American political leaders tend to be homeowners

A recent study looked at how many political leaders in the United States are homeowners or renters:

Photo by August de Richelieu on Pexels.com

The researchers identified 10,800 representatives across city halls, state houses, and federal offices in 2019 and cross-referenced their home addresses with tax records. They found that about 93% of US senators, congressional representatives, federal judges, city council members, state senators, state representatives and governors definitely or likely owned a home.

In another sample of 1,800 city-level officeholders, the discrepancy between voters and their electeds was stark: For the 190 municipalities researchers examined, citywide homeownership rates were around 50%, while 83% of mayors owned their residences…

Despite these high-profile exceptions — both young people of color, like Azeem — researchers found that in city after city, the broader homeownership trend held, even in costly cities like Miami and Boston, where renters dominate. “There aren’t really any cities where large numbers of renters have been elected to local, state or federal office,” Einstein said.

The paper describes two “bottlenecks” that could prevent renter representation: Either fewer renters run, or fewer voters are willing to elect them. By analyzing the housing status of city council candidates in California between 2017 and 2018, they found that the former is more likely…

Elected officials are even more out of step with their communities when it comes to where and how they live. Researchers found that the homes occupied by local, state and federal officials were worth an average of 50% more than their zip code’s median value. The higher the level of public office, the greater the ratio. Nearly 80% of officeholders who owned their houses lived in single-family homes, while only 67% of houses across the country are considered single family.

Who will represent the renters in a country that loudly proclaims its preference for homeownership?

If you have a list of steps one needs to take to be a successful politician, add this one to early in the list: own a residence.

How exactly does wealth play into this? Does wealth lead to both homeownership and the possibility of running for office?

A possible follow-up study: do political candidates run markedly different campaigns given their homeownership status or do they generally play to the ideals of homeownership?

Argument: emphasizing homeownership for investment purposes as the ultimate American goal leads to worse housing outcomes

Americans like single-family homes and especially owning a home that appreciates in value. What if this is the wrong way to go about providing housing?

Photo by Oleksandr Pidvalnyi on Pexels.com

At the core of American housing policy is a secret hiding in plain sight: Homeownership works for some because it cannot work for all. If we want to make housing affordable for everyone, then it needs to be cheap and widely available. And if we want that housing to act as a wealth-building vehicle, home values have to increase significantly over time. How do we ensure that housing is both appreciating in value for homeowners but cheap enough for all would-be homeowners to buy in? We can’t…

Fundamentally, the U.S. needs to shift away from understanding housing as an investment and toward treating it as consumption. No one expects their TV or their car to be a store of value, let alone to appreciate. Instead, Americans recognize that expensive purchases should reflect their particular desires and that the cost should be worth the use they get out of them…

I should be explicit here: Policy makers should completely abandon trying to preserve or improve property values and instead make their focus a housing market abundant with cheap and diverse housing types able to satisfy the needs of people at every income level and stage of life. As such, people would move between homes as their circumstances necessitate. Housing would stop being scarce and thus its attractiveness as an investment would diminish greatly, for both homeowners and larger entities. The government should encourage and aid low-wealth households to save through diversified index funds as it eliminates the tax benefits that pull people into homeownership regardless of the consequences

If we are interested in helping low- and middle-income people live well, we need to fix renting. Some potential policies include increasing oversight of the rental market, providing tenants with a right to counsel in eviction court to reduce predatory filings, advancing rent-stabilization policies, public investment in rental-housing quality, and, most important, building tons of new housing so that power shifts in the rental market from landlords to tenants. Even if nothing changes and America’s love affair with homeownership continues, tens of millions of people will continue renting for the duration of their lives, and almost everyone will rent for at least part of their life. Financial security, reliable and reasonable housing payments, and freedom from exploitation should not be the domain of homeowners.  

