The double-edged sword of record home prices in many American metro areas

The housing bubble of the late 2000s may be long gone as housing prices continue to rise:

Prices for single-family homes, which climbed 5.3 percent from a year earlier nationally, reached a peak in 64 percent of metropolitan areas measured, the National Association of Realtors said Tuesday. Of the 177 regions in the group’s survey, 15 percent had double-digit price growth, up from 11 percent in the third quarter.

Home values have grown steadily as the improving job market drives demand for a scarcity of properties on the market. While prices jumped 48 percent since 2011, incomes have climbed only 15 percent, putting purchases out of reach for many would-be buyers.

The consistent price gains “have certainly been great news for homeowners, and especially for those who were at one time in a negative equity situation,” Lawrence Yun, the Realtors group’s chief economist, said in a statement. “However, the shortage of new homes being built over the past decade is really burdening local markets and making homebuying less affordable.”

Having read a number of stories like this, I wonder if there is a better way to distinguish between economic indicators that are good all around versus one like this that may appear good – home values are going up! – but really mask significant issues – the values may be going up because many buyers cannot afford more costly homes. The news story includes this information but I suspect many will just see the headline and assume things are good. Another example that has been in a lot of partisan commentaries in recent years (with supporters of both sides suggesting this when their party was not president): the unemployment rate is down but it does not account for the people who have stopped looking for work.

In the long run, we need (1) better measures that can encompass more dimensions of particular issues, (2) better reporting on economic indicators, and (3) a better understanding among the general populace about what these statistics are and what they mean.

National Association of Realtors commercial in support of tax incentives for homeowners

The National Association of Realtors is running a new television commercial supporting tax incentives for homeowners. Here is the money line toward the end of the advertisement:

The National Association of Realtors supports maintaining homeowner tax incentives, because they make homeownership more affordable for more families.

There had been talk in the last few years about getting rid of the mortgage interest deduction (see an example here during the fiscal cliff negotiations) but I haven’t heard anything more recently. Is the National Association of Realtors trying to get out in front of this possible issue?

It is interesting how the ad plays on some common themes of American homeownership such as the home as a castle and that kids should feel safe at home instead of having to worry about whether it is affordable. Who exactly is the evil dragon in this ad – banks? Government officials? Putting kids out in front here is a smart move – who wants to deny children a nice home that their parents own?

Chicago helped lead the way in northern residential segregation

A blog post from Chicago magazine tells part of the story of how Chicago helped lead the way for northern segregation:

In his new book Segregation: A Global History of Divided Cities, Carl H. Nightingale traces the phenomenon back to Sumer, but narrows down to a focus on Johannesburg and Chicago. In the former, segregation was explicit. In the latter, it couldn’t be; in 1917, the NAACP challenged a segregation ordinance in Louisville, leading to the decision in Buchanan v. Warley, in which “a multiracial team of attorneys led by a black professional had forced a white supremacist judiciary to choose between racism and a basic premise of laissez-faire capitalism—and property rights won out, at least in the case of neighborhood segregation.” But there was profit to be had in racism, and it would soon find ways around “laissez-faire capitalism,” with curious allies in the Progressive movement.

About a decade before Buchanan, the National Association of Real Estate Boards grew out of the Chicago Real Estate Board; it would coin the term realtor, and set professional standards for the sale of real estate (now the National Association of Realtors, it remains one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the country). In the 1920s, its general counsel was Nathan William MacChesney, a former president of the Illinois Bar and a co-founder of Northwestern’s Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. MacChesney was considered a progressive; in the words of David Roediger, “the principal figure in the ‘progressive’ reform of real estate.”

The NAREB, and MacChesney, had a powerful progressive ally in Richard T. Ely, then an economist at the University of Wisconsin; in the mid-’20s, he moved to Northwestern. Ely, a proponent of the Social Gospel, had ties to Chicago progressives—he was the first president of the American Association of Labor Legislation, a “useful synechodoche for progressive economics,” which had Jane Addams on its board.

But Ely and MacChesney also represented troubling strains in the Progressive movement, as Nightingale writes:

Though neither elaborated a full-fledged theory of race in print, both had swum in a similar soup of racialized and imperialist reform politics for most of their careers…. several times [Ely] advocated measures to slow down the reproduction of people he deemed part of the “sad human rubbish-heap”—the “feeble-minded,” welfare recipients, and criminals…. MacChesney, whose list of board memberships in reform organizations was legendary, likewise wrote a eugenical tract advocating sterilization programs for the mentally ill and for prisoners…

The Great Migration continued to increase Chicago’s black population, but the city now had a powerful tool to control it. By 1940, according to historian Beryl Satter, Chicago had more racial-deed restrictions than any other city in the country; half the city was covered by such covenants. Nor was it limited to Chicago, Satter writes: “Real estate boards across the nation recognized CREB’s pioneering work in maintaining all-white communities and looked to CREB for advice as they crafted their own racially restrictive plans.” The fear that Johnson—himself a child of the Great Migration—and his colleagues had warned about in 1922 came to fruition, encoded into law.

Chicago is a global city but also has a checkered past. I don’t think many Chicagoans today would like the comparison to Johannesburg.

This history should be familiar to those who know America’s past: real estate interests and others, including the federal and local governments, developed a system of racially-restrictive covenants, discriminatory mortgage lending practices, and other practices like blockbusting in order to limit where blacks and other minorities could live. When these techniques were struck down and fair housing laws became common by the late 1960s, whites responded by leaving many urban neighborhoods and moving to the suburbs.

