The latest house price data indicates no respite in the continuing price declines, especially where the declines have been the most severe. But no place has seen the devastation that has occurred in California. As median house prices climbed to an unheard-of level – 10 or more times median household incomes – a sense of euphoria developed among many purchasers, analysts and business reporters who deluded themselves into believing that metaphysics or some such cause would propel prices into a more remote orbit.
Yet gravity still held. A long-term supply of owned housing for a large population cannot be sustained at prices people cannot afford. Since World War II, median house prices in the United States have tended to be 3.0 times or less median household incomes. This fact should have been kept in mind before – and now as well.
By abandoning this standard, California’s coastal markets skidded towards disaster. Just over the past year, house prices in the Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose metropolitan areas have declined at more than three times the greatest national annual loss rate during the Great Depression as reported by economist Robert Schiller.
But the re-entry into earthly prices is just beginning. In the four coastal markets, the Median Multiple has plummeted since our third quarter 2008 data just reported in our 5th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey. The most recent data from the California Association of Realtors would suggest that the Median Multiple has fallen from 8.0 to 6.7 in San Francisco, in just three months. In San Jose, the drop has been from 7.4 to 6.3. Los Angeles has fallen from 7.2 to 6.2 and San Diego has slipped from 5.9 to 5.2.
Yet history suggests that there is a good distance yet to go. California’s prices will have to fall much further, particularly along the coast. Due largely to restrictive land use policies, California house prices had risen to well above the national Median Multiple by the early 1990s, an association identified by Dartmouth’s William Fischel. During the last trough, after the early 1990s bubble and before the 2000s bubble, the Median Multiple in the four coastal California markets fell to between 4.0 and 4.5. It would not be surprising for those levels to be seen again before there is price stability.
Using this standard, I expect median house prices could fall another $150,000 to $200,000 in the San Francisco and San Jose metropolitan areas. The Los Angeles area could see another $100,000 to $125,000 drop, while the San Diego area could be in store for a further decline of $50,000 to $75,000.
Is there anything that can stop this? Yes there is – the government. This is the same force that caused much of the problem at the onset. Now with the passage of Senate Bill 375 and an over-zealous state Attorney General more intent on engaging in a misconceived anti-greenhouse gas jihad, it may become all but impossible to build the single-family homes that, according to a Public Policy Institute of California survey, are preferred by more than 80% of California. Instead we may see ever more dense housing adjacent to new transit stops – exactly the kind of housing that has flooded the market in recent years. Many of these units, once meant for sale, have been turned into rentals. Many others lay empty.
In the short run, however, even Jerry Brown’s lunacy will have limited impact. The continuing recession will continue to reduce prices even though the supply remains steady. The surplus of dense condominium units will expand the swelling inventory of rentals, as prices continue to drop towards a 4.0 to 4.5 Median Multiple or below.
The one place which may benefit from this will be some of the less glamorous inland markets, that are suddenly becoming far more affordable. Sacramento earns the honor of being the first major metropolitan area to reach a Median Multiple of 3.0, as a result of continuing declines. Riverside-San Bernardino is close behind, and should be in this territory within the next year.
But many other overpriced markets have yet to experience this kind of pain. Prime candidates for big reductions include New York, Miami, Portland (Oregon), Boston and Seattle. These areas may not have suffered the extreme disequilibrium seen in California, but their prices have soared. As the economies of these regions – New York and Portland in particular – begin to unravel, prices will certainly fall, perhaps precipitously.
This may not make Manhattan or Portland’s Pearl District affordable for the middle class but could drive prices to reasonable levels in the outer boroughs, Long Island or the Portland suburbs. This may be a disaster for the speculators, architects, developers and some local governments, but for many middle class families it may seem like the dawning of a new age of reason.
|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.”