There is a lot to think about here. A few thoughts:

  1. Is the entire goal of the American system to generate money through property and ownership? Owning land and property has been very important from the beginning not only for what land could be used for and the money that could be generated but also because of status and rights attached to owning land and homes.
  2. Who is homeownership for? Consistently in American life, it is more available and profitable for wealthier white residents. Policies and ideals have promoted and perpetuated this.
  3. Given #1 and #2, renting is not just a difference in how one pays for their dwelling. It is a difference in how a person is regarded and what is viewed as ideal. The current system may have vast disparities in homeownership and the wealth generated by it but renting or renters is disagreeable to a good portion of Americans.
  4. Even if the goal remains to help adults in the United States attain homeownership, more could be done to address renting or obtaining a first property or addressing racial disparities in housing values. Ignoring renting means that it could limit people in the future from owning a home. Or, not having entry-level housing means people cannot easily move up. Or, help limit the disparities in housing values based on existing patterns. Promoting only homeownership is short-sighted.

The suburbs are about homeownership but some property owners see more money in rental units

The American suburbs revolve around single-family homes. But, in recent years some property owners see more money to be made in converting housing units into rentals. Here is a recent example from Arlington Heights, Illinois:

Photo by Alexander Mils on Pexels.com

Interra Realty, a Chicago-based commercial real estate investment services firm, announced this week it brokered the transaction — equating to $242,500 per unit — for the property at 1 N. Chestnut Ave. The firm represented both the seller, the Chestnut Street Condominium Association, and the confidential buyer, according to the announcement…

“As long as there remains potent rental demand in desirable communities like Arlington Heights, I expect to see continued deconversion opportunities in select Chicago suburbs,” Interra Managing Partner Patrick Kennelly said in the company announcement. “This submarket, in particular, has become more of an investment target following headlines related to Arlington Park.”

If homes, single-family dwellings and otherwise, are now primarily about financial investments, is this one of the logical consequences?

Suburbanites can often have negative perceptions of renters and apartment-dwellers. How do residents of Arlington Heights feel about more housing units becoming rentals? Does it matter if the conversions are happening in or near suburban downtowns compared to in single-family home subdivisions?

If this continues to spread – and I saw numerous stories in the last few years about single-family homes turned into rentals as well – I would imagine there will be some concern and attempted regulations.

Compared to homeowners, renters stay in a residence for a shorter time

I recently read how long homeowners and renters stay in a residence:

Photo by Ivan Samkov on Pexels.com

Redfin reported that in 2021, the typical U.S. home changed hands every 13.2 years. According to ResidentRated, a renter satisfaction survey company, a typical renter will stay in a multi-family building for 27.5 months, or just over two years.

How might this be interpreted? Here is what came right before the data:

Although the rules have been relaxed and tightened over the years, the secondary mortgage market in the U.S. requires condo buildings to maintain a certain level of owner-occupied units in order to fund mortgages for buyers purchasing in those properties. If buyers can’t get mortgages easily for a condo unit, they will look elsewhere. That can depress prices for the entire property. (Over the years, the percentage of allowable units that may be rented has fluctuated from 50 to 80%. Fannie Mae’s current rate of allowed rentals in a condo building is 50%. )

Also, renters may be wonderful people but they don’t always make great neighbors. They may not take care of the overall property as carefully as a unit owner would, and the length of their tenancy tends to be shorter than the amount of time a unit owner lives in a home they own.

Are renters less desirable because too many rental units can affect property values and renters may not care for the residence and they do not stay as long? Having seen such arguments in my research on suburban settings, there are both perceptions about renters and systems regarding properties that contribute to the overall preference for homeownership. Renting may be necessary for some and/or for a time and/or in particular markets, but Americans overall privilege owners who in contrast to the sentiments above presumably stay longer, care more for their properties, and promote higher property values.

If renting is going to be more common in the United States – homeownership is down or stable in recent years, it is difficult to purchase homes or units in many markets – then it will be interesting to see if these ideas about renters change or if it only reinforces decades-long ideas.

