Large actors in the US housing market and building more homes

Derek Thompson argues those interested in more housing in the United States should be more concerned with local NIMBY activity than private investment firms buying up homes to rent:

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Far worse than corporations taking a few thousand units off the market for owners are the governments and noisy NIMBYish residents taking millions of units off the market for owners and renters alike—by blocking construction projects in the past few decades. (California alone has an estimated shortage of 3 million housing units.) From New York to California, deep-blue cities and states have amassed a pitiful record of blocking housing construction and failing to meet rising demand with adequate supply. Many of the people tweeting about BlackRock are represented by city councils and state governments, or are surrounded by zoning laws and local ordinances that make home construction something between onerous and impossible.

One of the issues at play here is a numbers one: who exactly is acting within the US housing market and how much sway do they have. Concerns about corporations and housing can be placed in the larger context of how many housing units there are and how many are being built. Here are the numbers Thompson provides:

The U.S. has roughly 140 million housing units, a broad category that includes mansions, tiny townhouses, and apartments of all sizes. Of those 140 million units, about 80 million are stand-alone single-family homes. Of those 80 million, about 15 million are rental properties. Of those 15 million single-family rentals, institutional investors own about 300,000; most of the rest are owned by individual landlords. Of that 300,000, BlackRock—largely through its investment in the real-estate rental company Invitation Homes—owns about 80,000. (To clear up a common confusion: The investment firm Blackstone established Invitation Homes, in which BlackRock, a separate investment firm, is now an investor. Don’t yell at me; I didn’t name them.)

If I am calculating correctly, institutional investors currently own 2% of the single-family rentals. Of course, this number could grow if these firms find this to be a good investment.

Also of interest is the number of new homes being constructed. Thompson links to figures from the National Association of Home Builders that shows 6.8 million new single-family units were created in the 2010s. So, concerns about big investors buying homes could be considered alongside housing construction: if the investors are buying more quickly than new homes are being built, this could be an issue.

Thompson settles on local actors – governments and residents – as holding back housing construction. In this numbers game, restrictions on a local level collectively are holding back the construction of single-family housing. If these restrictions were lifted or lessened, concerns about institutional investors would presumably diminish because there is a larger supply of houses to choose from.

One problem I see with this among the larger numbers: while local actors might in the aggregate have oversight over millions of units, they individually have control over relatively few units. Let’s say a particular suburb in the Bay Area (and this NIMBY argument often comes back to California) is against building new single-family homes. Depending on the size of the community and the availability of land, this might affect just a few homes to several thousand. This is not many. Zoom out to the whole region and many suburbs doing this adds up to tens of thousands of potential homes. Do this across all of California’s metro areas and the numbers add up. Similarly, you could do this across all the metro areas in the United States.

However, convincing all these municipalities to act in the interests of the region, state, or country as a whole regarding housing is a difficult task. Housing is local and this makes legislation at the state or federal level very difficult. California’s recent efforts with SB 50 did not go through. Illinois just recently gave some teeth – but not all the teeth – to affordable housing guidelines for communities set almost two decades ago. Federal guidelines are met with the suggestions that the suburbs are going to be abolished. One reason Americans like suburbs in the first place is that local government, presumably more responsive to the needs of residents, has the power to exclude (particularly on race and social class) and protect the existing single-family homes.

All of this does not necessarily mean Thompson is wrong. Yet, to get to the numbers of new homes constructed that would make a significant difference – whether in reducing the need many metro areas have for more affordable housing or outweighing the actions of investment firms – would require a lot of change across many communities. State or federal legislation may or may not be successful and would be unpopular in many places without a significant public groundswell of support that this is an issue that all or even most communities need to address.

Together, municipal changes regarding zoning and NIMBY could add up. But, changes would need to come across communities to make a big difference.

In the past year, Americans moved to less expensive but bigger homes

A new report from Zillow shows what kinds of homes Americans chose in the last year:

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By and large, Americans chose bigger — and less expensive — homes, particularly if they moved across state lines. Zillow’s analysis looked at data from North American Van Lines, a trucking company based in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. This was “a notable reversal of trends from prior years,” Zillow economist Jeff Tucker said in the report.

The average home value in the ZIP codes that movers left was $419,344, versus $392,381 for the ZIP codes they relocated to. That represents a difference of roughly $27,000.

But a cheaper home doesn’t mean a smaller one. While the average size of the homes movers left behind was the largest since Zillow began tracking this data in 2016, the average size of the new homes people chose was even larger. The average difference in size, according to the analysis, was 33 square feet…

This is allowing Americans to get the most bang for their buck in the housing market, rather than needing to sacrifice affordability or space in the name of living closer to urban centers.

