Cracks In The Housing Market Are Starting To Show
Sticker shock is just one of numerous signs that a slowdown may already be happening. Cracks In The Housing Market Are Starting To Show
Single-family housing in the U.S. has been exuberant, but it’s vulnerable and the bubble is starting to leak.
Robust demand has come first and foremost from the massive monetary and fiscal stimulus that has pumped trillions of dollars directly into the pockets of consumers. Americans have used this money along with cheap and readily-available mortgages to finance houses in suburban and rural locations as they fled cramped and expensive big-city apartments, and also to avoid long commutes.
Millennials are helping to drive demand since many are in their 30s, prime ages for first-time homebuyers. On top of that, publicly-traded real estate investment trusts, big investment firms and pension funds are buying houses to rent out. In March, homes up for resale market spent a record-low 18 days on the market on average, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Although demand for single-family houses has surged, supply has not kept up. The market is 3.8 million units short of what is needed to meet demand, according to Freddie Mac, an increase of 50% since 2018. After the collapse of housing with the demise of subprime mortgages in 2008, the builders that survived have become more disciplined.
Also, new construction has been restrained by temporary shortages of materials and surging prices of key building materials such as lumber.
The supply of existing houses for sale has been curtailed as more homeowners decide to stay put. Many aren’t sure where they’d live next in these uncertain times. Also, the availability of cash-out refinancing opportunities has encouraged homeowners to hold on to their abodes instead of moving.
Freddie Mac reports that in the first quarter, $49.6 billion in home equity was cashed out, up 80% from a year earlier and the most since 2007. Another limit on the supply of existing houses for sale has been the pandemic-induced moratorium on foreclosures.
This has spawned feeding frenzies for available homes as eager buyers, some with all-cash offers, engage in bidding wars. Prices of existing home soared 16.2% in the first quarter from a year earlier, and in March, 39% of houses under contract sold for more than their list price, up from 24% a year earlier.
The bonanza conjures up memories of the mid-2000s when the subprime mortgage bubble pushed up prices to levels that were followed by a 35% plunge. Speculation is certainly part of today’s activity, but unlike then, lenders require high credit scores and sizable downpayments.
Still, housing is a highly leveraged asset, so a rise in financing costs can be lethal. But I don’t foresee a big leap in U.S. Treasury yields and, therefore, 30-year fixed mortgage rates even though supply-chain disruptions and inefficiencies in restarting the economy are causing a temporary spurt in inflation.
Even so, the gap between 10-year Treasury yields and 30-year fixed-rate mortgages is so narrow that home-loan rates could rise a full percentage point or more and still be within the historic range.
Even without a rise in financing costs, affordability is becoming an issue. In December, before the big run-up in prices, the median price for single-family houses and condos was less affordable than historic averages in 55% of U.S. counties, up from 43% a year earlier and 33% three years earlier, according to ATTOM Data Solutions.
And unless households get further rounds of federal stimulus money, that earlier source of funding for housing will no longer be present. With some 7 million fewer Americans employed now than before the pandemic, household income growth in future quarters probably won’t be sufficient to replace stimulus checks. Plus, much of the excess homeowner equity that can be withdrawn may already be gone.
As the pandemic eases, many Americans will probably continue to prefer single-family houses away from major cities, but some will return, reducing the demand for suburban houses. Meanwhile, high prices will spur supply in the form of new construction.
Furthermore, demand for single-family houses may continue to be curtailed by “doubling up.” Pew Research Center found that 52% of Americans ages 18 to 29 were living with at least one of their parents last year, up from 47% in 2019.
Numerous signs of a slowdown are already apparent. The number of months to exhaust the supply of existing homes on the market at current sales rates rose in each of the first four months of 2021.
Lenders’ willingness to issue mortgages is at its lowest level since 2014, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, and those with less than pristine credit scores and without sizeable downpayments are finding it harder to obtain financing. In 2020, 70% of new mortgages were issued to borrowers with credit scores of at least 760, up from 61% in 2019, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Building permits, a harbinger of future housing starts, are nowhere near where they need to be to slake demand. A Conference Board survey finds that plans to purchase houses over the next six months fell from 7.1% in April to 4.3% in May, the biggest drop since monthly numbers began in 1977. Mortgage applications for new purchases are down 18% year-to-date, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
History suggests that when bubbles begin to leak, small tears usually enlarge as more and more weakness in their fabric is revealed, ultimately leading to collapse. The current enthusiasm for single-family housing has reached such extremes that a deflation of the bubble seems likely—and may be commencing.
The Housing Market’s Fever Shows More Signs of Breaking
It turns out there is a limit to how high prices can go.
Housing Fever: The Breakening
In “The Sun Also Rises,” Mike Campbell famously says he went bankrupt “Two ways: Gradually, then suddenly.” The housing market’s mania might end similarly.
We’re getting evidence of the “gradually” part, anyway. Last month Conor Sen pointed out homebuilders were responding to exorbitant lumber costs by just dropping their toolbelts and grabbing a sandwich. This isn’t what you do if you think you’re about to sell a lot of houses at high prices. Now Gary Shilling has found a few more hints of a slowdown, from the rising number of homes on the market to a drop in permits for new construction to consumers balking at ludicrous prices.
Gary also notes the pandemic trends driving the market recently — stimulus money, plunging interest rates, New York City being dead forever — are stalling or reversing. There may soon be a better time for you to buy that sprawling New Jersey estate.
For Many Home Buyers, A 5% Down Payment Isn’t Enough
Half of mortgage borrowers put down at least 20% in April. That is locking many people out of homeownership.
Would-be home buyers without big piles of cash are getting left on the sidelines.
In the turbocharged housing market, prices are surging and homes on the market are routinely selling for far more than the listing price. Those who can’t afford big down payments are often the ones losing out.
Half of existing-home buyers in April who used mortgages put at least 20% down, according to a National Association of Realtors survey. In 10 years of record-keeping, that percentage has hit or exceeded 50% three times, and all have been since last fall. A quarter of existing-home buyers in April paid cash, the highest level since 2017, NAR said.
Oscar Reyes Santana has been house hunting with his parents and siblings for more than a year in California’s San Fernando Valley. They are all first-time buyers and budgeted for a 5% down payment.
The family bid on at least five homes, each time offering at least $30,000 above the asking price, but they lost out every time, said Mr. Reyes Santana, who is 23.
“It’s been really tough to try to beat everyone else,” he said.
They have all but given up the search for now, and are focused on saving up for a bigger down payment.
Home prices are surging. The median existing-home price rose 19% from a year earlier to $341,600 in April, a record high, according to NAR. That is largely because there aren’t enough homes on the market to meet demand.
In such a housing market, sellers can often choose among multiple offers. Cash buyers have an advantage because they don’t need to secure mortgages, which can make the transaction go faster. Sellers sometimes worry that offers with smaller down payments are likelier to fall through during the loan-closing process, agents say.
Many borrowers who can afford only small upfront costs get loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration or the Department of Veterans Affairs. In an April NAR survey of real-estate agents, 27% said sellers were unlikely to accept an offer with an FHA or VA loan, and another 6% said sellers would refuse such an offer. These loans are less attractive to sellers because they have stricter closing conditions, real-estate agents say.
While mortgage originations of all types rose last year as home buying surged, FHA and VA loans lost market share to conventional loans. FHA loans, which often go to first-time buyers, accounted for 10% of home purchases in the first quarter of 2021, the second-lowest level since 2008, according to Attom Data Solutions.
“It’s very hard to get my FHA offers accepted,” said Olivia Chavez Serrano, a real-estate agent in Los Angeles.
Bigger down payments can cushion the housing market in a downturn. In the 2007-09 recession, home buyers who had made tiny down payments were quickly underwater as soon as home prices started to fall.
A lump sum of 20% or more can be hard to come up with as home prices skyrocket, especially without help from family members. “I’d say at least 50% of my first-time home buyers are getting gifts right now,” said Chris Borg, a mortgage broker at Vantage Mortgage Group Inc.
Low-down-payment loans and down-payment assistance programs are touted by affordable-housing advocates as crucial tools for increasing the homeownership rate, particularly for minority buyers. In 2019, a higher proportion of FHA and VA borrowers were Black or Hispanic compared with conventional-loan borrowers, according to the Urban Institute. Some congressional Democrats have proposed new down-payment assistance initiatives to help first-time buyers.
Surging home prices are also complicating appraisals, which means some buyers are being forced to shell out more cash than they had expected.
Appraisals are based partly on recent sale prices for comparable homes in the area. When housing prices rise quickly, appraisal values don’t always keep up. Mortgage lenders will typically lend only enough to cover the appraised value of a home, so when an appraisal comes in low, the buyer has to make up the difference or let the deal fall through.
For example, a buyer who plans to put 20% down on a $500,000 purchase expects to pay $100,000. But if the home is appraised at $450,000, the cash payment goes up to $140,000—the sum of the $50,000 shortfall plus a $90,000 down payment.
Many buyers are still getting offers accepted without putting 20% down. First-time home buyers who used mortgages paid 9.1% down on average year-to-date through mid-May, though that is up from 8.4% for all of 2020, according to CoreLogic. Repeat buyers paid 16.6% down on average.
Briana Stansbury, who works at a community college in Portland, Ore., recently made an offer on a two-bedroom house. She used a 5%-down loan program that Freddie Mac offers for first-time buyers, and she agreed to go through with the purchase even if the appraisal came in as much as $10,000 below her purchase price of $371,500.
That put Ms. Stansbury at risk of having to come up with extra cash in a hurry, but she had lost out on bids for other houses and thought it would give her a leg up.
Ms. Stansbury lost sleep while she waited for the appraisal. But it came back above the sale price, and she closed on the house in May.
Danyell Allen of Cedar Park, Texas, felt ready to buy a house this year. She had saved up for a 5% down payment. Her children wanted to paint their walls and adopt a pet, which they can’t do in their rental house.
But after losing out on more than 10 offers, she called off the search. “The lowest I heard I was beat out on any home was $30,000 over asking price,” she said. “That’s not something I can do.”
U.S. Home-Price Growth Rose To Record In April
S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller national index of average home prices up 14.6%.
U.S. home prices surged at their fastest pace ever in April as buyers competing for a limited number of homes on the market pushed the booming housing market to new records.
The S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller National Home Price Index, which measures average home prices in major metropolitan areas across the nation, rose 14.6% in the year that ended in April, up from an 13.3% annual rate the prior month. April marked the highest annual rate of price growth since the index began in 1987.
Home prices have surged this year due to low mortgage-interest rates, which have spurred strong demand, and a continued shortage of homes for sale. Many homes are getting multiple offers and selling above asking price. The home-price surge is widespread around the U.S., affecting buyers and sellers in big cities, suburbs and small towns.
The median existing-home sales price in May rose almost 24% from a year earlier, topping $350,000 for the first time, the National Association of Realtors said earlier this month.
Home sales have started to decline in recent months, because there aren’t enough houses on the market for all the buyers looking to buy. Rising prices have also deterred buyers, and many builders are capping sales to manage their costs and production pace. Some economists expect the pace of home-price growth to slow as well by the end of the year.
But real-estate agents say in many areas, the market is so frenzied that a slight slowdown in activity wouldn’t make a big difference.