Why it can take months for rent prices to show up in official data

It will take time for current rent prices to contribute to measures of inflation:

Photo by Burak The Weekender on Pexels.com

To solve this conundrum, the best place to start is to understand that rents are different from almost any other price. When the price of oil or grain goes up, everybody pays more for that good, at the same time. But when listed rents for available apartments rise, only new renters pay those prices. At any given time, the majority of tenants surveyed by the government are paying rent at a price locked in earlier.

So when listed rents rise or fall, those changes can take months before they’re reflected in the national data. How long, exactly? “My gut feeling is that it takes six to eight months to work through the system,” Michael Simonsen, the founder of the housing research firm Altos, told me. That means we can predict two things for the next six months: first, that official measures of rent inflation are going to keep setting 21st-century records for several more months, and second, that rent CPI is likely to peak sometime this winter or early next year.

This creates a strange but important challenge for monetary policy. The Federal Reserve is supposed to be responding to real-time data in order to determine whether to keep raising interest rates to rein in demand. But a big part of rising core inflation in the next few months will be rental inflation, which is probably past its peak. The more the Fed raises rates, the more it discourages residential construction—which not only reduces overall growth but also takes new homes off the market. In the long run, scaled-back construction means fewer houses—which means higher rents for everybody.

To sum up: This is all quite confusing! The annual inflation rate for new rental listings has almost certainly peaked. But the official CPI rent-inflation rate is almost certainly going to keep going up for another quarter or more. This means that, several months from now, if you turn on the news or go online, somebody somewhere will be yelling that rental inflation is out of control. But this exclamation might be equivalent to that of a 17th-century citizen going crazy about something that happened six months earlier—the news simply took that long to cross land and sea.

This sounds like a research methods problem: how to get more up-to-date data into the current measures? A few quick ideas:

  1. Survey rent listings to see what landlords are asking for.
  2. Survey new renters to better track more recent rent prices.
  3. Survey landlords as to the prices of the recent units they rented.

Given how much rides on important economic measures such as the inflation rate, more up-to-date data would be helpful.

Hot rental market in Phoenix and supplying enough housing

In an article about a large and expanding encampment of the homeless in Phoenix, here are some details about how rental prices in the city have shot up:

Photo by Justin Nealey on Pexels.com

“People say, ‘Are you surprised?’ And I say, ‘No, not really, because all of the housing forces in Phoenix and Maricopa County have been working against us for years,’” said Human Services Campus Executive Director Amy Schwabenlender, who works in the area with the encampment, sometimes referred to as “the Zone.” “We’ve had ongoing population increases in Phoenix and Maricopa County. We haven’t had housing production at all income levels keep up and meet that increase in population.”

Real estate investors are pouring cash into Phoenix and driving up prices. Rents there have spiked 25.6% over the past year, compared to a 15.9% increase in the U.S. from January 2021 to January 2022, according to data analyzed by Zillow. (Other popular Sun Belt cities like Miami and Tampa have also seen dizzyingly fast increases in rent.) Vacancy rates in Phoenix, or the availability of places for people to rent, are also at their lowest in 50 years, according to the Arizona Republic

While much of the rest of the article focuses on addressing housing for the homeless, this sounds like a bigger issue. This is an area with a growing population: Phoenix is now the fifth-largest city in the US and had a little over 100,000 residents in 1950 before experiencing double-digit percentage population growth in all but one decade since. Housing opportunities, particularly in rentals, have not kept up. American sprawl often produces a lot of single-family homes but necessarily cheaper houses or multi-family units for those who cannot secure a sizable mortgage.

What can Phoenix and surrounding communities do? Addressing housing in the United States is a difficult task. It will take concerted effort across communities for years. It may not be popular. But, it is essential for ensuring housing for all who need it.

It would be great to have an example of a city and region in the Sun Belt – roughly Virginia to southern California – that has successfully addressed this even as they have experienced significant growth in recent decades. I do not know if there is a great example, outside of some places not becoming too popular such that it raises demand and housing prices.

Redfin – and America – selling an unattainable American Dream of homeownership?

