The 5th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey covers 265 metropolitan markets in six nations (US, UK, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand), up from 88 in 4 nations in the first edition (see note below). This year’s edition includes a preface by Dr. Shlomo Angel of Princeton University and New York University, one of the world’s leading urban planning experts. Needless to say, there have been significant developments in housing affordability and house prices over the past year. In some parts of the United States, the landscape has been radically changed by rapidly dropping house prices.
Our measure of housing affordability is the “Median Multiple,” which is the annual pre-tax median house price divided by the median household income. Over the decades since World War II, this measure has typically been 3.0 or below in all of the surveyed nations and virtually all of their metropolitan areas, until at least the mid-1990s. There were bubbles before that time in some markets, but during the “troughs” most markets returned to the 3.0 or below norm.
Unfortunately, the most recent bubble was and continues to be the most severe since records have been kept. The Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey rates housing affordability using five categories, indicated in the table below.
Housing Affordability Ratings
5.1 & Over
4.1 to 5.0
3.1 to 4.0
3.0 or Less
Median Multiple: Median House Price divided by Median Household Income
At the height of the current bubble, some markets saw remarkable declines in housing affordability. In some Median Multiples exceeded three times the historic norm. Among major markets (metropolitan markets with more than 1,000,000 population), Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego all reached or exceeded a Median Multiple of 10. Many other markets saw their Median Multiples rise to double the historic norm and beyond, such as New York, Miami, Boston, Seattle, Sacramento and Riverside-San Bernardino. Other major US markets – such as Portland, Orlando, Las Vegas, Providence and Washington, DC – rose to above 5, a figure rarely seen in any market before the currently deflating bubble.
America has hardly been an exception. Outside the United States, virtually all major markets in Australia were well over 6.0, as well as London and Auckland in New Zealand. Vancouver was the most unaffordable major market, with a Median Multiple of 8.4. Of particular note is barely growing Adelaide, which nonetheless has seen its Median Multiple rise to 7.1.
But, at least in the US, the unaffordability wave has crested. Generally, the house prices peaked in the United States in mid-2007. Since then the markets with the biggest bubbles took the lead in bursting. By the third quarter of 2008 (the Survey reports on the third quarter each year), the Median Multiple in San Francisco had dropped to 8.0, San Jose to 7.4, Los Angeles to 7.2 and San Diego to 5.9. Of course, even at these levels, housing affordability in these metropolitan areas remained worse than ever before. History would suggest that housing prices in these markets have a long way to go before they hit bottom.
Other markets have improved affordability more substantially. Inland California markets like Sacramento and Riverside-San Bernardino have gone from the “seriously” to only the “moderately unaffordable” category, with rates now in the mid-3.0s. Data for the fourth quarter is likely to indicate that Sacramento will be the first major housing market in California to return to a Median Multiple of 3.0, a rather large fall from its peak of 6.6 in 2005.
Outside California, other markets have experienced significant price declines. But some, like Miami still at 5.6, have a long way to go before they reach the historic norm of 3.0. Las Vegas and Phoenix (which nearly reached 5) may be closer, falling to the “moderately unaffordable ” category with Median Multiples of between 3.1 and 4.0. Seattle and Portland have fallen 10 percent or more as of the third quarter but remain severely overpriced, suggesting they, like Miami, have more price declines in the offing.
Much of the blame for the bubble has been placed at the feet of a mortgage finance industry that passed out money as if it was not its own. Not surprisingly, the ready availability of money had its effect on the market. Demand rose sharply and included many who couldn’t afford to pay.
But profligate lending practices represent only a relatively minor cause of the bubble. This was missed by all but a few economists, notably Dr. Angel’s Princeton colleague and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugmann. He could see that there was not one “national bubble” but a series of localized ones. The real villain, he noted, lay in land use regulations.
In reality the bubble missed much of the country – from Atlanta to El Paso to Omaha and Albany. There were house price increases, of course, but they were generally within the Median Multiple ceiling norm of 3.0. There were a few exceptions, but even they did not exceed 3.0 by much.
Rising demand was not the big problem. Housing affordability remained at virtually the same Median Multiple level in Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, the three fastest growing metropolitan areas of more than 5,000,000 population in the developed world. Many other major markets across the South and Midwest experienced little price increase and maintained their affordability. Indianapolis, which has a Median Multiple of 2.2, continued to gain domestic migration from other areas and has a near Sun Belt growth rate. Kansas City, Louisville and Columbus remain affordable and are attracting people from elsewhere.
Although there are signs of a correction in parts of California, Nevada and Arizona, some bubbles in high-regulation markets are still in the early stage of deflating. New York, Boston, Portland and Seattle particularly may be in danger; the worst consequences of their bubbles lie ahead.
The longer-term question remains whether these and other still highly over-valued markets in California, the Pacific Northwest, Florida and the Northeast will return to affordability, at or near a Median Multiple of 3.0. The necessary price drops would be bad news for regional economies because of the losses homeowners and financial institutions would sustain.
At the same time maintenance of the currently elevated prices would also be bad news. In the past 7 years, 4.5 million people have moved from higher-cost markets to lower-cost markets in the United States. The formerly attractive markets of the California coast alone have seen more than two million people depart for other places since 2000. For these areas, a return to historic levels of housing affordability may be a prime pre-requisite to restoring economic health.
|HOUSING AFFORDABILITY RATINGS UNITED STATES METROPOLITAN MARKETS OVER 1,000,000|
|Rank||Metropolitan Area||Median Multiple|
|32||Salt Lake City||3.8|
|46||Miami-West Palm Beach||5.6|
|2008: 3rd Quarter|
|Median Multiple: Median House Price divided by Median Household Income|
Note: The Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey is a joint effort of Wendell Cox of Demographia (United States) and Hugh Pavletich of Performance Urban Planning (New Zealand).
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.”