“It’s been crazy within the last year,” said Scott Chase, chief operating officer at Intero Real Estate Services, who is based in Los Altos, Calif. “My thinking is, is this going to slow down with people being vaccinated and wanting to go on vacation? [But] it is still incredibly active.”
While the national pace of price gains is now faster than during the housing boom in the early 2000s, this market is less prone to a downturn, economists say. Ultralow mortgage interest rates mean that the typical home buyer’s monthly payment hasn’t risen as rapidly as the typical house price. Lending standards are also stricter.
But fast-rising home prices and the limited inventory are making homeownership less attainable for first-time buyers or those with limited budgets.
“Affordability is worsening,” said Mark Fleming, chief economist at First American Financial Corp. “That’s what will eventually cause house prices to not continue to accelerate and then eventually begin to slow down.”
Some workers may also decide to hold off on moving until they know their companies’ plans for returning to the office. The rise in remote work during the pandemic spurred many households to move farther from their offices.
“Folks that were looking to buy a home, thinking that they were going to work remotely, are now increasingly putting those decisions on hold,” said Mark Vitner, senior economist with Wells Fargo & Co. “I would expect that home prices are going to moderate all over the country later this year and in 2022.”
The Case-Shiller 10-city index gained 14.4% over the year ended in April, compared with a 12.9% increase in March. The 20-city index rose 14.9%, after an annual gain of 13.4% in March. Price growth accelerated in all of the 20 cities.
Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal expected the 20-city index to gain 14.5%.
Phoenix had the fastest year-over-year home-price growth in the country for the 23rd straight month, at 22.3%, followed by San Diego at 21.6%. Charlotte, N.C., Cleveland, Dallas, Denver and Seattle all recorded record-high annual price gains.
Andy Rodrigues and Karibel Montero started looking for a house in the Seattle area last fall, because they were renting a one-bedroom apartment and wanted more space.
“People were going crazy with the offers they were making,” Mr. Rodrigues said. “At some point, we actually decided to stop house hunting and just go and rent because we found it was really difficult.”
The couple eventually bought a three-bedroom home in April in Lynnwood, Wash., farther from Seattle than they had originally looked.
A separate measure of home-price growth by the Federal Housing Finance Agency also released Tuesday found a 15.7% increase in home prices in April from a year earlier, a record in data going back to 1991.
For Millennials, A Starter Home Is Hard To Find
Shortage of small, single-family homes leaves some first-time buyers frustrated and out of luck in a hot housing market.
The shortage of available starter homes feels like yet another hurdle blocking some millennials’ path to traditional money milestones.
“It just feels like every little thing keeps getting put on hold,” said Samantha Berrafato, a 27-year-old house hunter searching for her first home in the Chicago area. “I’ve been putting having kids on hold, and I had put having a wedding on hold because we just couldn’t afford it. Now it’s like [that with] the house buying.”
The first rung on the homeownership ladder has long been an affordable “starter home.” These houses, with their smaller footprints and selling prices, allowed young homeowners to build wealth and upsize as they started their families.
But a number of factors are complicating this decadeslong trend.
Supply of “entry-level housing”—which Freddie Mac defines as homes under 1,400 square feet—is at a five-decade low.
Surging prices and stiff competition mean there aren’t enough smaller, more affordable starter homes to go around in many regions. The pandemic and subsequent recession, along with the student debt crisis and delayed family formation, contributed to frustration and despair among younger house hunters.
“There just aren’t enough of these homes to fulfill the demand,” said Ed Pinto, director of the AEI Housing Center at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s creating this ‘Great American Land Rush,’ as I call it. People are moving around and there’s tremendous demand, but the inventory is down.”
Three months ago, Ms. Berrafato and her fiancé began looking to buy their first home with a budget of around $300,000. They secured a 3.25% rate on a 30-year mortgage and with a 5% down payment.
They widened their search to include fixer-uppers and foreclosures further out in the suburbs. In June, their offer for a 1,200-square-foot home was accepted.
As of 2020, the median age of a first-time home buyer was 33 years old, up from 30 years old a decade ago, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Delaying homeownership has far-reaching consequences for buyers’ financial lives. Those who became homeowners between the ages of 25 and 34 accumulated $150,000 in median housing wealth by their early 60s, according to an analysis from the Urban Institute. Those who waited until between the ages of 35 and 44 to buy netted $72,000 less in median housing wealth.
“This is a big deal,” said Sam Khater, chief economist and head of Freddie Mac’s Economic and Housing Research division. “We need to think about how we talk about affordable housing, because for most people, when they hear affordable housing, there’s an instant negative reaction. They think ‘low-income,’ right? The issue now is these fissures have not just invaded the middle class. It’s now going up into the upper-middle-income strata.”
Lately, data from the National Association of Home Builders shows new construction is again giving priority to higher square footage for single-family homes, a trend likely spurred by the widespread shift to working from home and house hunters’ need for more space.
“It’s been the hardest kind of home to build over the last five, six or seven years,” Robert Dietz, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders, said of starter homes.
In addition to competing with other buyers, house hunters are sometimes competing with investors, hedge funds and other huge firms, according to previous reporting from The Wall Street Journal.
As the summer selling season winds down, some house hunters feel they may soon have to find a rental that can bridge the gap or simply save their energy so they can resume looking when prices cool off.
Matthew Libassi, a 35-year-old public relations professional, is looking to buy with his husband on Long Island. He recently sold his apartment and moved in with family to save money. In his search for a home around $500,000, he has been disappointed in the lack of affordable small homes for a young couple.
“We don’t have a crazy list of demands,” he said. “But the stuff that we’re seeing is just major overhauls and with putting all the money that we have in, it’s just not doable.”
Mr. Pinto of the AEI Housing Center predicts the wait could be longer for many buyers. He expects more people to continue moving outside of metro areas in search of more space and greater affordability as employers expand their work-from-home policies post-pandemic.
“We think this is going to continue for some time, for years,” Mr. Pinto said. “Bottom line is, if you’re in an area like Phoenix or Raleigh or Austin, the people who are the current residents who would normally want to get on the first rung of that ladder—they’re going to have a much harder time.”
When the hunt finally comes to a close, relief isn’t always immediate. Though Ms. Berrafato got her starter home, there remain many costs to consider, including moving expenses and getting out of their rental lease early.
“We are so relieved and excited, but now comes new stresses,” she said.
Homebuilder Rally Turns To Rout On Signs Of Fading Housing Boom
The outlook for U.S. homebuilder stocks is darkening as investors see slowing home sales and skyrocketing prices as a sign the housing boom may fade.
An S&P index of 16 builders had surged nearly 250% between March 2020 and early May as the housing market proved one of the rare bright spots in an economy paralyzed by the pandemic. But the index has slumped about 12% since then, with industry bellwethers DR Horton Inc. and PulteGroup Inc. among the 11 companies that saw double-digit declines.
The retreat came as multiple metrics showed that the real estate market is cooling off. New home sales and housing starts undershot median economist estimates for April and May, while mortgage applications fell to their lowest in more than a year.
With home price surging at the fastest rate in more than three decades, more than half of consumers surveyed by the University of Michigan said in May that it was a bad time to buy a house, the highest share since 1982.
These disappointing housing data prompted analysts to slash ratings and forecasts. DR Horton and TRI Pointe Homes Inc. were downgraded by RBC Thursday on concerns that order growth will slow as backlogs pile up. PulteGroup was cut to neutral last week by Goldman Sachs Group Inc., which cited a lack of upside to the company’s valuation.
“To the extent the data continues to weaken, I think there would be further risk to the stocks,” RBC analyst Mike Dahl said in an interview. The housing market is reaching pricing levels “that in the past have corresponded with a slower demand environment.”
For now, homebuilders are still able to command high prices due to low inventories and rock-bottom mortgage rates. The prices of about 72% of base floor plans were raised in June, according to RBC data, well above 47% last year. Companies including Lennar Corp. are even experimenting with auctions in some areas where demand is outstripping supply.
But BTIG analyst Carl Reichardt said he is telling homebuilders not to be overaggressive. He is “nervous” that builders may end up in a negative feedback loop where builders have to cut prices to retain buyers that are discouraged by ferocious bidding wars.
“We have to make sure the builders don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg,” Reichardt said in an interview.
Evercore ISI’s Stephen Kim, who labeled himself at the “extreme bullish end” of his peers, disagrees that decelerating home sales indicate a slowdown in demand. Instead, he argued that builders are holding back inventories deliberately even though new homes are needed. The gap between supply and demand is still wide, he said.
Kim expects sales to accelerate by September and sees the recent share-price drops as a buying opportunity. Following the latest round of selling in homebuilder shares, “there isn’t any name that I would say is not worth owning,” he said.
In the long run, the economic recovery, low mortgage rates and millennial buyers may benefit builders, though Reichardt said stock trading is likely to be “choppy” before homebuilders work through their backlogs and fix supply-chain issues.
“Concerns are going to stay with us for a little while,” Reichardt said. “You’re going to have this tussle between long-term bull and short-term bear through the summer and into the fall, which means stocks will be relatively range-bound.”
These Tenants Want Rent Relief. But They Also Want Lasting Change
Renter assistance and affordable housing funds are starting to come through in some parts of the U.S. But some tenants organizations see this as the moment to ask for more.
With the end of a federal moratorium on evictions fast-approaching, some renters are looking beyond immediate relief funds for what they see as more lasting solutions to the U.S. affordable housing crisis.
In California, that means pushing back on the dominance of big landlords; in Missouri, it’s pushing to keep developers and bankers out of the affordable housing decision-making process.
Both examples are an evolution of activists’ movement to cancel the rent at the start of the pandemic in the U.S. last year. With the eviction moratorium expiring at the end of July, state and local governments are racing against the clock to distribute billions of dollars in federal relief funds.
Tenants associations made up of residents in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles are resisting applying for government rent relief. Instead, they’re asking their buildings’ large property managers — Mosser Living and Veritas Investment — to forgive their rent entirely.
Though some of the members of the tenants associations are thousands of dollars in debt, their fight is about more than just their own rent payments. Their goal is to demand these landlords cover the cost of Covid financial losses, and to make sure public rent relief dollars flow to tenants with landlords who they perceive as unable to forgive rent entirely.
“We’re not just negotiating for ourselves but for the whole city,” says Eric Brooks, who’s been a tenant in a San Francisco property operated by Veritas for 27 years.
California Governor Gavin Newsom has said that the state’s $5.2 billion rental assistance program will cover every eligible renter in need. But some housing advocates say that there could still be thousands who fall through the cracks, particularly in some cities like San Francisco.
Whether or not that will prove to be enough funding, the activists say they are making an ideological argument, not just a practical one: In bailing out tenants, they say, the government shouldn’t also bail out the city’s largest landlords. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors laid out a similar case in April, when it passed a resolution that urged corporate landlords to step back and let smaller landlords have first dibs on the city’s rent relief funds.
A San Francisco–based company, Veritas oversees some $3.5 billion in assets, including more than 7,000 apartment units, making it one of the largest apartment managers in California. As it contended with Covid layoffs, Veritas went home with $3.6 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program loans while expanding its rental housing portfolio. The company also issued its own moratorium on evictions across its properties.
Veritas has maintained that all of its eligible tenants should apply for government relief. “Veritas residents who are eligible for public funds are just as deserving as other residents throughout the city who are applying for financial relief from hardship caused by the pandemic,” said Jeff Jerden, COO of Veritas Investments, in a statement. “If all state and city funds are expended, we have committed publicly to work with all residents that have remaining past due balances and would have qualified for rental relief under the state’s definition of need to ensure they can stay in their homes.”