The CEO of Redfin recounts how he has viewed who can and should be able to purchase homes:

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

Rampant speculation and skyrocketing property values have left Kelman feeling almost nostalgic for those years leading up to 2008, which, in retrospect, were the last time the working poor could reasonably aspire to home ownership in America. “I used to read stories about strawberry pickers buying McMansions in central California, and everybody viewed that as just the absolute apex of insanity,” Kelman told me. “But reading Piketty five years later, is it so bad that the strawberry picker had a nice house?”

Conceding that the picker probably could not afford his McMansion, and that the loans that put him in it were untenable, Kelman nevertheless liked this gaudy permutation of the American Dream. More than that, he disliked the level of “elitist judgment” surrounding these types of homes, which he views as nothing more sinister than the market’s attempt to grapple with problems politicians are content to ignore. In Kelman’s view, the left is eager to help the poor rent homes but not own them, while the right tends to ignore their plight altogether. Meanwhile, rampant NIMBYism prevents the kind of building that might help bring home prices back down to earth.

It had put him in a mood to reflect somewhat darkly on the future of housing in America. “The original premise of my stint at Redfin was that we’re selling the American Dream and the idea that everyone can afford a house sooner or later if they work hard and play by the rules,” he said. “Recently, I’ve had this feeling that there are so many people who are never going to become Redfin customers — that maybe the product we’ve been selling just isn’t a middle-class product anymore but an affluent product.” In February, anticipating a future in which homeownership is out of reach for more and more people, Redfin spent $608 million to acquire RentPath and its portfolio of apartment-leasing sites.

The story as written suggests that Kelman originally subscribed to the idea that Americans who work hard and follow the rules would be able to purchase a home. This has been at least an implicit idea for decades, particularly in the postwar era. He did not like commentary that suggested some were less deserving to own homes or political positions that limited homeownership. But, after the housing bubble burst in the late 2000s, he realized homeownership was not available to all.

If this is correct, the Redfin pivot to apartment-leasing is an interesting choice. This could be a good business decision as rental housing is needed in many communities. At the same time, this does not necessarily line what up with what Kelman expressed. Apartments can provide housing but they do not provide the same kinds of opportunities as housing – such as building wealth – nor are apartment dwellers viewed the same way as homeowners. Americans continue to say that they would prefer to own a home.

Redfin and similar sites could play important roles in what homeownership looks like in the future. Exactly what influence they will have is less clear.

A growing number of US suburbs contain a majority of renters

A new analysis suggests the number of suburbs with a majority of renters is increasing:

Photo by Marlene Leppu00e4nen on Pexels.com

Renters now make up the majority of residents in more than 100 suburbs around the U.S., according to a new analysis of Census Bureau data from Rent Cafe. Another 57 suburbs are on their way to becoming predominately renter territory over the next five years, the apartment search website also found…

Overall, roughly a quarter of the more than 1,100 suburbs near the nation’s 50 largest metro areas are renter-dominated, according to Rent Cafe. Some 21 million people rented their homes in the suburbs as of 2019, up from 17 million a decade ago.

Millennials and members of Generation Z account for most suburban renters, Census data show. Rent Cafe notes that 55% of suburban renters are younger than 45, with median household earnings of around $50,000.

Meanwhile, the pandemic is expected to further fuel the shift away from suburban homeownership in favor of renting. Remote work opportunities have generated more interest in suburban areas within striking distance of cities.

If this is indeed the case, it would be interesting to know if these suburbs share characteristics. Do they tend to be close to the city or further out? Do they have particular hosing stocks compared to other suburbs? Are middle-class and up suburbs still devoted to residents owning single-family homes as a status marker?

My guess is that a majority of suburban residents would still say that they desire to home at some point. But, if more suburbanites are now renters, is the pathway to homeownership in their own community or other suburbs much more restrictive? This is part of the larger affordable housing conversation; people need any decent housing to live in but because many Americans aspire to own a home, having affordable ownership options is important as well.

An interesting middle path in some communities could be having significant numbers of single-family homes with long-term renters. The appearance and status of homes is maintained while renting adjusting for current conditions. On the other hand, many have argued that renters do not care for their properties or communities in the same way and communities may not like this trend.

