By Susanne Trimbath and Juan Montoya
There’s something about “Housing Affordability” that makes it very popular: Presidents past and present set goals around it. The popularity of this perennial policy goal rests on the feel-good idea that everyone would live in a home that they own if only they could afford it. Owning your own home is declared near and far to be the American Dream.
Recently, however, it seems that Americans’ aren’t all having the same dream. Despite improving conditions of affordability, home sales continue to decline. Affordability is balanced on a tripod of prices, incomes and interest rates. As incomes become unstable because of mounting job losses, housing falls further out of balance – no change in price or mortgage interest rates will be enough to rebalance the tripod within the next twelve to eighteen months,
In a new study on Homeownership Affordability we identify two anomalies in the data: home sales are falling as housing affordability is rising; and the rate of homeownership since 2004 has fallen despite the apparent “boom” in housing.
Rising Affordability with Falling Sales
In the last three years, the average mortgage interest rate was 6.14%. Such historically low rates should improve affordability compared to, say, the time of the 1990s credit crunch when mortgage rates averaged 9.3%. Leading up to 2007, median income in the US rose by 0.6% and median home prices fell by 3.1% – also a positive indicator for affordability. The mortgage payment to income ratio at the median has fallen to about 23%. Compared to 32% in 2002 and even 40% in 1988, just before the 1990s credit crunch, this should be a very positive indicator for homeowner affordability. Yet, new home sales have plummeted from a rate of about 1.4 million per year in the summer of 2005 to less than 500,000 by the end of 2008.
In 2007, for every 1% improvement in affordability, home prices fell by 2%. There clearly has been a breakdown in the fundamental relationship between supply and demand. Why? It appears potential buyers are concerned that homes are over-priced and, worse yet, that home price declines will increase in the future. There are indications that some households think that homes are over-priced regardless of affordability and, furthermore, not everyone who can afford a home is interested in buying one. Some communities, some jobs and some lifestyles are better suited to renting.
Ownership Policies with Falling Ownership
All this has occurred in the face of conscious federal policy. Expanding homeownership opportunities, especially for minorities, was a fundamental aim of the Bush Administration’s housing policy – one strongly supported by Democrats in Congress. In June 2002, HUD announced a new goal to increase minority homeownership by 5.5 million by the end 2010. Hispanics were the only minorities to have clear gains in homeownership through 2008: a 4.1 percentage point increase compared to the end of the last decade. The gains in homeownership for black Americans was about the same as for the nation as a whole. Yet the ownership rate for the nation as a whole declined by almost 1 percent during the more recent “housing bust” years.
Some regions saw bigger losses in homeownership than others, especially those outside the urban areas and particularly in the Midwest.
Where do we go from here?
We believe the analytical focus needs to shift to employment when analyzing housing for individual states, regions or cities. The accompanying table shows where, at the state level, the workforce is shrinking as unemployment is rising. These are the areas, much like Southern California at the end of the Cold War or Houston after the 1980s bust in oil prices, that will suffer potentially devastating drops in home prices as a result of forced sales by departing labor.
Supply, demand and pricing, the cost of financing, household income and home prices – all are critical factors in the equation of homeownership. But more than anything we believe that mounting job losses, in addition to a declining stock market, will now play the critical role. Over time, the current credit crisis will not only make funds more scarce – which must eventually drive up the price of credit – but also drive up the risk premium demanded by lenders. Growing job uncertainty will increase the price of credit even further.
These factors alone will negatively impact affordability in the future. Keeping mortgage rates artificially low (for example, as the Federal Reserve buys up mortgage-backed securities as proposed in Congress) will create upward pressure on prices, which in turn will hurt affordability. Additionally, we see continued imbalances in the supply-demand equation as foreclosures add inventory to the market.
In the coming 12 to 18 months, we believe that interest rates will rise and incomes will, at best, remain flat in the face of the global recession. More importantly, as job losses mount, “affordability” will be less important and “maintainability” – the ability of homeowners to keep their homes in the face of unemployment – will emerge as a major factor. In the meantime, housing affordability will hang precariously out of balance due to falling incomes and decreasing jobs as well as surging real interest rates.
|State Change in Total Workforce and Unemployed|
%change in number of workforce
%change in number of unemployed
Unemployment rate as of Dec. 2008
|New York City||1.4%||47.2%||7.4%|
Dr. Trimbath is a former manager of depository trust and clearing corporations in San Francisco and New York. She is co-author of Beyond Junk Bonds: Expanding High Yield Markets (Oxford University Press, 2003), a review of the post-Drexel world of non-investment grade bond markets. Dr. Trimbath is also co-editor of and a contributor to The Savings and Loan Crisis: Lessons from a Regulatory Failure (Kluwer Academic Press, 2004)
Mr. Montoya obtained his MBA from Babson College (Wellesley, MA) and is a former research analyst at the Milken Institute (Santa Monica, CA) where he coauthored Housing Affordability in Three Dimensions with Dr. Trimbath. He currently works in the foodservice industry.