A spokesperson from Mosser Living declined to comment.
In addition to state and federal funds, there is additional money newly earmarked for for San Francisco rent relief via a recent ballot initiative, Prop 1. That funding is sourced from taxes on the city’s most expensive property transfers, which is why the tenants associations say they will reject that, too. “Our goal would be to prevent those funds from simply circling back to the entities who were taxed in the first place, like Veritas,” said Brad Hirn, the lead organizer of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, who has been working with tenants associations at Mosser and Veritas. “[T]he Prop I funds should benefit small landlords and their tenants.”
Tom Bannon, the CEO of the California Apartment Association, which represents apartment landlords, doesn’t see any grounds for making that distinction, and stresses that only a fraction of California’s multi-billion-dollar fund has been depleted so far.
“If a landlord, large or small, has not been paid rent because their tenants have been impacted financially by Covid, then no matter who you are, you should get the rental assistance, that’s why the dollars are there,” he said.
Kansas City: A Pitch For Tenant-Led Development
In Kansas City, Missouri, a progressive tenants association is pushing for a structural overhaul to a new affordable housing program that would given decision-making authority to tenants instead of banks or investors.
The group, KC Tenants, is pitching a plan for a People’s Housing Trust Fund, essentially a tenant take-over of a nascent city program to fund building and preserving housing for the most vulnerable families. The city’s housing trust fund was established in 2018 but only funded in May, when it was seeded with $12.5 million from the federal American Rescue Plan.
Housing Trust Funds Are Not Novel: The federal government and 47 states, including Missouri, have housing trust funds, which subsidize housing for extremely low income families. The Missouri Housing Development Commission, which administers the state’s housing trust fund, comprises four elected leaders (including the governor) and six appointed commissioners, all of whom are currently bankers or investors. Although an advisory committee for the Missouri Housing Trust Fund includes many nonprofit leaders and community advocates, activists with KC Tenants want to see more grassroots representation.
They are calling for a board of renters installed at the helm of the newly funded municipal housing trust fund. They also want the program to be funded by a combination of funds diverted from law enforcement and tax and fee revenue from real estate transactions.
These changes would facilitate other goals for the group: defunding police and taxing gentrification. According to the activists, a People’s Housing Trust Fund would build affordable housing while also drawing resources away from the entities that make marginalized communities more vulnerable.
“We want to make sure that there aren’t developers at the lead or others interested in making profits off people,” says Erin Bradley, a leader with KC Tenants.
All Landlords or Small Landlords?
That anti-corporate sentiment is common among tenant associations and their allies. In California, tenants fighting to stay in their buildings also fear that if the larger property managers are able to weather the storm better than smaller landlords, they’ll gobble up distressed properties and monopolize the city’s rental homes.
Progressive lawmakers often take care to distinguish the need for rent relief for small landlords versus for all landlords. Compared to larger landlords, small landlords are more likely to be people of color, have lower incomes themselves, and be retirees who rely on rental income.
“They’re going to become massive giants in San Francisco,” said Maria Torech, through a Spanish translator, referring to Veritas, her landlord. Since losing her income last March, she’s racked up $30,000 in rent debt.
Another tenant, Mario Perez, said he applied for rent relief to cover unpaid rent accrued when he lost his job at a restaurant.
But based on conversations with the Mosser Tenants Association, he’s ready to withdraw his application, he said through a Spanish translator.
Another consideration for tenants who may lack official documentation is the fear that interacting with a government official, rather than a known private entity, could make them vulnerable to deportation.
Neither tenants association would say publicly how many members they had. The Veritas Tenants Association has been organizing since 2017, with members in “close to 130 buildings in San Francisco, the sole Veritas building in Alameda, several buildings in Oakland, and going on 10 in L.A.,” said Hirn.
Among the dozen tenants CityLab spoke to, three said they’re up to date on payments and aren’t at an immediate risk of eviction. They consider themselves part of the broader push for what they see as a more just and efficient distribution of funds.
The California Apartment Association’s Bannon stresses that large or small, landlords have mortgages and insurance and staff to pay. “How can you ask a landlord to just forgive rent? That doesn’t make any sense.”
The Shortage of Starter Homes Extends Beyond Major Cities
Supply of entry-level housing in U.S. is near a five-decade low, according to research by Freddie Mac.
For first-time buyers looking for starter homes in this year’s hot housing market, a decadeslong trend could further delay this long-awaited money milestone.
The supply of entry-level housing, which Freddie Mac defines as homes up to 1,400 square feet, is near a five-decade low, and data on new construction from the National Association of Home Builders shows that single-family homes are significantly bigger than they were years ago.
Homeowners from previous generations had access to smaller homes at the start of their financial lives. In the late 1970s, an average of 418,000 new units of entry-level housing were built each year, according to data from Freddie Mac. By the 2010s, that number had fallen to 55,000 new units a year. For 2020, an estimated 65,000 new entry-level homes were completed.
“You can really draw a straight line from the 1940s down to the most recent years, which is really striking and also very concerning,” said Sam Khater, chief economist and head of Freddie Mac’s Economic and Housing Research division.
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Mr. Khater said he initially expected to see this drop most acutely in historically expensive metropolitan areas such as New York and San Francisco. But looking across the country, he saw that house hunters in many different areas were facing the same problem.
“What was really striking to me was the consistency in the decline in the share of entry-level homes, irrespective of geography,” Mr. Khater said. “The thing that struck me the most was that really, it’s all endemic. It’s all over the U.S. It doesn’t matter where.”
This phenomenon is affecting real estate in 10 of the largest states, according to an analysis from Freddie Mac. In Florida, for example, the share of homes with living area up to 1,400 square feet was 58% of new housing supply in 1985. Thirty years later, the share plummeted to 12%.
Homeownership leads to greater wealth for those who buy earlier. An analysis from the Urban Institute estimates that those who became homeowners between the ages of 25 and 34 accumulated $150,000 in median housing wealth by their early 60s. Meanwhile, those who waited until between the ages of 35 and 44 to buy netted $72,000 less in median housing wealth.
When Kevin Crowder, a 52-year-old homeowner and economic-development consultant, bought his first starter home in 2003, he found a 1,000-square-foot apartment in the Miami area. In 2006, he bought what he said is his largest home ever: a two-bedroom house at 1,250 square feet.
“It’s insane what you see in the single-family market here with the pricing,” he said. “I would disagree that larger is needed. I think smaller is needed.”
Eager buyers have sparked bidding wars in many places, as remote work allows them to expand their house hunts. Further challenges—the crush of the student-loan crisis and ongoing wage stagnation—make it difficult for some to save a competitive down payment.
“We’ve got a record number of entry-level, demand buyers: the millennials coming into the market,” Mr. Khater said. “And yet we’ve had a seven- or eight-year decline in entry-level homes, and that’s not going to change.”
U.S. Median Home Price Hit New High In June
Median price rose to $363,300 as sales increased 1.4% on strong demand.
Continued strong demand pushed the median U.S. home price to a record high in June, though the national house-buying frenzy cooled slightly as supply ticked higher.
Existing-home sales rose 1.4% in June from the prior month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.86 million, the National Association of Realtors said Thursday. June sales rose 22.9% from a year earlier.
The median existing-home price rose to $363,300, in June, up 23.4% from a year earlier, setting a record high, NAR said, extending steady price increases amid limited inventory.
Separate figures on the labor market showed that the number of people receiving jobless benefits fell to the lowest level since early in the pandemic as states withdrew from participation in federal pandemic relief. First-time applications, meanwhile, rose as supply constraints persisted in the auto industry.
The housing-market boom is easing slightly, as rising prices are prompting more homeowners to list their houses for sale. Homes sold in June received four offers on average, down from five offers the previous month, said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist.
But the number of homes for sale remains far lower than normal, and robust demand due to ultralow mortgage-interest rates is expected to continue pushing home prices higher.
As more homes come on the market, they are quickly snapped up by buyers, said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union.
“Demand is trumping everything,” he said. “Higher inventory isn’t going to take the brakes off price increases.”
Many homes are selling above listing price and receiving multiple offers. The typical home sold in June was on the market for 17 days, holding at a record low, NAR said.
Dana Laboy and John Niehaus of Columbus, Ohio, started shopping in February for a house costing $400,000 or less, but they raised their budget after losing out on multiple offers, Ms. Laboy said.
“When we were losing out on houses left and right every weekend for eight weekends in a row, it was very demoralizing,” Ms. Laboy said. “I did not think that we would offer up to $40,000 over and still not get it, like we did in some cases.”
The couple’s rental lease ended in March and they moved in with Mr. Niehaus’s parents while they continued house hunting. They bought a three-bedroom house in June for $447,200.
There were 1.25 million homes for sale at the end of June, up 3.3% from May and down 18.8% from June 2020. At the current sales pace, there was a 2.6-month supply of homes on the market at the end of June.
Market watchers expect the housing frenzy to continue to cool in the coming months, as the number of homes for sale increases and high prices force some buyers out of the market.
“I don’t believe you’ll see the kinds of [price] increases you’ve seen in the last 12 months,” said Sheryl Palmer, chief executive of home builder Taylor Morrison Home Corp. “That’s not sustainable.”
First-time buyers or those who can only afford small down payments are struggling the most to compete. More than half of existing-home buyers in June who used mortgages to buy a property put at least 20% down, according to a NAR survey. Buyers are also making their offers stand out in this competitive market by agreeing to buy houses without contract terms that typically protect buyers, such as inspection requirements.
Alex Wolf and Maggie Jasper bought a two-story home in the Denver suburbs in June after a few months of hunting. Mr. Wolf and Ms. Jasper didn’t waive the home-inspection requirement in their offers, which made it harder to compete.
“I’m not willing to take on quite that much risk,” Mr. Wolf said. “We had a lot of things working against us, so we got really lucky.”
Existing-home sales rose the most month-over-month in the Midwest, up 3.1%, and in the Northeast, up 2.8%.
Sales were especially strong at the high end of the market. Sales of homes that were priced at more than $1 million more than doubled in June compared with a year earlier, according to NAR.
Building activity has increased due to the strong demand, but home builders are limited by labor availability, land supply and material costs. A measure of U.S. home-builder confidence declined in July, the National Association of Home Builders said this week.
Housing starts, a measure of U.S. home-building, rose 6.3% in June from May, the Commerce Department said earlier this week. Residential permits, which can be a bellwether for future home construction, fell 5.1%.
News Corp, owner of The Wall Street Journal, also operates Realtor.com under license from the National Association of Realtors.
New Aid Coming For Mortgage Borrowers At Risk Of Foreclosure
Biden administration aims to reduce monthly payments by up to 25% for those with federally backed mortgages who are at the end of forbearance.
Borrowers who fell behind on their mortgages during the Covid-19 pandemic and continue to face economic hardship will get help from a Biden administration program announced on Friday, a bid to prevent a sharp rise in foreclosures over the coming months.
The program would allow borrowers with loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration and other federal agencies to extend the length of their mortgages, locking in lower monthly principal and interest payments. About 75% of new home loans are backed by the federal government, according to the Urban Institute.