Building the ability to disperse billions in rental aid assistance in the US

Congress has allocated billions for rental aid assistance amid COVID-19 but it takes time and infrastructure to distribute it to American renters:

Photo by Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels.com

With millions of Americans out of work due to the pandemic, the eviction moratorium helped keep people in their homes — but it also put a squeeze on landlords. To help, between the December and March COVID relief packages, Congress approved more than $46 billion in rental assistance. Exact amounts renters and landlords can receive depend on their income and where they live, but renters could get enough to cover rent from as far back as March 13, 2020, unpaid utilities and even, in some cases, future rent.

But by the end of May, only $1.5 billion had gone out. And officials are racing against the clock: The federal eviction moratorium ends July 31…

“While we have substantial funds through the American Rescue Plan, we as a nation have never had a national infrastructure to prevent unnecessary evictions,” White House American Rescue Plan Coordinator Gene Sperling said recently during an eviction prevention summit.

While there had been some state and local rental assistance programs, the scale of this program was beyond what they’d handled, a Treasury official said. State and local entities had to build IT systems and hire staff. Some programs did not even open until May or June — but since opening, a Treasury spokesperson said, there has been an exponential increase in renters getting money. Landlords and renters can apply directly for funds through their states, counties and in some cases tribal authorities depending on where they live.

Unprecedented times lead to unprecedented processes? Putting the money into the right hands in a timely manner is no easy task. The steps include:

-approving the monies and making it available

-letting people know that the money is available

-encouraging applications

-processing applications

-disbursing funds

-applying the funds to rent

-overseeing the program during the process and afterward

If it comes together, millions of Americans will be able to stay in their housing and landlords will rent they were waiting for.

Now, to tackle the broader issues of affordable housing in helpful locations…

A strange housing market: limited supply, less construction, rent prices diverging from home prices…

According to experts, the housing market right now is a strange one with COVID-19 and other factors coming together in odd ways:

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

Today, if you’re looking for one, you’re likely to see only about half as many homes for sale as were available last winter, according to data from Altos Research, a firm that tracks the market nationwide. That’s a record-shattering decline in inventory, following years of steady erosion…

There are lots of steps along the “property ladder,” as Professor Keys put it, that are hard to imagine people taking mid-pandemic: Who would move into an assisted living facility or nursing home right now (freeing up a longtime family home)? Who would commit to a “forever home” (freeing up their starter house) when it’s unclear what remote work will look like in six months?…

For more than a decade, less housing has been built relative to historical averages. The housing crash decimated the home building industry and pushed many construction workers into other jobs. Local building restrictions and neighbor objections have slowed new construction. President Trump’s strict immigration policies further restricted the labor supply in the industry, and his tariffs pushed up the price of building materials…

Right now, in a number of metro areas, home prices and rents aren’t just drifting apart; they’re moving in opposite directions. Prices are rising while rents are falling.

The article ends on a note of uncertainty: where might the housing market go from here? But, I wonder if it is worth digging more into the past to think about how we got here. Several things come to mind:

  1. COVID-19 is a very unique situation. As the article notes, this seems to have affected rental and home prices in different ways as suddenly people were interested in homes in particular areas and not so interested in rental properties in other areas. Figuring out the long-term effects of this will take time; will people return back to work in big offices, whether in the city or suburban office parks? Is this a significant change or will markets return back to earlier patterns with more time removed from COVID-19?
  2. Are we really removed from the housing bubble and crash of the late 2000s? This affected the market in profound ways – are we still feeling the consequences? For example, are builders and developers more committed than ever toward building more profitable homes rather than affordable or starting-level properties?
  3. How #1 and #2 fit with longer-term patterns in American life – such as a preference for single-family suburban homes and government support for homeownership – is interesting to consider. How do recent market shifts fit with long-term cultural and social preferences and practices? Does a shift to homes as investments fundamentally shake up this dynamic and alter future patterns?

In other words, keep watching the broader housing markets through the next few years.