Is this a perfect distillation of the American Dream at this period of history? “The biggest house for the least amount of money.”

I wonder how this might affect broader patterns regarding the size of American homes. The size of new houses grew steadily from 1950 on but has leveled off in recent years. At the same time, I could imagine a scenario where small shifts as described above help keep inching up the size of American homes. Here is how this might work:

  • From the summary, it sounds like people moved, on average, to slightly bigger houses. Having 33 more square feet is not that much – imagine a 5.5 x 6 foot space (bathroom? mudroom? closet?) – but it is an increase.
  • There does seem to be some interest in not living in McMansions or extra-large houses (see a recent example). Some have suggested prior generations wanted crazy amounts of space while younger adults today want more reasonably sized homes.
  • So imagine the standard size of a “small house” keeps inching up – there are fewer starter homes so people go to bigger houses, new or old, to start – while there is less interest in homes 4,000 square feet and up (which relatively few Americans owned in the first place). In other words, the size of American homes move more because truly small homes are phased out and truly large homes fall more out of favor.

A purchased home does not need to be a McMansion to be a bigger home compared to past standards or even smaller units today.

Out with vacation McMansions but keep going with pricey, exclusive, luxurious homes

An article about a popular new development in Park City, Utah suggests millennials do not want McMansions but the rest of the text suggests they are not giving up on having nice homes:

https://www.benlochranch.com/

What Benloch Ranch represents is a collision of trends in real estate and demographics. Millennials of homebuying age are rejecting the sizes of their parents’ homes, so-called cookie-cutter McMansions. And the second-home market, hastened by COVID and the same millennial-buying population, is booming. The pandemic has forced buyers to value outdoor spaces and activities more than ever before. Benloch Ranch currently has a waitlist of 175 for its single-family lots…

The development’s amenities include more than 20 miles of trails, a ski hill, a skeet shooting range, an ice skating pond and 900 acres of open space…

A lot of millenials don’t want these big houses anymore. We’re redefining the size and scale of the house and altering the price point so it’s more affordable.”

According to data released by the Park City Board of REALTORS, the median price  single-family home rose roughly 26% year-over-year to $2.5 million. Benloch Ranch offers single-family homes starting at $695,000.

The pitch is an attractive one: lean into the terrain and the idea of sustainability, feature interesting architecture, provide amenities, be close to an exciting scene and in at the start of a new development. This is a shift to new preferences of millennial buyers. The vacation homes of today and the future may look different and there is money to be made.

At the same time, this is about vacation homes in a wealthy community. This development has potential because millennials with resources can afford a vacation home starting at $700k. Sure, there are no more McMansions with all of that wasted space and tacky design but this kind of life is only available to those who can buy into it. The price for these homes would be beyond the reach of many residents of the Salt Lake City region, let alone many residents of the United States.

Does this mean the McMansion vacation homes of an older generation will not find buyers? This will be worth watching, both for vacation homes and regular homes. If McMansions go out of style, this could be reflected in lower prices or modifications – imagine multiple units – or even redevelopment.

The one HGTV show that leans into the idea of community – but does so through the context of single-family homes

Home Town is one of the big shows on HGTV and it has a premise somewhat different from the other headliners: all of the renovations take place in or near Laurel, Mississippi. The couple in the show, Ben and Erin Napier, say they enjoy contributing to a town that they love:

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The town of Laurel (population 18,338) itself is a starring character in “Home Town,” and it’s a huge part of what keeps the Napiers grounded. “Everybody here knows us,” says Ben. “When we’re in places like New York, Atlanta, Nashville or (Los Angeles) and people stop us on the streets …” Finishing his thought, Erin says, “It’s very surprising.”

Laurel, located about 90 miles southeast of Jackson, was founded in 1882 and flourished thanks to the timber industry (the region is known as the state’s Pine Belt). Mills and factories followed, bringing economic prosperity. Even now, the town boasts the state’s largest collection of early 1900s residential architecture. But as companies moved their operations offshore seeking a cheaper bottom line, the town languished. When the Napiers planted roots in 2008, there was virtually nothing to draw visitors or locals, with vacant storefronts lining the brick streets. Still, they saw its potential and looked for ways to support it, with Ben volunteering with economic and preservation organization Laurel Main Street.

Now, thanks in no small part to the success of the show, “People come to visit Laurel every day, and that’s amazing. It’s incredible. It’s why we agreed to do the show,” says Ben. 