Friday’s changes are aimed at homeowners who took advantage of so-called forbearance programs that allowed them to skip monthly payments for up to 18 months, but who can’t resume making those normal payments as that relief begins to expire.
Adding new modification options for struggling homeowners is “an important additional step to give people the opportunity to stay in their homes after they had a hardship during the pandemic,” said Bob Broeksmit, president and chief executive of the Mortgage Bankers Association.
About 1.55 million homeowners are seriously delinquent—meaning they haven’t made mortgage payments in at least 90 days, according to the mortgage-data firm Black Knight Inc. These borrowers, the bulk of whom have forbearance plans, may be most at risk of foreclosure in the coming months. They represent about 2.9% of the 53 million active mortgages, down from a high of about 4.4% in August and September 2020.
Borrowers who entered into forbearance plans early in the pandemic will begin to exit those plans in September and October, when Black Knight forecasts that about a million borrowers will still be seriously delinquent. Meanwhile, a national foreclosure ban is set to expire July 31.
Friday’s changes are the latest move by the Biden administration to prevent a repeat of the wave of foreclosures that followed the 2008-09 financial crisis. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last month completed rules that restrict mortgage lenders from foreclosing on a property this year without first contacting homeowners to see if they qualify for a lower interest rate or some other loan change that makes it easier to repay.
The changes aim to reduce monthly payments by up to about 25%, an administration official said, adding they are designed to align with modification options already offered by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-controlled mortgage companies.
“If a reduction in monthly costs helps keep that borrower in their home until they are back on their feet, then it is a win for the borrower, policy makers, and Uncle Sam, as he owns the credit risk,” said Isaac Boltansky, director of policy research at Compass Point Research & Trading, which serves large institutional investors.
Many of the borrowers who are still postponing payments have FHA loans and typically have lower incomes and make smaller down payments than people with other government-backed loans, such as those guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Job losses during the pandemic have disproportionately affected low-wage workers, including employees of restaurants, hotels and shopping malls devastated by the stay-at-home economy.
The mortgage assistance is a small part of the multitrillion-dollar federal effort to help people and businesses withstand the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which included supplemental jobless benefits, grants to airlines, forgivable loans to small businesses and direct payments to households. Supporters say the mortgage relief is unlikely to encourage irresponsible borrowing.
“People don’t enter into mortgage borrowing with the notion that they can’t afford the payment,” Mr. Broeksmit said.
A separate, $47 billion federal program is aimed at helping tenants who can’t pay rent because of the Covid-19 crisis. State and local governments are struggling to distribute the money, however, leaving many people at risk of being thrown out of their homes when an eviction moratorium expires on July 31.
Research since the 2008-09 financial crisis has found that deferring mortgage payments, reducing interest rates or extending the term of mortgages—and thus reducing the monthly payments—are effective ways to aid homeowners short on cash.
Covid-19 Rent-Relief Program Marred by Delays, Confusion, Burdensome Paperwork
Treasury counts on more than 450 state and local governments and agencies to distribute nearly $47 billion in aid.
More than seven months after it was launched, the biggest rental assistance program in U.S. history has delivered just a fraction of the promised aid to tenants and landlords struggling with the impact of the Covid-19 crisis.
Since last December, Congress has appropriated a total of $46.6 billion to help tenants who were behind on their rent. As of June 30, just $3 billion had been distributed, though a senior official said the Biden administration hoped at least another $2 billion had been distributed in July.
While the program is overseen by the Treasury, it relies on a patchwork of more than 450 state, county and municipal governments and charitable organizations to distribute aid. The result: months of delays as local governments built new programs from scratch, hired staff and crafted rules for how the money should be distributed, then struggled to process a deluge of applications.
Often, tenants and landlords didn’t know money was available, and many of those who did apply had to contend with cumbersome applications and requests for documentation.
“It’s a recipe for chaos,” said David Dworkin, president and chief executive officer of the National Housing Conference, a Washington, D.C., affordable housing advocacy group. “And that’s what we’ve got.”
The program offers a contrast to other federal aid programs. For example, the Internal Revenue Service started sending $1,400 stimulus payments to American households on March 12, the day after President Biden signed Covid-19 relief legislation. A week later, the IRS said it had made 90 million direct payments totaling $242 billion—more than half the total amount authorized.
Data released by the Treasury Department shows that rental aid has begun to move faster, with more money distributed in June than in the previous three months combined. The Treasury is expected to release data for July around the middle of this month, according to administration officials.
The genesis of the program dates to the early months of the pandemic. In May 2020, Democrats in Congress proposed $100 billion in aid for the growing number of tenants who were out of work as a result of the pandemic and unable to pay rent—an amount that was later cut by more than half.
Democrats wanted the Department of Housing and Urban Development to oversee the program because it had experience distributing housing funds through an existing network of local partners. Republicans felt the Treasury would deliver the money faster, said Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Either way, grants would be disbursed on the state and local level.
Then-President Donald Trump signed the bill appropriating the first $25 billion in December. In March, Congress appropriated another $21.6 billion.
The program’s rollout was slow from the start. The New York state Legislature, for example, didn’t create a program to distribute the $2.7 billion allocated to the state until April, and the state didn’t open applications until June.
Tight screening requirements added to delays, housing advocates and attorneys said. Some local officials also said the initial guidelines from the Treasury during the final days of the Trump administration were unclear or confusing.
Tenants had to provide extensive paperwork to demonstrate need. That included apartment leases, documents to show job loss or loss of income, income levels for the previous year and proof of other benefits they might receive from the government. Many tenants were unable to comply because they didn’t have formal leases or earned cash wages.
Some programs reported being overwhelmed with applications or lacked the staff and resources to process them efficiently. Texas, for example, started with about 100 staff but eventually increased the number to more than 1,500, including contractors. Dozens of other programs have also turned to contractors for help.
Many tenants said they didn’t know they were eligible for aid or filled out forms incorrectly. In Texas, which has distributed more aid than many other programs, contractors began a mass text-messaging campaign this spring to reach people who may have mistakenly disqualified themselves when filling out applications.
Some landlords didn’t want to participate in the program, according to tenants, attorneys and local officials. Some landlords were unwilling to agree to temporarily not pursue future evictions against a tenant as a condition of receiving assistance. In Jefferson Parish, La., for example, landlords negotiated a proposed 90-day eviction ban down to 45 days.
Other landlords didn’t want to share required tax information. Many tenants, meanwhile, failed to complete forms or lacked access to computers and internet connections needed to complete applications.
The Treasury Department, under Mr. Biden, released new guidance in late February and again in the spring, among other things, to encourage local programs to pay money directly to tenants in certain cases, instead of just to landlords.
The guidance also encouraged programs to cut down on documentation required of tenants and landlords both. The new guidance allowed tenants to self-attest their need or allowed programs to use proxies in place of proof of earnings, such as the median income in areas where applicants lived.
Many programs ignored the guidance, research from the National Low Income Housing Coalition shows. As of August, only 1 in 4 were handing money directly to tenants. Just over half now allow some form of self-attestation from tenants instead of documents alone.
Many local governments were concerned that loosening the rules would expose them to fraud or charges they had squandered federal money.
Liz Bourgeois, a Treasury spokeswoman, said the department’s new guidance is helping boost the flow of money to renters and landlords. Tools to reduce paperwork, such as self-attestation, are “a common practice across federal and state programs and consistent with responsible management,” she said.
For now, tenants are protected by a national eviction moratorium, which has been extended five times and is now set to expire on Oct. 3.
Landlord groups are contesting the moratorium in federal court, saying the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exceeded its authority when it first imposed it last September under Mr. Trump. Some states, including New York and California, have imposed their own moratoriums.
Meanwhile, many tenants are falling further behind on rent, and many landlords are being squeezed because they must continue to pay taxes, maintenance costs and other expenses.
“I think we need to rethink our model that we’ve put together here, because I don’t think the model is working as effectively as it could,” said Bob Pinnegar, president and CEO of the National Apartment Association, a landlord trade group.
Landlords From Florida To California Are Jacking Up Rents At Record Speeds
Soaring prices. Competition. Desperation. The dramatic conditions for U.S. homebuyers during the past year are now spilling into the market for rentals.
Landlords from Tampa, Florida, to Memphis, Tennessee, and Riverside, California, are jacking up rents at record speeds. For each listing, multiple people apply. Some renters are forced to check into hotels while they hunt after losing out too many times.
“Any desirable rental is going within hours, just like the desirable sales,” said Shannon Dopkins, a Realtor in Tampa. “One woman passed on a place that was beat up with water damage. Somebody else decided to rent it.”
After weakening early in the pandemic as the economy faltered and young people rode out lockdowns with family, the rental market is now seeing record demand. The number of occupied U.S. rental-apartment units jumped by about half a million in the second quarter, the biggest annual increase in data going back to 1993, according to industry consultant RealPage Inc. Occupancy last month hit a new high of 96.9%.
Rents on newly signed leases surged 17% in July when compared to what the prior tenant paid, reaching the highest level on record, according to RealPage.
High Cost Of Renting
Costs For New Leases Skyrocket As Apartment Hunting Gets Competitive
The gains reflect competition for a resource that’s getting ever-more difficult to obtain: somewhere to live. With prices soaring in the for-sale market, and bidding wars proliferating, would-be buyers on the losing end are being forced back into rentals.
At the same time, young Americans looking for their first apartment are competing with others who delayed plans because of Covid-19. Remote workers — and their high paychecks — are on the move to lower-cost areas. And small single-family home and condo landlords, tempted by high prices, are cashing out, leaving their tenants desperate for another place.
“The entire housing market is on fire, across the board from homeownership to rental, from high-end to low-end, from coast to coast,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. “It’s a basic need but it’s increasingly out of reach.”
Eviction bans also are playing a role in keeping the market tight, because about 6% of tenants are normally forced to vacate each year. Zandi estimates the country’s shortage of affordable rentals is the worst since at least the post-World War II period.
Developers are adding new supply. But in the short run, the squeeze will have economic consequences because workers can’t easily move for jobs and will have less to spend on things other than housing. Soaring rental costs also are a contributor to the Federal Reserve’s inflation expectations.
They may not yet be accurately reflected in some measures. Owners’ equivalent rent of residences, which makes up almost a quarter of the consumer price index, rose 2.4% in July from a year earlier. That figure “lags the reality” because it’s based on a survey of homeowner expectations about what their home would rent for, Zandi said.
Nowhere To Go
Rents are rising most for those who sign new leases. But even people renewing them are getting sticker shock. Carmen Santiago, a dental assistant who was paying $1,479 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in Tampa, gave notice to her landlord in March after the rent jumped by $300.
The mother of two then racked up more than $1,000 on non-refundable application fees that she handed to about 10 landlords, sometimes getting in line without even seeing the properties first. A couple days before her lease expired in June, Santiago took a last-ditch drive. She visited five apartment complexes, all filled. The sixth, a vast complex with 22 buildings, had one unit available.
The two-bedroom cost more than $1,900 a month, including a mandatory cable bill — more than Santiago would have paid if she renewed her old lease. She could hardly afford it but took it before it was gone.
“I didn’t know how hard it was to find something,” Santiago said. “Looking back, maybe I should have stayed.”
Dopkins, the Tampa rental agent, said she recently represented a woman who had to shelve her plans to move there for her job. After exhausting her relocation package on rental-application fees, the client is now planning to commute two-and-a-half hours from her home in Ormond Beach, Florida, and maybe stay in an Airbnb or hotel room in Tampa once or twice a week.
