

Twenty percent (20%) of blacks and 21% of other minority voters feel the federal government should play a role in deciding where people can live, but just six percent (6%) of whites agree. Seventy-one percent (71%) of whites say it is not the government’s job to diversify neighborhoods, compared to 52% of blacks and 53% of other minority voters.

Interestingly, voters who earn $100,000 or more a year are more supportive of government neighborhood diversity efforts than those who earn less.

A few quick thoughts:

1. I do not know the accuracy of this data. I do not think this is a survey question that is regularly asked of a national population.

2. That said regarding #1, it does seem to align with patterns in the United States. Housing is a very localized issue and involvement from the federal government is not often viewed favorably. Part of the appeal of suburbs is local control and exclusion. A diverse vision of suburbia may not catch on.

3. As I argued earlier in the week, even though attitudes may have improved regarding outright housing discrimination, this does not mean there are not ways to keep people out of communities or neighborhoods.

4. It is a little strange that Rasmussen asked directly about different income levels living together and not also about different racial and ethnic groups living together.

5. If we cannot tackle the issue of residential segregation – which is an outcome of the attitudes in the poll – it will be very difficult to address race.

What could lead to Americans considering what they want the suburbs to be

Yesterday, I wrote about competing visions of American suburbs. Under what circumstances might a national conversation, debate, and/or reckoning take place regarding what suburbs should be in the future? Here are a few possibilities:

photo of houses under starry skies

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  1. An election. As noted yesterday, elections can help to bring issues to the forefront. The suburbs are not a key issue in the 2020 presidential election but this does not mean they could not be down the road.
  2. Building concern about housing. The need for cheaper housing in certain metropolitan areas has led to local and state-level debate but this has rarely reached national levels. I am pessimistic about national level discussions about and solutions for housing – but it could happen.
  3. Some sort of crisis or unusual occurrence in suburbia that pushes people to rethink what suburbs are about. Perhaps it is ongoing police violence – like in Ferguson, Missouri – or an usual place like Columbia, Maryland that people want to emulate.
  4. Declining interest in living in suburbs among future generations. Whether millennials and their successors want to or can live in suburbs is up for debate.
  5. A redefinition of the American Dream away from single-family homes, driving, and private spaces to other factors ranging from different kinds of spaces (perhaps more cosmopolitan canopies?) to an inability or declining interest in homeownership compared to securing health care and basic income or a rise in AI, robots, and technology that renders spaces less important than ever.
  6. Black swan events or large changes beyond the control of the average suburbanite. Imagine no more gasoline or a disease that strikes suburbanites at higher rates or a collapse of the global economy rendering the suburban lifestyle difficult. (Because these are black swan events, they are hard or impossible to predict.)

For roughly seventy years, the United States has promoted suburbs on a massive scale (with evidence that a suburban vision has existed for roughly 170 years). With a majority of Americans living in suburbs, it would take work or certain events for a robust conversation to be had and then a wind-down of the suburbs and shift toward other spaces would likely take decades. At the same time, future researchers and pundits might look back to important conversations, events, decisions, or changes that started the United States down a path away from suburbs. Those precipitating factors could occur today, in the near future, somewhere down the road, or never. While the suburbs in the United States have tremendous inertia pushing them into the future, they do not necessarily have to continue.

The Democratic debate included several minutes of conversation about housing!

The Democratic debate on Wednesday night included several minutes on the issue of housing. From the transcript:

WELKER: Mr. Steyer, millions of working Americans are finding that housing has become unaffordable, especially in metropolitan areas. It is particularly acute in your home state of California, in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco. Why are you the best person to fix this problem?

STEYER: When you look at inequality in the United States of America, you have to start with housing. Where you put your head at night determines so many things about your life. It determines where your kids go to school. It determines the air you breathe, where you shop, how long it takes you to get to work.

What we’ve seen in California is, as a result of policy, we have millions too few housing units. And that affects everybody in California. It starts with a homeless crisis that goes all through the state, but it also includes skyrocketing rents which affect every single working person in the state of California.

I understand exactly what needs to be done here, which is we need to change policy and we need to apply resources here to make sure that we build literally millions of new units.

But the other thing that’s going to be true about building these units is, we’re going to have to build them in a way that’s sustainable, that, in fact, how we build units, where people live has a dramatic impact on climate and on sustainability.

So we are going to have to direct dollars, we’re going to have to change policy and make sure that the localities and municipalities who have worked very hard to make sure that there are no new housing units built in their towns, that they have to change that and we’re going to have force it, and then we’re going to have to direct federal dollars to make sure that those units are affordable so that working people can live in places and not be spending 50 percent of their income on rent.

WELKER: Thank you, Mr. Steyer. Thank you, Mr. Steyer. Senator Warren, I see your hand raised.

WARREN: Yes. Think of it this way. Our housing problem in America is a problem on the supply side, and that means that the federal government stopped building new housing a long time ago, affordable housing.