Even with the community focus and the history they provide for each property, the show still takes a classic HGTV approach to the bulk of the episode: it is all about the single-family home under renovation. There are limited shots of the street. There are limited views of the rest of the community. There are no neighbors in view. Most of what we see if of the interior rooms, the facade, and sometimes the rear yard. The new owners move in and presumably live a private happy life ever after.

Slowly rehabbing the housing stock of a community plus bringing visitors is a laudable thing. Many small towns in the United States need attention. Many HGTV shows focus on wealthier suburbs or urban neighborhoods where housing prices are already good and people have money to make the homes even better. The housing in Laurel is not what many would want in growing communities but it represents the housing that is found in many American communities.

Can a show truly be about community when the primary focus are interior private spaces? Home Town offers a variation of HGTV’s relatively anonymous single-family homes but it might only be a veneer of community and not a true transformation.

When two suburban residential developments border each other and have clear differences

A typical suburban single-family home, the symbol of the American Dream, is often in the middle of a subdivision surrounded by similar homes. Yet, some of these homes are on the edges of developments. This boundaries can be interesting: what do the homes back up to? What is nearby? Three local examples that I see regularly highlight how adjacent suburban residential developments can lead to some sharp contrasts.

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First, I know of a 1970s neighborhood of primarily raised ranches and split-levels of roughly 1,500-2,000 square feet. One side of this neighborhood borders a late 1980s development of larger homes built more in the style of 3,000 square foot McMansions with brick or Tudor facades. These two sets of homes back up to each other and the line of homes that do this are quite different: there is a significant size difference, the style of the homes – siding versus different materials – varies, and the newer development is slightly uphill so the larger, newer homes loom over the older, smaller homes.

Second, there are numerous single-family home neighborhoods where houses are across a residential street or next to a small apartment building. Or, next to a townhouse development. The scale of the buildings is not that different but the density and size are clearly contrasting.

Third, I know of one location where there are two neighborhoods that could have been constructed separately as they both have outlets to the neighboring arterial roads. But, there is a connecting road between the neighborhoods and there are houses of each neighborhood type, again different size and style side by side, on this connector.

Single-use zoning in the United States is intended to protect single-family homes from other less desirable land uses. But, this zoning system does not necessarily buffer certain residential neighborhoods from each other. Many suburbanites would object to significant changes in their nearby surroundings if the new residences were quite different. I ran into this in my suburban research where new small homes nearby or apartments were not welcomed, particularly if they were replacing open space. Yet, today many suburbs have different developments side by side, sometimes with a buffer – nature, a berm, a walkway, etc. – but sometimes not.

These neighboring dwellings could signal some significant differences. A larger home suggests a different social class. Residents of apartments are not always regarded fondly by homeowners. Densities and lot sizes can be different. The exteriors imply different status.

These boundaries are symbolic and clearly marked in physical space. What are the consequences: are the residences on these boundaries less desirable or go for a reduced price? How many people care about the clear boundaries? Do the people from the two or more sides interact within these boundary zones?

The boundaries between suburbia and other types of communities is often clear to see and experience but the internal boundaries are also fascinating.

Chicago to test ADUs: coach houses, attic and basement apartments

With housing issues in the city and region, Chicago is testing out several ways property owners can convert parts of their property into residences:

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Coach houses – stand-alone housing structures sometimes built above garages and sometimes referred to as “granny flats” – were once prevalent in Chicago, but changes in zoning and parking requirements caused their construction to be banned in 1957. In December, the Chicago City Council re-legalized coach houses and apartment units in basements and attics, passing the Affordable Dwelling Units Ordinance. The ordinance took effect May 1, and the city is now accepting applications.

The five pilot areas cover much of the city, with zones in the north, northwest, west, south, and southeast areas of Chicago. After a three-year evaluation period in these pilot zones, the city will decide whether to make the ordinance citywide policy…

For properties planning to construct two or more additional dwelling units, every other unit must be affordable housing.

This opens up new opportunities both for property owners and those searching for housing. For landlords, they can gain more income, house family members, or create new space on their property that people could live in later. For those needing housing, these are likely smaller spaces that could provide dwellings in residential neighborhoods and possibly help keep such housing more affordable with more units available.

But, how many of these units will be created? Property owners might not like the idea of someone living so close to them. It takes money to create these units. The density of residential neighborhoods is important to many single-family home owners; they often want more space. Does this create more demand for parking and vehicles? Could this lead to tension on a block if some want to add units and neighbors are not as bullish on the prospects?

Furthermore, do these efforts continue to concentrate wealth and opportunities in the hands of particular land owners who can afford to create and rent units? Will this truly lead to more cheap housing or will certain neighborhoods have more of these units at higher prices?