The soaring demand is most pronounced in Sun Belt cities that have seen an influx of arrivals from the pandemic. The Phoenix area had the country’s biggest increases in rents for single-family houses in June, with an almost 17% surge from a year earlier, according to data released this week from Corelogic. It was followed by Las Vegas, with a 12.9% gain; Tucson, Arizona, at 12.5%; and Miami, up 12.4%.
It’s a reversal from the pre-pandemic norm of tight housing in denser, pricier cities — places such as New York, Boston and San Francisco, which saw office workers flee during lockdowns. Those areas still have an overhang of inventory of high-end apartments aimed at white-collar professionals. Still, demand is picking up.
Renters now crowding the market have higher salaries, in part, because many of them, in normal times, would be buying homes instead. Migration away from the pricey locations also is driving up housing costs for locals, especially those in more affordable cities and in far-flung suburbs.
The average income for new lease signers in July hit a record of $69,252, according to RealPage, which captured data for professionally managed buildings. Year-to-date, their incomes shot up 7.5%.
“It’s always been hard to find a home if you have limited income,” said Jay Parsons, deputy chief economist for RealPage. “What’s crazy now is you can have a relatively high income and still have a hard time.”
Nicolle Crim, vice president of Watson Property Management’s Central Florida division, says she wished she had more to offer. But the for-sale market is so strong that owners are selling for big profits. As a result, Watson now manages about 4,000 single-family home rentals for individual owners, down by a third since the pandemic began, she said.
Even relatively sleepy areas such as Springfield, Illinois, three hours from Chicago, are experiencing shortages.
Landlord Seth Morrison said his only apartment listing attracted a couple dozen calls before he took it down.
“We have 270 units and we don’t have any open,” Morrison said. “In a city like Springfield, in a state like Illinois, to have this sort of demand is just crazy.”
Rising Rents Pose Risks To The Fed’s Inflation Outlook
Housing costs play an important role in inflation, which means that higher rents could put pressure on the Fed to raise interest rates.
The biggest wildcard for U.S. inflation over the next year doesn’t come from used cars or airline fares. Instead, it is housing.
Officials at the Federal Reserve and the White House have highlighted what many forecasters expect will be the temporary nature of elevated price readings stemming from the reopening of the economy following pandemic-related restrictions.
But the degree to which 12-month inflation readings fall back to the central bank’s 2% goal could rest on the behavior of rents and home prices. In recent months, housing-cost trends point to more persistent, rather than transitory, upward price pressures in the coming years.
Core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy costs, rose 3.5% in June from a year earlier, according to the Fed’s preferred gauge, the personal-consumption expenditures price index. That was the highest rate of growth in 30 years. Rising prices over the April-to-June quarter largely reflected disrupted supply chains, temporary shortages and a rebound in travel—trends that came ahead of the latest virus surge caused by the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus.
Economists at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. estimate that travel and other supply-constrained categories have added 1.2 percentage points to core inflation this year, and they forecast those contributions should wane to around 0.6 percentage point by the end of the year.
Contributions from rising rents and home prices could partially offset anticipated declines. In a June report, economists at Fannie Mae said they expected the rate of shelter inflation to pick up from around 2% in May to 4.5% over the coming years—and higher still, if house-price growth doesn’t cool off soon.
They forecast that by the end of 2022, housing could contribute 1 percentage point to core PCE inflation, the strongest contribution since 1990, and they forecast core inflation slowing to just 3% by then.
Housing inflation is important because it accounts for a hefty share of overall inflation—around 18% of core PCE inflation, and around one-third of a separate inflation gauge, the Labor Department’s consumer-price index.
Fed officials have held interest rates near zero since March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, and they are purchasing $120 billion per month in Treasury and mortgage-backed securities to provide additional stimulus. Just how fast and how far inflation falls back towards the Fed’s target one year from now could weigh heavily on how long to leave interest rates at zero.
Growth in rents slowed sharply during the pandemic as people stayed put or doubled up with family. Residential rents rose 1.9% over the 12 months through June, about half of the rate of growth seen in February 2020.
Before the pandemic hit, “we were treading water,” said Ric Campo, chief executive of Camden Property Trust, which owns and manages 60,000 apartment homes across 15 U.S. markets. Landlords lost any pricing power during the pandemic, as vacancy rates jumped.
But that began to change earlier this year as demand for new leases soared. “In March, it was like a light switch went off,” said Mr. Campo. “We have significant pricing power that we did not have a few months ago.”
Invitation Homes Inc., the largest single-family landlord in the U.S., raised rents by 8% in the second quarter, including 14% on leases signed by new tenants. Invitation reported occupancy of more than 98%, an extremely tight market.
Home prices, on the other hand, never missed a beat. They surged during the pandemic, boosted by a combination of low mortgage rates, pandemic-driven changes in home preferences, favorable demographics and low inventories of for-sale homes. Prices rose 16.6% in May from one year earlier, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller U.S. national home price index, up from around 4% in the year before the pandemic.
Government agencies don’t take soaring home prices directly into account when calculating inflation because they consider home purchases to be a long-lasting investment rather than consumption goods. Instead, they calculate the imputed rent, called owners’ equivalent rent, of what homeowners would have to pay each month to rent their own house.
Owners’ equivalent rents, which rose around 3.3% before the pandemic hit, cooled earlier this year, rising just 2% in the 12 months ended April.
Those measures tend to lag movements in home prices because leases are set for a year. The upshot is that leases signed one year ago, when landlords weren’t expecting to have much pricing power, are now coming up for renewal. As landlords pass along higher rents, annual inflation measures should soon start to pick those up.
“As the labor market improves and we have higher income and more household formation, that’s a lot of potential strength in rental inflation and in shelter inflation more broadly,” said James Sweeney, chief economist for Credit Suisse.
Even if recent eye-popping rates of rental increases can’t be sustained, housing analysts and executives see continued strong growth. Property tax increases from rising home values, for example, could be passed onto renters. Higher home prices could prevent more would-be buyers from becoming owners, which may keep pressure on rents.
Some of the housing market’s challenges reflect anemic new-home building that followed the 2008 bust. “We destroyed three-quarters of the supply chain, and a lot of resources left the business at the same time millennials were starting to emerge,” said Doug Duncan, chief economist at Fannie Mae. The result has been a shortage of houses and apartments in the places where many people want to live.
The pandemic, meanwhile, fueled new demand for housing. A recent study by Fed economists found that new for-sale listings would have had to expand by 20% to keep price growth at pre-pandemic levels.
A majority of economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal in July projected inflation would decline to at least 2.2% by the end of 2022. If the conventional wisdom among professional forecasters about inflation proves wrong, housing would be a big reason why.
Only A Fraction Of Covid-19 Rental Assistance Has Been Distributed
Just $4.7 billion of almost $47 billion appropriated by Congress had reached tenants and landlords through July.
The U.S. program to help tenants and landlords struggling with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is still moving at a slow pace and has delivered a fraction of the promised aid, data released by the Treasury Department on Wednesday show.
Since December, Congress has appropriated a total of $46.6 billion to help tenants who were behind on their rent. As of July 31, just $4.7 billion had been distributed to landlords and tenants, the Treasury said.
Wednesday’s data show that rental aid has begun to move faster in some states, though July’s $1.7 billion reflected only a modest overall increase from the $1.5 billion distributed in June.
While the program is overseen by the Treasury, it relies on a patchwork of more than 450 state, county and municipal governments and charitable organizations to distribute aid. The result: months of delays as local governments built new programs from scratch, hired staff and crafted rules for how the money should be distributed, then struggled to process a deluge of applications.
Administration officials acknowledge the program has moved too slowly relative to the need. Still, they say it has provided nearly one million payments to households, including about 341,000 in July alone—an indication that it has provided meaningful relief to struggling tenants.
While 70 jurisdictions had distributed more than half of their initial allotment of rental assistance by the end of July, “too many grantees have yet to demonstrate sufficient progress in getting assistance to struggling tenants and landlords,” the Treasury said in a blog post accompanying the release of Wednesday’s data. Hundreds of thousands of aid applications are in the pipeline beyond those that have already been paid, Treasury said, citing public dashboards.
To allow for more time to distribute the money, the Biden administration this month extended a federal eviction moratorium until at least Oct. 3. It had expired at the end of July and had previously been extended several times.
The moratorium has protected millions of tenants but created financial hardships for some landlords unable to collect rental income they rely upon for their own livelihoods. Several states, including California and New York, have imposed their own eviction bans.
In June, the Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote, declined to lift the national eviction moratorium, but Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggested the court wouldn’t look favorably on another ban if it weren’t approved by Congress.
A federal judge on Aug. 13 allowed the revived moratorium to remain in place, saying she didn’t have authority to block it despite misgivings about its legality. A group of property managers and real-estate agents who lodged legal objections to the new ban the day after it was imposed asked the Supreme Court last week to block the latest moratorium. A decision is expected in the coming days.
Tenant advocates and others involved in distributing the aid say demand for affordable housing has been elevated for years and intensified during the pandemic.
Joshua Pedersen, senior director of United Way Worldwide’s 211 hotline telephone service, said it connected about 6.1 million callers to housing and utility resources in 2020, up 20% from 5.1 million the year before. He said demand tends to surge whenever there is a change in the status of the eviction moratorium.
Biden administration officials have prodded states and localities to move faster to distribute rental assistance, issuing guidance intended to reduce documentation for tenants and landlords and expedite approvals. On Wednesday, the Treasury released additional guidance meant to further reduce processing delays.
The administration has also highlighted jurisdictions that have succeeded in distributing more aid than many other programs.
Treasury officials last week pointed to steps taken by Prince George’s County, Md., to distribute the bulk of its $27 million. The county is beginning to distribute assistance directly to tenants in cases where landlords aren’t willing to participate in the application process. All eviction notices also now include information about applying to the rental-assistance program.
But other programs are lagging, including some large ones. The program run by the Florida state government was awarded about $1.6 billion in aid, but distributed less than $20 million through the end of July, according to the Treasury.
However, several local programs in that state, such as the one run by Miami-Dade County, distributed much larger shares of their funding, Treasury figures show. A spokeswoman for the Florida program said it had distributed more than $31 million as of Aug. 24. The spokeswoman said more than 25% of tenant applications still lack sufficient information to be approved.
The state of New York said this week it had distributed more than $200 million of its more than $2 billion in available assistance and still has a backlog of more than 100,000 applications.
Emmanuel Yusuf, 77 years old, is a retired photo technician in Bronx, N.Y. He is eight months behind on rent and mostly lives on Social Security assistance, he said. Before the pandemic, he made extra money taking tourist photos in Times Square.
Mr. Yusuf said he applied for rental assistance more than six weeks ago, but has yet to be approved. “When we have funding and somebody is just sitting on it, it blows my mind,” he said.
The New York program requires both tenants and landlords to submit separate applications. Verifying both ends has been an often complicated and time consuming task, a spokesman for the program said.
The program has provisionally approved 46,000 tenants for aid, but it could be weeks before those tenants’ applications are matched with documents sent by their landlords and money is paid out. The state added 350 more staff members to handle the load.
“We will continue to make extraordinary efforts to ensure New York’s program provides more timely assistance,” said Michael Hein, commissioner of the state office that is running New York’s rental-aid program.