Also, private developers, they’ve gone up to McMansions. They’re not building the little two bedroom, one bath house that I grew up in, garage converted to be a bedroom for my three brothers.

So I’ve got a plan for 3.2 million new housing units in America. Those are housing units for working families, for the working poor, for the poor poor, for seniors who want to age in place, for people with disabilities, for people who are coming back from being incarcerated. It’s about tenants’ rights.

But there’s one more piece. Housing is how we build wealth in America. The federal government has subsidized the purchase of housing for decades for white people and has said for black people you’re cut out of the deal. That was known as red-lining.

When I built a housing plan, it’s not only a housing plan about building new units. It’s a housing plan about addressing what is wrong about government-sponsored discrimination, how we need to address it, and we need to say we’re going to reverse it.

WELKER: Thank you, Senator. Thank you, Senator. Senator Booker?

(APPLAUSE)

BOOKER: I’m so grateful, again, as a mayor who was a mayor during a recession, who was a mayor during a housing crisis, who started my career as a tenants’ rights lawyer, these are all good points, but we’re not talking about something that is going on all over America, which is gentrification and low-income families being moved further and further out, often compounding racial segregation.

And so all these things we need to put more federal dollars in it, but we’ve got to start empowering people. We use our tax code to move wealth up, the mortgage interest deduction. My plan is very simple. If you’re a renter who pays more than a third of your income in rent, then you will get a refundable tax credit between the amount you’re paying and the area median rent. That empowers people in the same way we empower homeowners.

And what that does is it actually slashes poverty, 10 million people out. And by the way, for those people who are facing eviction, it is about time that the only people when they show up in rentals court that have a lawyer is not the landlord, it is also low-income families struggling to stay in their homes.

WELKER: Thank you, Senator.

Quick summary of the conversation:

1. It was short – just a few minutes and only three candidates talked.

2. Two candidates, Steyer and Warren, talked about the need for more and cheaper housing units. They did not get into many details about how to fund those units or where they would be located.

3. Two candidates talked in more detail about the inequality in housing with Warren talking about discrimination in housing and Booker discussing tax credits for renters.

Quick thoughts:

1. It is good to have the issue addressed directly. However, the amount of time spent on it, the number of candidates who responded, the lack of follow-up questions, and the quick cut to a commercial suggests it is not an important issue.

2. This is a complex issue with many local variables. Hence, it is not easy to fit housing discussions into sound-bite driven debates. However, the candidates barely got to say anything about actual policy or dealing with thorny problems such as convincing wealthier communities to include cheaper housing. Is it better in the long run to over-simplify a complex issue or not address it at all?

3. Given all the ways that housing intersects with issues that Democrats care about, why couldn’t a candidate start their policy positions with housing? This is probably because it is unpopular to address it from a top-down level but who said politics was easy? Truly addressing inequality will require addressing all the ways it intersects with places and communities.

Considering housing shortages and gentrification together

An MIT economist looks at the relationship between gentrification and a shortage of cheaper housing:

Unsurprisingly, the geography of a place and the community residing there are linked. Along the most measurable dimensions, richer people tend to live in places with attractive geographies. Conversely, places with undesirable attributes like industrial or transportation pollution, poor access to jobs, and uninviting climates are usually left for the poorest and most marginalized.

Usually—but not always. Occasionally, physically attractive locations come to be occupied by low-income communities, immigrant communities, black communities. Neighborhoods like these are ripe for gentrification. Changes in labor markets, large investments by public or private institutions, or even just changing preferences among the wealthy move these neighborhoods into the sight lines of richer people, and then they gentrify.

The housing shortage, meanwhile, is a region-wide round of musical chairs, in which the winners sat down before the music even stopped. Whereas gentrification reshuffles which communities occupy which parts of the city, the housing shortage can operate at the scale of cities and regions as well as neighborhoods…

Policies introduced to fight gentrification—rent control and tenant protections—may ameliorate the effects of neighborhood change, but they won’t build new homes. We must allow new construction somewhere, despite the changes this will bring. Of course, we must do so in a way that avoids gentrification.

Four quick thoughts on this argument:

1. This reminds me of my post from the other day comparing the perspective that there is not enough housing and there is plenty of housing but it is not cheap enough. This piece suggests there are multiple housing issues at work and policies might tackle one particular issue and not others (or even make other housing issues worse).

2. Does the multiplicity of housing issues require that Americans prioritize which issue matters to them most? If middle-class people want cheaper housing, that will lead to different approaches (public policies, legislation, urban planning, decisions by developers, etc.) compared to a consensus that gentrification is not desirable. Historically, Americans have tended to prioritize housing for the middle-class (broadly defined) at the expense of housing for the poor or homeless.

3. To truly address all of these issues, metropolitan-wide approaches are needed. Individual neighborhoods or municipalities are often left to tackle these on their own even though decisions by nearby neighborhoods or municipalities have significant effects on their housing.