Touring the most expensive American homes on YouTube

There is an appetite for seeing the homes of the rich and famous. See the popularity of showing these homes on YouTube:

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Mr. Yilmazer, 31, isn’t a wealthy buyer, nor is he currently a real-estate agent. Rather, he is one of a handful of real-estate YouTubers, amateur video hosts and producers, who are bringing regular people, via their laptops or cellphones, inside the mansions of the megarich. With more than 820,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, Mr. Yilmazer’s videos rack up millions of views and inspire tens of thousands of comments…

In some ways, real-estate YouTubers like Mr. Yilmazer are providing today’s answer to the MTV Cribs phenomenon of the early 2000s, offering the masses a rare glimpse at how the 0.1% really live. But rather than getting a peak through the eyes of a movie star or a suave celebrity real-estate agent, like on shows such as Bravo’s “Million Dollar Listing,” they’re seeing these houses through the eyes of a regular guy just like them…

Mr. Yilmazer said he is bringing in between $50,000 and $100,000 a month in revenue from his YouTube channel in ad revenue alone, putting him on track to bring in more than $1 million this year if the growth of his channel continues at its current pace. Those are just the revenues provided by YouTube for allowing their automated ads to stream on the channel without any effort from Mr. Yilmazer’s own small team. On top of that, he and his team can make money from dedicated sponsorships—Mr. Yilmazer will personally feature a particular company’s brand in his videos for a fee that runs in the tens of thousands of dollars—and the money real-estate agents offer him to feature their listings on his channel. He said he often won’t charge if a property is particularly spectacular and will drive viewership to his channel. If a property is less impressive, he charges a fee, which typically runs into the five figures…

Still, not everyone is sold on letting YouTubers have free rein in their properties, since some agents believe that prospective buyers would prefer that their future homes not be splashed all over the internet.

It is the Internet, expensive real estate, and making money all in one. What could more American than that in 2021?

The money angle is very interesting to consider. The owner of the big expensive home could benefit from more exposure (though the article notes that not all big home owners think the YouTube views benefits them). YouTube gets original content that plenty of viewers want and they can monetize the content through advertising. The presenter can develop a brand and bring in a good income. Does anyone lose here?

One potential downside: how Americans view homes. If people consistently see large luxurious homes on television, as sociologist Juliet Schor argues in The Overspent American, or on social media, does this ratchet up their expectations about what they should be able to acquire? The biggest homes are out of the reach of almost everyone yet some of the individual pieces or features might find their way to a more attainable range.

Looking to “produce, preserve, and retrofit” American homes for the future

What will happen to American homes in the coming homes, particularly all the suburban tract homes and McMansions? One path forward is to provide resources to fix up and improve existing homes. According to plans from the White House:

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Build, preserve, and retrofit more than two million homes and commercial buildings, modernize our nation’s schools and child care facilities, and upgrade veterans’ hospitals and federal buildings. President Biden’s plan will create good jobs building, rehabilitating, and retrofitting affordable, accessible, energy efficient, and resilient housing, commercial buildings, schools, and child care facilities all over the country, while also vastly improving our nation’s federal facilities, especially those that serve veterans.

As housing ages, issues pop up. They need maintenance. Standards change regarding efficiency, local codes, and what residents desire. The community around houses and housing can change in terms of demographics and development, affecting the reputation of the neighborhood.

This plan emphasizes retrofitting homes, among other options. Energy efficiency is one reason as features like new windows, better furnaces and air conditioners, insulation, and more can cut down on energy use and utility bills. Retrofitting can also help maintain the appeal of homes; instead of falling into disrepair or failing to keep up with the times, retrofitting can spruce up houses that have been around for a while.

Some of this has been available through various means for a while. The concept does stand in contrast to another approach Americans have taken: just build new homes in sprawling suburbs or as teardowns and leave the older homes and their issues to others. Retrofitting single-family homes could be quite a project in the long-term with the emphasis on the United States on single-family homes in the suburbs. Does every suburban home require or deserve retrofitting at some point?