Official existing home sales statistics to be revised downward

The National Association of Realtors announced that existing home sales figures for recent years will be rechecked and revised downward after some errors in counting were discovered:

Data on sales of previously owned U.S. homes from 2007 through October this year will be revised down next week because of double counting, indicating a much weaker housing market than previously thought.

The National Association of Realtors said a benchmarking exercise had revealed that some properties were listed more than once, and in some instances, new home sales were also captured.

“All the sales and inventory data that have been reported since January 2007 are being downwardly revised. Sales were weaker than people thought,” NAR spokesman Walter Malony told Reuters…

Early this year, the Realtors group was accused of overcounting existing homes sales, with California-based real estate analysis firm CoreLogic claiming sales could have been overstated by as much as 20 percent.

So if you thought the existing real estate market was in bad shape in recent years, it was actually worse than you thought. However, it will be interesting to see how much these statistics are revised and then how these changes affect things like the stock market. A little change may not matter much.

This is a reminder about trusting “official” figures too much. On one hand, it would be hard for the average citizen to gather this information. Therefore, we have to trust certain data sources. On the other hand, official measurements can be affected by a variety of factors and always should be considered probabilistic since they are often based on surveys and not 100% counts or “proof.”

Can we expect a multi-family housing construction boom soon?

Most housing news these days is bad: dropping prices, foreclosures working their way through the system, and a sales slowdown that might continue for some time. But some analysts suggest there may soon be a construction boom in multi-family housing:

But for now, you can see from this chart that overall home building did, indeed, boom during the bubble. Multi-family home building, however, remained pretty consistent between 250,000 and 300,000 structures per year throughout the bubble and declined in late-2009. Single-family building, on the other hand, grew to a rate of about one million homes per year in the mid-1990s to peak close to the rate of two million per year in early 2006. Then, of course, construction plummeted…

From all of this, we can conclude a few things. First, before long, residential construction will have to rise. Although vacancies are high currently, household formation should experience a boom as the economy adds jobs. With it, those vacancies will decline and new homes will be necessary to accommodate the growing population.

Moreover, both reasons for the decline in the rate of household formation indicate a need for more rentals. Young adults who are finally able to move out of their parents’ homes will mostly rent first. They’ll have short credit histories, relatively low wages, and little savings for a down payment. That combination that doesn’t usually spell mortgage approval when underwriting is strict. And those who are living with relatives or friends because they have been unemployed for an extended period will also likely need to rent at first. They might have experienced financial troubles affecting their credit histories, their new wages will often be lower than what they earned before being laid off, and they may have little savings for a down payment if they needed to rely on that money when unemployed. Additionally, all of those millions of Americans who defaulted on their mortgages will have no choice but to rent for quite a while. Banks certainly won’t give them a new mortgage for at least several years.

Now add this into the fact that multi-family construction remained constant during the boom, while single-family construction rose. This could translate into a coming mismatch between the types of housing units available and the specific housing demand that will rise. For the reasons just described, going forward the home ownership rate should fall to and remain at or even below its historical norm, while renting becomes more common. This implies two outcomes. Some single-family homes will need to be converted to rentals and additional multi-family structures need to be built.

The argument here is that the housing slowdown is really about single-family homes since changes in demand, driven by demographic trends including the slowing of household formation, mean that there are not enough multi-family, rental housing units and so we will soon have more multi-family housing construction.

There could be some people who might work against this trend. Recent advertisements from the National Association of Realtors suggest they want to promote single-family homes and homeownership. I wonder how quickly the housing industry could shift to building more rental units even if this is overwhelmingly what consumers desire and would developers and builders reach the profits they want from constructing multi-family units? Additionally, how many suburban communities would approve more multi-family and rental housing that might mar their single-family home character?

With banks and lending institutions owning so many homes, housing values will be lower for several years

Foreclosures are not just an immediate problem; the New York Times reports that the number of foreclosed homes now owned by banks and mortgage lenders are likely to depress the housing values for years to come:

All told, [banks and mortgage lenders] own more than 872,000 homes as a result of the groundswell in foreclosures, almost twice as many as when the financial crisis began in 2007, according to RealtyTrac, a real estate data provider. In addition, they are in the process of foreclosing on an additional one million homes and are poised to take possession of several million more in the years ahead.

Five years after the housing market started teetering, economists now worry that the rise in lender-owned homes could create another vicious circle, in which the growing inventory of distressed property further depresses home values and leads to even more distressed sales. With the spring home-selling season under way, real estate prices have been declining across the country in recent months…

Over all, economists project that it would take about three years for lenders to sell their backlog of foreclosed homes. As a result, home values nationally could fall 5 percent by the end of 2011, according to Moody’s, and rise only modestly over the following year. Regions that were hardest hit by the housing collapse and recession could take even longer to recover — dealing yet another blow to a still-struggling economy.

Not good news for those who want to sell a home in the near future. It is interesting that we now hear very little about this at a policy level. There are certainly other important pressing issues in the world (jobs, gas prices, military actions, Republican candidates for President?) but housing values affect a lot of people.

At the same time, I have heard and seen new advertisements from the National Association of Realtors. I wonder why they are running these ads now: are they worried that more people will rent rather than buy? Is there an uptick in the number of people who are trying to combat lower housing values by selling the home on their own? Do they feel that there might soon be changes in public policies, perhaps through measures like limiting or getting rid of the mortgage-interest deduction, that would limit the government’s promotion of homeownership? And interestingly, these advertisements have stressed that homeownership helps create jobs.