Housing is still a problem in America

A Harvard report shows the housing market is still hard on low and moderate income residents.

A new report on housing across the country paints a grim picture centered around high rents, low wages and booming wealth inequality.

The State of the Nation’s Housing Report conducted by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies was released on June 19 and illustrated many of the issues still facing homeowners and renters in the United States. Chief among these were low wage growth, the overbuilding of luxury apartments coupled with a loss of affordable housing and older generations soaking up a disproportionate amount of wealth.

Homeownership rates among young adults are lower than they were 30 years ago and the share of cost-burdened renters is higher. Ballooning housing costs are generally to blame with the national median rent rising 20 percent faster than the overall inflation rate and the median home price rising 41 percent faster.

The report attributes this to a variety of factors, including a shortage of skilled construction workers needed to build new homes. There were nearly 200,000 vacant positions for construction workers at the end of 2017 and construction wages have not increased enough to attract more workers. On top of this, the price of building materials has risen and buildable land has become more scarce and expensive in many areas. In addition, local zoning regulations, which bar upzoning, limits the amount of housing and density that can be built out.

This has put pressure on developers to build luxury apartments that are far out of reach for the majority of renters in the United States. This has led to an overbuilding at the top end of the rental market as vacancies in high-cost apartments is at 7.7 percent while cheaper apartments are at 6.8 percent. The number of apartments renting for less than $650 a month fell by five percent nationwide between 2006 and 2016. And over the same period, the lowest cost rental stock shrank by more than 10 percent in more than one-third of the nation’s 381 metro areas. This indicates that expensive and luxury rental units did not filter down to more affordable levels.

This presents a problem for housing strategies that focus on building out as much housing as possible regardless of the price-point — indicating that non-protected affordable housing often gets rebuilt, torn down or rents are increased. Expensive luxury units are not dropping in affordability once they are built. This could present a problem for Eastside renters as many of the large housing developments either planned or under construction are being touted as luxury units built for high-income renters.

Multi-family construction is leveling off after it spiked following the 2009 housing bubble. It hit a peak of nearly 400,000 units constructed annually nationwide in 2015. The report recommended the federal government expand lower-cost housing construction to relieve financial burdens for low- and moderate-income households through housing subsidies. However, it stated that federal funding is falling short in bridging the gap between incomes and market value rents as current efforts are inadequate to produce affordable homes for millions of households.

Nationwide, there were only 35 affordable units for every 100 extremely low-income renters in 2016, causing a shortfall of 7.2 million units. This could become much worse as unsubsidized low-rent units are being upgraded or shifted to market rates. In addition, the tax reform package passed by Congress reduces the corporate tax rate and lowers the value of low-income housing tax credits for investors who use them to reduce their tax liability. The value of these credits has dipped below $1, forcing affordable housing developers to struggle to make up the difference. Novogradac & Company estimated that the reduced credit value will lead to 242,000 fewer affordable units being built over the next decade.

While the housing market has been recovering from the 2008 Recession’s market crash, this is largely due to Millennials moving into home-owning ages and the size of the generation. Homeownership has reached 64 percent across the country, reaching the same level as before the 1994 housing crisis. However, ownership for adults aged 25-34 is 4.2 percent lower than 1994 and 6.3 percent lower than 1987. The difference is even higher for those aged 35 to 44 which was 5.5 and 8.2 percent, respectively.

Households age 65 and older are the only age group with higher homeownership rates today, up 3.3 percent from 1987. The report said the only reason the national rate is near 1994 levels is because older adults now make up a large share of home-owning households.

This is coupled with increasing generation and racial wealth inequality. Incomes are rising but older households have taken a larger share of it. Between 2006 and 2016 the median income for houses aged 65 to 74 rose 22 percent while younger generations saw much less of a boost. The gap between rich and poor has also widened, with the average household income in the top 20 percent reaching nearly 17 times that of the average income of households in the bottom quintile in 2016. This is an increase of from 2000 levels in which the disparity sat at 14 times.

Additionally, the gap between white households and black and Hispanic households remains large. The 2016 median income for black households was $39,000, or 40 percent below the $65,000 median income for white households. Hispanic households had an annual median income of $47,800. On top of this, the median wealth of white households in 2016 was nearly $163,000, a full 10 times higher than black households and eight times higher than Hispanics.

The gap between homeowner and renter wealth increased as well, with the median homeowner’s wealth increasing from $201,000 to $231,400 between 2013 and 2016. During the same time, the wealth of renter households dropped from $5,600 to $5,000.

Young households saw their wealth remain below historic levels with the median wealth of those 25-34 years old rising 19 percent between 2013 and 2016 to $17,600. This is 39 percent lower than in 1995. Those aged 35-44 saw an increase of 23 percent to $59,700, which was 27 percent lower than 1995 and those aged 45-55 had a median level of wealth 15 percent lower than in 1995.

In contrast, the median wealth of households aged 65 and older was $239,100 in 2016, a full 51 percent above 1995 levels.

Finally, the report states that the increase in homelessness across the country is due to a lack of affordable housing. Between 2010 and 2016 the homeless population increased by 14 percent to reach nearly 554,000 in 2017, with three times as many people using shelters for at least one night. With low wages and high housing costs, an unexpected expense or job loss can lead to eviction.

“Good-quality, safe, and affordable housing is fundamental to personal well-being and security. But for millions of U.S. families and individuals, paying today’s high housing costs means sacrificing on food, health care, savings, and other essential expenses,” the report said.

To top it off, the only way out of the current situation is greater federal leadership, the report said. Without federal intervention through increased housing subsidies and programs, the report said it was unlikely these trends can be stopped or reversed.

Local leaders have attempted to address the housing crisis too. King County Executive Dow Constantine announced on June 22 a plan to bond against future tax revenue to put $100 million towards affordable housing. The bond would be against future tax revenue from the hotel-motel tax to build new affordable housing or preserve existing units. The move comes after the Seattle City Council failed to follow through on a head tax on large corporations they approved before repealing it, which many across the country viewed as bowing to large corporate pressure.

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