How a fictional psychiatrist turned radio host lives in a swanky Seattle condo

Television residents do not always match reality. One writer set out to find how Frasier Crane lived in such a large and well-appointed residence in Seattle:

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While characters living in unrealistically spacious apartments is a sitcom mainstay, the extravagance of Frasier’s apartment is central to the show, rather than an incidental. Frasier, ever class-conscious, takes great pride in furnishing his condo in the Elliott Bay Towers because it’s how he expresses his refined sensibilities. What better way to show off his yuppie bona fides than an Eames chair and a Wassily, a Le Corbusier lamp, a Chihuly vase, many questionable global artifacts, and, as he brags in the pilot, a couch that is “an exact replica of the one Coco Chanel had in her Paris atelier”? As a 1994 Chicago Tribune article points out, the decor choices were extremely deliberate—and extremely pricey…

From the available numbers, I learned that in 1989, the average salary for a psychiatrist was $117,700. Though Frasier likely would have made less starting out and more by the end of his tenure, for the sake of simplifying things, let’s say he worked that job at that salary from 1983 through 1993. If he saved the recommended 20% of his income during this period, he would have $235,400 stashed away at the end of that 10-year period—of course, this is before taxes…

“We talked about, ‘If anybody wonders how he can afford this it’s because Frasier has an investment income,’” Keenan told me. “He made a fair amount of money in Boston as a private therapist and he lectured and he wrote articles and he just invested very well. And at one point somebody said, ‘He’s from Seattle, maybe he got in on the ground floor of Microsoft.’ Little dividends arrived to augment what he was making in the station.”…

Keenan also pointed out that Frasier wouldn’t have seemed as wealthy compared to Niles, who lived in a “preposterously baronial house” thanks to Maris’s money. Plus, to an unfamiliar audience, “radio host” would have probably seemed like a pretty impressive and well-paying job.

In other words, the viewer should not ask so many questions. Just enjoy the show.

Seriously though, I could imagine a few additional points of explanation:

  1. Perhaps there was some unusual circumstance around the acquisition of the condo. Given the strange circumstances Frasier could get himself into, this is not hard to imagine. A short sale. Some gift or reduced price from a thankful client. He used his dad’s pension money from working as a cop. There could be lots of ways to explain this given the hijinks of the show.
  2. Frasier might have saved some money from good investments or had some extra earnings. At the same time, his character is not exactly one who makes wise long-term decisions. Was he smart enough to employ a good investment fund manager? Did he fall into some money (such as Microsoft stock as hinted above)?
  3. Frasier needs this condo as part of who he is. The expensive items, the preening tastes, the haughtiness are all tied to a pattern of conspicuous consumption. He likes to show off and does so with what he owns, including his residence. And the running gag with his father’s old chair does not work without everything attesting to Frasier’s acquisition habits.
  4. What other residence would suit Frasier? A single-family home in the suburbs? A tacky show of impressiveness like the home of his brother? A smaller city bachelor pad?

In a land of driving, both a bifurcated housing market and car buying market

Americans like to drive and have structured much of daily life around driving. This means many people need a reliable car to get to a decent job, which then enables them to buy a decent home in a place they want to live. But, what if both the house and car buying markets do not provide a lot of good options at lower prices? From the auto industry:

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Yet that increase was nothing next to what happened in the used market. The average price of a used vehicle surged nearly 14% — roughly 10 times the rate of inflation — to over $23,000. It was among the fastest such increases in decades, said Ivan Drury, a senior manager of insights for Edmunds.com.

The main reason for the exploding prices is a simple one of economics: Too few vehicles available for sale during the pandemic and too many buyers. The price hikes come at a terrible time for buyers, many of whom are struggling financially or looking for vehicles to avoid public transit or ride hailing because the virus. And dealers and analysts say the elevated prices could endure or rise even further for months or years, with new vehicle inventories tight and fewer trade-ins coming onto dealers’ lots…

Charlie Chesbrough, senior economist for Cox Automotive, predicted a tight used-vehicle market with high prices for several more years…

In recent years, automakers had set the stage for higher prices by scrubbing many lower-priced new vehicles that had only thin profit margins. Starting five years ago, Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler (now Stellantis) stopped selling many sedans and hatchbacks in the United States. Likewise, Honda and Toyota have canceled U.S. sales of lower-priced subcompacts. Their SUV replacements have higher sticker prices.

On the housing side, builders and developers have devoted less attention to starter homes. It can be difficult for some workers to find housing near where they work. The ideal of the suburban single-family home is not attainable for all.

On the driving side, cars are not cheap to operate and maintain. Moving to the suburbs and many American communities requires a commitment to driving to work. A reliable car at a reasonable price could go a long ways to keeping transportation costs down and freeing up household money for other items.

These issues require longer-term planning and attention: how can people with fewer resources still obtain decent housing and decent transportation options? COVID-19 may have exacerbated these issues but the article about the auto industry suggests these trends were already underway; car prices were on the upswing. Trying to tackle density issues or providing more mass transit are difficult to address in many communities and regions. A conversion to electric cars in the next decade or two sounds good but imposes new costs on drivers.

In the meantime, those with resources can likely pick up better options for both cars and homes. These choices can then have positive cascading effects on future spending and outcomes.