4. Additionally, a comprehensive housing policy is needed, not just one that tackles the most important or noisiest issue at the moment. On one hand, many Americans would not want the government to become involved in such issues even as the government has promoted suburban homeownership for roughly a century.

Competing claims: America has a shortage of housing versus it has plenty of housing (albeit overpriced or inaccessible)

Does the United States have lots of housing units or a shortage? The two sides of the argument:

  1. A few years ago, I had a conversation with a sociologist who studies housing. When I brought up the issue of not enough housing units in connection with a need for more affordable housing, they said the problem was not a lack of units. Rather, more of those units needed to be made available to the people who for a variety of reasons could not easily access them now.
  2. A recent opinion piece states the other side of the argument:

“Stephen, you’ve been proven right on housing, and I think you’re about to be proven even more right. The most important driver of home prices is supply and demand. And right now, there is a chronic undersupply of homes in America.

As I said, the 2008 bust turned a lot of folks off from investing in housing. It shattered the confidence of homebuilders, too. Census Bureau data shows an average of 1.5 million homes were built each year since 1959. Yet since 2009, just 900,000 homes have been built per year. In fact, fewer homes were built in the past decade than in any decade since the ‘50s!

We have a serious housing shortage in America today. It would take less than six months to sell every existing home on the market, as you can see here…

…In the past year or two, the first wave of young homebuyers came into the market. But every year for the next decade, tens of millions of Millennials will hit home-buying age.”

I could see a possibility where both prognosticators could be true: there are many dilapidated or older units that need to be updated and priced in ways that more people can access them and there is a relatively shortage of new homes that meet the demands and tastes of younger buyers.

But, this gets at some bigger questions about housing in the United States:

  1. How many older housing units can be renovated to today’s codes and standards? And who should pay for this?
  2. Should anyone be put in charge of or help set housing prices so that more housing units are within economic reach of more residents?
  3. Should developers and builders primarily focus on profit or do they also have a responsibility to communities (beyond paying a fee for affordable  housing or sprinkling in a few cheaper units)?
  4. Can housing be revitalized in areas without significantly changing the population composition or housing values or other ways that might significantly disrupt what current residents like about the location?

Keeping track of the Democratic field on housing

Curbed is tracking the housing positions of the Democratic candidates for president in 2020. Here is part of the overview of YIMBY policies:

Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY)…

Because these laws are administered at the local level, federal policy can’t do much to directly change these laws and instead attempts to incentivize—or punish—local governments to change them. Castro has proposed a Presidential Commission on Zoning Reform to establish federal guidelines on land use and zoning. O’Rourke would direct HUD to come up with a model for setting zoning and land use policies that let formerly restrictive communities to allow more housing production.

Warren’s plan puts $10 billion into a new grant program communities can use to build infrastructure, but local governments have to reform land-use laws to be eligible.

Booker’s plan uses a similar mechanism by tying more than $16 billion in federal block grant money—including Community Development Block Grants (CDBG)—to local governments reforming zoning laws that serve as barriers to building more housing units. Castro also wants to expand CDBG and rural development programs by $2 billion per year and tie the money to zoning reforms. O’Rourke would double CDBG funding and provide new grants to communities that eliminate restrictive zoning laws.

Klobuchar proposes “prioritizing” local governments that reform local zoning laws when allocating federal housing and infrastructure funds, but doesn’t specify which ones.

Bennet would create a one-time $10 billion competitive grant program for state and local governments that reform zoning laws to allow for more housing density, in addition to increasing the funding of transportation grant program BUILD to $4.5 billion and make it eligible only to local governments that allow for more housing density near transportation hubs. Eligibility for New Starts, a grant program for fixing rail infrastructure, would also be deployed in this manner.

O’Rourke has a zoning-related proposal that’s unique among the candidates. He would allow people to deduct more in state and local taxes from their federal tax returns if they live in areas without restrictive zoning. There’s currently a $10,000 cap on SALT deductions, and that cap affects mostly coastal cities where restrictive zoning is a major issue. He would also pass a $1 trillion infrastructure package to repair transportation lines that would be tied to eliminating exclusionary zoning.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. As the section above goes on to note, it will be difficult to enact change within wealthy communities through federal policy. Without buy-in from whole metropolitan regions regarding housing, would any YIMBY policies at a federal level simply push cheaper housing into communities that already have more of such housing?
  2. The subheadline for this article suggests “Housing policy is taking center stage in the 2020 election.” This is a bold pronouncement as housing seems to attract little attention in debates or drives little national conversation. I would still be interested to see someone really run with the housing issue.
  3. I have not seen recent numbers on this: how does housing as an issue rank among other possible issues among the electorate? There are certain areas of the country – like some of the largest metropolitan areas – where this is a pressing issue while it is less important elsewhere. On one hand, housing effects all possible voters but it rarely attracts national attention, particularly compared to other national economic issues like jobs or income.