Real Estate ‘Love Letters’ Spark Concern Over Racial Bias
Home buyers’ personal notes to sellers offer an emotional appeal in a competitive market—but could cause sellers to run afoul of fair housing rules.
When Christina and Alexander Vaughan looked to buy a home this spring, the first open house they attended drew more than 20 families. The couple ultimately bid on three homes, losing on each one.
On their fourth offer, for a four-bedroom house in Fishers, Ind., they wrote the sellers a personal letter. They were first-time buyers, the letter said, and it noted that Mr. Vaughan and one of the sellers both attended Purdue University. Their offer was accepted over higher competing bids.
“Because that was their first home, they wanted to give it to somebody else” who would be a first-time homeowner, Mr. Vaughan said of the rationale the owners gave.
Prospective buyers for years have penned these personalized notes—affectionately known as “love letters”—to introduce themselves to a home seller and make an emotional appeal. The letters can provide the buyer a competitive edge, and rarely has the U.S. housing market been more competitive than it is today.
But in recent months, love letters have come under greater scrutiny for possibly enabling discrimination. Some worry that a seller could violate the federal Fair Housing Act by choosing a buyer based on a protected class, such as race, religion or nationality. The law includes seven protected classes, and some states and localities have additional protected categories.
The National Association of Realtors put out guidance in October recommending that its members not draft, read or deliver love letters written or received by clients. Some state Realtor associations have also put out similar guidance, including in California, Arizona and Ohio.
Typically, home sellers who receive multiple offers choose a buyer based on offer price and contract terms. Love letters can give the sellers additional information about a potential buyer’s identity, including race or whether a buyer has children. The risk for a seller is that they could exercise explicit or implicit bias by choosing a buyer based on this information, violating fair housing rules.
In June, Oregon became the first state to pass a law requiring sellers’ agents to reject love letters and photographs provided by buyers.
“It’s a discriminatory practice that needs to be addressed,” said Oregon state Rep. Mark Meek, who proposed the law and works as a real-estate agent. “A lot of sellers make decisions off of these letters, but is it right?”
The reassessment of love letters is part of a broader effort within the real-estate industry to combat a history of discrimination and increase homeownership rates for nonwhite households. White households in the U.S. had a homeownership rate of 74.2% in the second quarter, compared with 47.5% for Hispanic households and 44.6% for Black households, according to the Census Bureau.
NAR’s president apologized in November for the organization’s past policies that contributed to residential segregation, such as allowing members to be excluded based on race. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has also made fair housing a priority under the Biden administration. HUD and the Federal Housing Finance Agency formed an agreement last month to share resources related to enforcing fair housing rules.
Bryan Greene, vice president of policy advocacy for NAR, said he isn’t aware of any lawsuits against home sellers or complaints filed with HUD alleging discrimination based on a love letter.
“It would be very difficult for any consumer to prove they were denied housing because someone else sent the seller a love letter,” he said. “It’s certainly possible, but it’s not necessarily something that the law can get to.”
Some agents say love letters can help buyers who don’t have enough cash to beat out other offers but have a compelling story, especially first-time buyers. Agents also say it’s possible to write a love letter that focuses on the property and avoids sharing information that could bias a seller.
While love letters have been part of the home-buying process for years, some agents say they have become more prevalent in the current red-hot market. Letters often focus on why the buyer loves the property, or offer details about the buyer’s family and lifestyle. Some send photos or personalized videos after touring a house and try to emphasize a common bond, like a shared love of dogs or Harry Potter.
“The more competitive the market, the more common the letter,” said Beth Traverso, managing broker at Re/Max Northwest Realtors, who said at least half the offers she receives include letters. Ms. Traverso, who is based outside of Seattle, said she shares the letters with sellers but recommends they don’t read them.
A 2018 study by brokerage Redfin Corp. showed that a personal letter could make an offer 52% more likely to be accepted.
Others found that cash speaks louder than words. Letters were the least effective tactic for buyers, behind financial strategies like increasing the down payment or offering a bigger deposit up front, according to real-estate agents surveyed this spring by Zillow Group Inc.
Agents say that while sellers put financial considerations first, letters can still tilt their decision-making when choosing among similar offers. “If they didn’t work, they wouldn’t be used,” said Seth Task, president of the Ohio Realtors, who opposes love letters.
News Corp, owner of The Wall Street Journal, also operates Realtor.com under license from the National Association of Realtors.
Rust Belt City’s Pitch For A Hot Housing Market: Free Homes
The mayor of Monessen, Pa., is trying to reverse the city’s long decline by giving away vacant homes to people willing to fix them up.
Houses are more expensive than ever. Matt Shorraw is giving them away for free.
Mr. Shorraw is the mayor of Monessen, Pa., a small city set in a curve of the Monongahela River, which has hundreds of vacant homes. Many of them are in disrepair and have accrued thousands of dollars in back taxes. Property values are low. It is easier for owners to walk away than to sell.
So Mr. Shorraw extended an open invitation earlier this year: Find a vacant house in Monessen—not difficult considering they make up about 10% of the properties. Track down the owner and ask her to sign the place over. Many are happy to wash their hands of the house and the back taxes. Mr. Shorraw’s administration will clear the taxes if the new owner commits to giving the house a face-lift.
“It’s like hitting the reset button for these properties,” said Mr. Shorraw.
Roughly 1.3 million houses, or 1.4% of U.S. properties, are vacant, according to Attom Data Solutions, a real-estate data firm. Some long-neglected areas are riding the housing boom’s coattails. Mr. Shorraw is betting that the same thing can happen in Monessen, and that the lure of free homeownership can help reverse decades of disinvestment.
Monessen’s home values have risen 21% over the past year, but the city has a long way to go. A typical home in the city is worth around $80,000, roughly a quarter of the typical home value nationally, according to Zillow Group Inc.
Other cities facing hard times have turned to a similar playbook over the past half-century. Land banks like the one in Detroit have been auctioning off vacant homes for years at rock-bottom prices. Buffalo, N.Y., and Gary, Ind., have tried selling them for basically nothing. Struggling villages in Italy have tried to lure foreigners by auctioning abandoned homes for about a dollar.
It can be tough to revive a local economy when the housing stock is in disrepair. At the same time, it is challenging to attract investment to the homes unless the area is already an economic draw for residents.
“It always comes back to economics,” said Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, who focuses on the revitalization of cities and neighborhoods. “Do enough people want to live in this place to make it work?”
It often costs more to rehab run-down homes than many new owners expect, he added.
Monessen, about an hour south of Pittsburgh, was once a vibrant steel town. But the factories have been shut for decades. The city’s population has dwindled to just over 7,000.
The city picked up a reputation for gangs and drugs, Mr. Shorraw said. Some sidewalks went almost 50 years without being replaced. The volunteer fire department now has to fundraise for new equipment.
In 2016, Donald Trump, then a Republican presidential candidate, used Monessen as a backdrop when he promised to bring back American manufacturing. The factories haven’t returned, but Mr. Trump’s appearance led Mr. Shorraw, now 30, to run for mayor. Mr. Shorraw, a Democrat, was elected in 2017 and is near the end of his four-year term.
He is a local history buff who grew up in town with his grandparents and watched as the last of the steel industry left. Before his political career, he worked odd jobs, and continues working as the assistant band director at Monessen High School.
So far, his program has found new owners for about four dozen residential and commercial properties, he says. Demand has been split between investors and owner-occupiers. Monessen requires new owners to spend three times the back taxes that the city forgives on rehab.
The city also requests the school district and county to clear their own unpaid taxes, which they have generally done, according to John Harhai, the city administrator.
Mr. Shorraw has worked his personal connections to make some transactions happen. His second cousin, Jenna Sivak, is one of the new owners. She grew up nearby in Belle Vernon and now lives in Pittsburgh, though her grandparents are from Monessen. With Mr. Shorraw’s encouragement, she took a spin through the city and found a Victorian that was more than 100 years old.
Just getting into the house was tough. There was no key, so she got permission from the owner to climb in through a second-floor window. “It looked like a tornado had gone through,” Ms. Sivak said.
But she liked the house, and the price was right. The owner agreed to sign it over if Ms. Sivak handled the details. Michelle Walpole, the previous owner, said she and her family left the house in 2018 to move to Tennessee.
The tax bills never reached their new home and back taxes accrued, she said, which complicated her own efforts to buy earlier this year. She messaged the mayor on Facebook, offering to give away the house.
The city completed the transfer in the spring. Now Ms. Sivak is doing the demo work herself. She peeled back the 1970s décor to reveal two hidden fireplaces, tiling and hardwood floors.
Mr. Shorraw hopes that the remote-work boom, and the migration it has spurred across the country, will be a draw for those considering Monessen. The city has a walkable downtown, empty buildings and all. Hiking and white-water rafting are a short drive away.
But there’s no convenient public transportation into Pittsburgh, which makes it a tough sell as a bedroom community. To become an economic magnet once again, the city needs jobs. “That’s the missing piece to the puzzle,” Mr. Shorraw said.
That may be up to the next mayor. In the spring, Mr. Shorraw lost the Democratic primary that typically decides who will be mayor. He is launching a write-in campaign while also preparing for a loss, pushing through as many transactions as he can before this term ends in January.
Ron Mozer, who won the primary, said he approves of transferring ownership of the homes, but that there are better approaches to clearing back taxes and liens.
Maria Marquez picked up one of the vacant houses. She arrived in the area after Hurricane Maria forced her to leave her home in Puerto Rico and now works as a nurse’s aide. She went looking for houses after she saw one of Mr. Shorraw’s Facebook posts.
She found a three bedroom that she thought would be a good fit for her family of five and reached out to the owners.
Geno Sedlak and his four sisters had been owners of the house since their mother died in 2013. None wanted to live there, and they never went to the trouble of selling, Mr. Sedlak said. Unpaid taxes accrued. The siblings agreed to give the house to Ms. Marquez.
Ms. Marquez asked her contractor to put in about $10,000 worth of work to start, and she will save up to finish the rest. She estimates it will cost about $25,000 all told.
Mr. Shorraw is savoring the small signs of progress.
“It’s nice to see a neighbor buy a house and all of a sudden the grass is cut,” he said.
Berlin Buys Apartments For $2.9 Billion To Quell Housing Anger
Berlin agreed to buy 14,750 apartments from Germany’s two biggest landlords for 2.46 billion euros ($2.9 billion) as public pressure to counter rising rents intensifies.
Vonovia SE and Deutsche Wohnen SE are selling the units as part of their effort to merge. The deal includes a commitment from the two companies to limit rent increases until 2026 and build 13,000 new apartments to try to address a housing shortage and ease public concerns about rising living costs.
“The return to municipal ownership gives tenants the necessary security that their apartments will be permanently in the low-cost segment,” Matthias Kollatz, the city’s senator for finance, said Friday in an emailed statement.
“We are buying with care,” he said, adding that the three Berlin real-estate companies that will take on the properties “are in very good shape and able to successfully manage the purchase.”
The combination of Vonovia and Deutsche Wohnen to create a housing giant with more than 500,000 residential units across Germany is being closely watched in Europe’s biggest economy, which has a larger share of tenants than in most other developed nations.
Affordable housing has become a hot-button political issue and particularly in the once-cheap capital. Surging rents in Berlin have sparked mass demonstrations and spurred a referendum seeking to force the city to expropriate large landlords.
The vote on the non-binding measure will take place on Sept. 26, the same day as the national and Berlin elections. Most political parties have vowed to try to control rent increases across the country, with the main focus on building more housing.
What Bloomberg Intelligence Says…
“Timing the proposed deal during a key election year — and with various politicians proposing to restrain rent rises — seems controversial. Yet the two landlords have hedged their future by engaging early with key stakeholders.”
Berlin is particularly exposed to the issue because much of its social housing was sold in the aftermath of reunification. The city’s population growth stemming from its emergence as a startup hub has created a squeeze and attracted investors.
Vonovia Chief Executive Officer Rolf Buch said the deal announced Friday will create “more affordable, needs-based and climate-friendly living space, especially for young families.”
“We will only solve the challenges on the Berlin housing market together with politicians and urban society,” he said in an emailed statement.
Organizers of the Berlin referendum said the deal shows its concept can work to restore balance in the housing market, but criticized the price and how the transaction was negotiated.
“Berlin needs transparent and affordable socialization and not gifts for real-estate companies hashed out in a back room,” said Moheb Shafaqyar, a spokesman for the referendum organizers.
The Biggest Mistakes Home Buyers And Sellers Make
It’s the largest investment many people will ever make—and the most emotional one. That can be a bad combination.
When people say they “fell in love with a house,” they would do well to remember another common saying: Love is blind.
Overcome by strong emotions, potential buyers of the biggest investments of their lives overlook things like a lousy view, choppy floor plan or ancient mechanical systems. Likewise, would-be sellers are often so eager to sell—or so in love with the homes they’re leaving—that they are blind to the house’s fixable flaws, or to the need to plan for capital-gains taxes.
And that’s how it goes in normal times. The current frenzied real-estate market is only exacerbating those emotion-driven mistakes—with buyers feeling they need to do anything to get a house, and sellers cutting corners to take advantage of a hot market. The result is that some buyers are overpaying for the house they’re buying, while some sellers are leaving money on the table.
To help restore some common sense to potential buyers and sellers, we asked financial planners, real-estate agents, interior designers and other professionals to name the five biggest mistakes buyers and sellers make with real estate.
As Matt Celenza, a financial adviser in Beverly Hills, Calif., reminds his clients: “Buying a house is an emotional purchase, but it’s an investment, too.”
1. Picking A So-So Location
Too often, real-estate experts say, people may fall in love with the house, and forgive it for the company it keeps. Maybe it surrounds itself with a lot of noise. Or unsavory characters. Or few places to get out and find peace. In other words, they violate the first rule of real estate: location, location, location.
That has rarely been more true than today, as desperate buyers find themselves pushed out of coveted neighborhoods because of a shortage of available houses.
“Today, in Miami Beach, people don’t care if a house is next to a bridge or if airplanes are flying over,” says Dina Goldentayer, executive director of sales at Douglas Elliman Real Estate in Miami Beach.
Out-of-state buyers have been flocking to Florida in recent years for economic reasons—the state has no income tax or estate tax. Then last year, the pandemic brought in waves of corporate executives who could work remotely from the beach. The inventory of available homes got so low that some buyers felt they had no choice but to make compromises.
Sometimes buyers knowingly purchase homes in poor locations because of economic reasons, Ms. Goldentayer says. Perhaps they’re selling a property in California and want to quickly establish Florida residency for the tax benefits.
A new school year compels some buyers to purchase in their desired school district, even if the home’s location is less than ideal. And in a supercharged real-estate market, sometimes a home in an inferior location is the only option.
A poor location could haunt today’s buyers when they decide to sell. “You can change your floor plan,” Ms. Goldentayer says.
“You can always add a bathroom. You can never change your view exposure or your placement on a street. You may be a seller someday when the market isn’t as hot. Buyers will be more particular in that market.”
2. Buying A House Sight Unseen
An online listing may include professional photography, 3-D floor plans and virtual walk-throughs, but nothing can replace an in-person visit, says Cindy Stanton, an agent with Parks Real Estate in Brentwood, Tenn.
Such listings can look too good to be true. And, as anybody who has followed up with an in-person visit knows, they often are.
How Did They Make That Tiny Room Look So Spacious?
And yet a lot of buyers—especially these days with people buying out of state or not wanting to visit a stranger’s house because of the pandemic—are satisfied with the online presentation. Ms. Stanton’s firm recently had a client from California who bought a house based solely on the listing photos.
The agent toured the property “live” with the client via FaceTime, pointing out carpet stains and other flaws along the way.
Nonetheless, the client waived an inspection and skipped the pre-closing walk-through. After the sale, when the client walked through the house for the first time, she was disappointed, Ms. Stanton says. The house is currently undergoing repairs and upgrades, after which the new owner will put it back on the market.
Buyers’ remorse can also set in when only one person in a couple tours a home, leading to panicked “front-yard decisions,” says Learka Bosnak, a real-estate agent of Heather & Learka at Douglas Elliman in Beverly Hills, Calif.
“The last thing you want is to be standing in the front yard of a house you just toured, trying to call your partner who is not picking up because they are in the middle of a work dinner in London,” Ms. Bosnak says. “That’s not the time to decide if it’s OK for you to submit an offer.”
3. Waiving The Inspection
In this hypercompetitive housing market, many buyers have been skipping preliminary home inspections to make their offers more enticing to sellers. That’s a big mistake, says Vincent Deorio, an executive with Altas, a real-estate investment and management firm based in Denver.
One of his clients wanted to skip a sewer-line inspection that would assess the piping and identify any blockages. Mr. Deorio persuaded the client to have the pipes professionally scoped with a small camera, which revealed a large crack in a pipe under the street and driveway. Because it was detected early, the sellers were responsible for the $15,000 to $20,000 repair.
In other cases, inspections have revealed layers of improperly laid roofing materials, faulty foundations, and subpar wiring and plumbing concealed by wood paneling. What you can’t see can be costly to repair. Mr. Deorio tells clients to never “judge a book by its cover and to always dig as deep as possible when assessing a potential property.”
Inspections are important even if potential buyers want to raze an existing house to build a new one, says Judy Zeder, an agent with the Jills Zeder Group in Miami.
“In an old house, you can have a buried septic tank in the yard or asbestos in the roof or air-conditioning system. Competent inspections are the only way buyers can be sure they can proceed with the teardown and build what they want to build,” Ms. Zeder says.
4. Getting A High-Maintenance Vacation Home
When buying a weekend retreat or vacation home, most people focus on properties they “dream about” and not the cost of ownership, says Will Rogers, a private wealth adviser with Ameriprise Financial in Augusta, Ga. “They often don’t realize that renovations, repairs and ongoing maintenance costs can drain their bank accounts and sap the fun right out of a pleasure property.”
He recently talked a client out of buying a lake house north of Minneapolis that was listed for just under $300,000. It was an older home in need of big-ticket upgrades in the coming years—electrical wiring, the heating system and the roof.
It also had a big yard with lots of grass. Buyers don’t want their second home to become a second job, Mr. Rogers told his client.
5. Tying Your Own Hands
Are you prepared to be told what color to paint your house, where to park your car and how often to mow your lawn? For some people, the answer is no.
That’s why buyers planning to purchase a home in any community controlled by a homeowners association should be sure to review the association’s regulations and restrictions, says Kristi Nelson, a Los Angeles-based interior designer.
“Otherwise, you’re in for a very rough experience on top of what’s already a mentally and emotionally challenging journey,” she says.
1. Showing The House At Its Worst
People are so in love with their own homes that they sometimes don’t see its flaws. But buyers do.
“I’m a big believer in the presentation of a house,” says John Manning of Re/Max On Market in Seattle. “We’re emotional creatures. When we walk into an untidy house, we don’t see the house. We see the stuff—dirty laundry, uncleaned Kitty Litter, dishes in the sink.”
An unkempt house affects the seller’s bottom line, even in a red-hot real-estate market. “If it’s a $1 million house, you could go down $50,000,” Mr. Manning says. “That’s just leaving money on the table.”
Ideally, he says, the homeowners will move out of the house, which is then staged to highlight its best features. “For a seller, the listing is only the beginning of the process. They need to be prepared to show their home throughout the process.”
2. Not Planning For Capital-Gains Taxes
If the sellers’ home has appreciated in value, the profit could be subject to capital-gains taxes. Certain home improvements can potentially reduce the tax bill—but only if the sellers have documentation showing that improvements increased the home’s market value, prolonged its useful life or adapted it to new uses, says Mr. Rogers, the financial adviser in Augusta.
He recently worked with a widowed client who sold her home and moved into an assisted-living facility. Her home had been purchased decades ago for $64,000, and it sold for $457,000. The profit exceeded the IRS’s capital-gains exemption of $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for married couples, meaning the client faced a hefty tax bill.
The client, who had Alzheimer’s disease, had scanty records on improvements that had been made over the years. Luckily, Mr. Rogers had financial records that documented a new roof, a remodeling project and deck extension—and that proof allowed his client to avoid capital-gains taxes entirely.
3. Mishandling The Sale Of An Estate
The impact of a mistake isn’t felt just when the owner is alive. If a homeowner doesn’t provide a detailed estate plan—and have clear communications with heirs—disputes over the estate can delay or even scrub a home sale after the owner dies.
Mr. Manning says his firm recently worked with clients who wanted to buy a rural property listed for about $500,000. But in investigating the title, the firm realized that the property was involved in a legal dispute among siblings.
“There was a strong chance that our client could find himself in a lawsuit fighting claims that the sale to him was improper,” Mr. Manning says. As a result, the potential buyer walked away from the deal.
Similarly, homeowners who bequeath a home to heirs in hopes of keeping it in the family often fail to provide funds to cover the annual costs of maintaining it, says Frank Riviezzo, a New York-based CPA. As a result, the heirs may feel pressured to sell—even if a down market prevents the house from getting top dollar.
4. Fudging Facts And Flaws
Maybe they won’t notice.
How many sellers have said that to themselves, hoping that buyers won’t see the problem with the roof, or the signs of former water damage—even though sellers are required by law to disclose any known deficiencies in a home.
“When you’re selling a home, you have to establish some degree of trust between yourself and the buyer,” says Mr. Manning. “That’s how you get the highest price for your home.” But, he says, “when you withhold information about the condition of a house, the buyer might get more aggressive if they think you’re hiding something.”
That trust is also eroded when sellers withhold or provide incorrect information that could affect a potential buyer’s offer price. Cindy Cole, a real-estate agent in Destin, Fla., has seen sellers who exaggerated the amount of rental income generated by a vacation property.
5. Steamrolling Your Significant Other
There’s nothing that hurts a relationship like a spouse who buys a surprise house for their beloved. Except perhaps a spouse who sells a beloved’s house. Tim Gorter, an architect in Santa Barbara, Calif., recalls a case in which the husband sold a vacation house without first consulting his wife, who cherished the property.
The wife was upset, so the husband hired Mr. Gorter to design her a “dream vacation home” on a property they owned next door.
It took two years to design the home and obtain proper permits. Shortly after construction began, the husband chatted with the owners who had purchased his vacation home—and they were willing to sell it back to him for a profit.
In short, says Mr. Gorter, “my client sold his vacation home without consulting his wife, only to buy the property back at a higher price two years later, while paying a handsome architectural commission to design a project on the neighboring property that he never built. Still, the wife was happy she got her house back, and that made the husband happy.”
The Global Housing Market Is Broken, And It’s Dividing Entire Countries
The dream of owning a home is increasingly out of reach. Democratic and authoritarian governments alike are struggling with the consequences.
Soaring property prices are forcing people all over the world to abandon all hope of owning a home. The fallout is shaking governments of all political persuasions.
It’s a phenomenon given wings by the pandemic. And it’s not just buyers — rents are also soaring in many cities. The upshot is the perennial issue of housing costs has become one of acute housing inequality, and an entire generation is at risk of being left behind.
“We’re witnessing sections of society being shut out of parts of our city because they can no longer afford apartments,” Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller says. “That’s the case in London, in Paris, in Rome, and now unfortunately increasingly in Berlin.”
That exclusion is rapidly making housing a new fault line in politics, one with unpredictable repercussions. The leader of Germany’s Ver.di union called rent the 21st century equivalent of the bread price, the historic trigger for social unrest.
Politicians are throwing all sorts of ideas at the problem, from rent caps to special taxes on landlords, nationalizing private property, or turning vacant offices into housing. Nowhere is there evidence of an easy or sustainable fix.
In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in’s party took a drubbing in mayoral elections this year after failing to tackle a 90% rise in the average price of an apartment in Seoul since he took office in May 2017. The leading opposition candidate for next year’s presidential vote has warned of a potential housing market collapse as interest rates rise.
China has stepped up restrictions on the real-estate sector this year and speculation is mounting of a property tax to bring down prices. The cost of an apartment in Shenzhen, China’s answer to Silicon Valley, was equal to 43.5 times a resident’s average salary as of July, a disparity that helps explain President Xi Jinping’s drive for “common prosperity.”
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised a two-year ban on foreign buyers if re-elected.
The pandemic has stoked the global housing market to fresh records over the past 18 months through a confluence of ultra-low interest rates, a dearth of house production, shifts in family spending, and fewer homes being put up for sale. While that’s a boon for existing owners, prospective buyers are finding it ever harder to gain entry.
What we’re witnessing is “a major event that should not be shrugged off or ignored,” Don Layton, the former CEO of U.S. mortgage giant Freddie Mac, wrote in a commentary for the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.
In the U.S., where nominal home prices are more than 30% above their previous peaks in the mid-2000s, government policies aimed at improving affordability and promoting home ownership risk stoking prices, leaving first-time buyers further adrift, Layton said.
Housing Affordability Is Getting Worse
In many OECD countries, the price to income ratio has risen dramatically since 1995.
The result, in America as elsewhere, is a widening generational gap between Baby Boomers, who are statistically more likely to own a home, and Millennials and Gen Z — who are watching their dreams of buying one go up in smoke.
Existing housing debt may be sowing the seeds of the next economic crunch if borrowing costs start to rise. Niraj Shah of Bloomberg Economics compiled a dashboard of countries most at threat of a real-estate bubble, and says risk gauges are “flashing warnings” at an intensity not seen since the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis.
In the search for solutions, governments must try and avoid penalizing either renters or homeowners. It’s an unenviable task.
Sweden’s government collapsed in June after it proposed changes that would have abandoned traditional controls and allowed more rents to be set by the market.
In Berlin, an attempt to tame rent increases was overturned by a court. Campaigners have collected enough signatures to force a referendum on seizing property from large private landlords. The motion goes to a vote on Sept. 26. The city government on Friday announced it’d buy nearly 15,000 apartments from two large corporate landlords for 2.46 billion euros ($2.9 billion) to expand supply.
Anthony Breach at the Centre for Cities think tank has even made the case for a link between housing and Britain’s 2016 vote to quit the European Union. Housing inequality, he concluded, is “scrambling our politics.”
As these stories from around the world show, that’s a recipe for upheaval.
With annual inflation running around 50%, Argentines are no strangers to price increases. But for Buenos Aires residents like Lucia Cholakian, rent hikes are adding economic pressure, and with that political disaffection.
Like many during the pandemic, the 28-year-old writer and college professor moved with her partner from a downtown apartment to a residential neighborhood in search of more space. In the year since, her rent has more than tripled; together with bills it chews through about 40% of her income. That rules out saving for a home.
“We’re not going to be able to plan for the future like our parents did, with the dream of your own house,” she says. The upshot is “renting, buying and property in general” is becoming “much more present for our generation politically.”
Legislation passed by President Alberto Fernandez’s coalition aims to give greater rights to tenants like Cholakian. Under the new rules, contracts that were traditionally two years are now extended to three. And rather than landlords setting prices, the central bank created an index that determines how much rent goes up in the second and third year.
It’s proved hugely controversial, with evidence of some property owners raising prices excessively early on to counter the uncertainty of regulated increases later. Others are simply taking properties off the market. A government-decreed pandemic rent freeze exacerbated the squeeze.
Rental apartment listings in Buenos Aires city are down 12% this year compared to the average in 2019, and in the surrounding metro area they’re down 36%, according to real estate website ZonaProp.
The law “had good intentions but worsened the issue, as much for property owners as for tenants,” said Maria Eugenia Vidal, the former governor of Buenos Aires province and one of the main opposition figures in the city. She is contesting the November midterm elections on a ticket with economist Martin Tetaz with a pledge to repeal the legislation.
“Argentina is a country of uncertainty,” Tetaz said by phone, but with the housing rules it’s “even more uncertain now than before.”
Cholakian, who voted for Fernandez in 2019, acknowledges the rental reform is flawed, but also supports handing more power to tenants after an extended recession that wiped out incomes. If anything, she says greater regulation is needed to strike a balance between reassuring landlords and making rent affordable.
“If they don’t do something to control this in the city of Buenos Aires, only the rich will be left,” she says. —Patrick Gillespie
As the son of first-generation migrants from Romania, Alex Fagarasan should be living the Australian dream. Instead, he’s questioning his long-term prospects.
Fagarasan, a 28-year-old junior doctor at a major metropolitan hospital, would prefer to stay in Melbourne, close to his parents. But he’s being priced out of his city.
He’s now facing the reality that he’ll have to move to a regional town to get a foothold in the property market. Then, all going well, in another eight years he’ll be a specialist and able to buy a house in Melbourne.
Even so, he knows he’s one of the lucky ones. His friends who aren’t doctors “have no chance” of ever owning a home. “My generation will be the first one in Australia that will be renting for the rest of their lives,” he says.
He currently rents a modern two-bedroom townhouse with two others in the inner suburb of Northcote — a study nook has been turned into a make-shift bedroom to keep down costs. About 30% of his salary is spent on rent; he calls it “exorbitant.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government announced a “comprehensive housing affordability plan” as part of the 2017-2018 budget, including A$1 billion ($728 million) to boost supply. It hasn’t tamed prices.
The opposition Labour Party hasn’t fared much better. It proposed closing a lucrative tax loophole for residential investment at the last election in 2019, a policy that would likely have brought down home prices. But it sparked an exodus back to the ruling Liberals of voters who owned their home, and probably contributed to Labor’s election loss.
The political lessons have been learned: Fagarasan doesn’t see much help on housing coming from whoever wins next year’s federal election. After all, Labor already rules the state of Victoria whose capital is Melbourne.
“I feel like neither of the main parties represents the voice of the younger generation,” he says.
It’s a sentiment shared by Ben Matthews, a 33-year-old project manager at a university in Sydney. He’s moving back in with his parents after the landlord of the house he shared with three others ordered them out, an experience he says he found disappointing and stressful, especially during the pandemic.
Staying with his parents will at least help him save for a deposit on a one-bedroom flat. But even that’s a downgrade from his original plan of a two-bedroom house so he could rent the other room out. The increases, he says, are “just insane.”
“It might not be until something breaks that we’ll get the political impetus to make changes,” he says. —Jason Scott
Days after calling an election, Justin Trudeau announced plans for a two-year ban on foreigners buying houses. If it was meant as a dramatic intervention to blind-side his rivals, it failed: they broadly agree.
The prime minister thought he was going to fight the Sept. 20 vote on the back of his handling of the pandemic, but instead housing costs are a dominant theme for all parties.
Trudeau’s Liberals are promising a review of “escalating” prices in markets including Vancouver and Toronto to clamp down on speculation; Conservative challenger Erin O’Toole pledges to build a million homes in three years to tackle the “housing crisis”; New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh wants a 20% tax on foreign buyers to combat a crisis he calls “out of hand.”
Facing a surprisingly tight race, Trudeau needs to attract young urban voters if he is to have any chance of regaining his majority. He chose Hamilton, outside Toronto, to launch his housing policy.
Once considered an affordable place in the Greater Toronto Area, it’s faced rising pressure as people leave Canada’s biggest city in search of cheaper homes. The average single family home cost C$932,700 ($730,700) in June, a 30% increase from a year earlier, according to the Realtors Association of Hamilton and Burlington.
The City of Hamilton cites housing affordability among its priorities for the federal election, but that’s little comfort to Sarah Wardroper, a 32-year-old single mother of two young girls, who works part time and rents in the downtown east side. Hamilton, she says, represents “one of the worst housing crises in Canada.”
While she applauds promises to make it harder for foreigners to buy investment properties she’s skeptical of measures that might discourage homeowners from renting out their properties. That includes Trudeau’s bid to tax those who sell within 12 months of a house purchase. Neither is she convinced by plans for more affordable housing, seeing them as worthy but essentially a short-term fix when the real issue is “the economy is just so out of control the cost of living in general has skyrocketed.”
Wardroper says her traditionally lower-income community has become a luxury Toronto neighborhood.
“I don’t have the kind of job to buy a house, but I have the ambition and the drive to do that,” she says. “I want to build a future for my kids. I want them to be able to buy homes, but the way things are going right now, I don’t think that’s going to be possible.” —Kait Bolongaro
Back in 2011, a public uproar over the city-state’s surging home prices contributed to what was at the time the ruling party’s worst parliamentary election result in more than five decades in power. While the People’s Action Party retained the vast majority of the seats in parliament, it was a wake-up call — and there are signs the pressure is building again.
Private home prices have risen the most in two years, and in the first half of 2021 buyers including ultra-rich foreigners splurged S$32.9 billion ($24 billion), according to Singapore-based ERA Realty Network Pte Ltd. That’s double the amount recorded in Manhattan over the same period.
However, close to 80% of Singapore’s citizens live in public housing, which the government has long promoted as an asset they can sell to move up in life.
It’s a model that has attracted attention from countries including China, but one that is under pressure amid a frenzy in the resale market. Singapore’s government-built homes bear little resemblance to low-income urban concentrations elsewhere: In the first five months of the year, a record 87 public apartments were resold for at least S$1 million. That’s stirring concerns about affordability even among the relatively affluent.
Junior banker Alex Ting, 25, is forgoing newly built public housing as it typically means a three-to-four-year wait. And under government rules for singles, Ting can only buy a public apartment when he turns 35 anyway.
His dream home is a resale flat near his parents. But even there a mismatch between supply and demand could push his dream out of reach.
While the government has imposed curbs on second-home owners and foreign buyers, younger people like Ting have grown resigned to the limits of what can be done.
Most Singaporeans aspire to own their own property, and the housing scarcity and surge in prices presents another hurdle to them realizing their goal, says Nydia Ngiow, Singapore-based senior director at BowerGroupAsia, a strategic policy advisory firm. If unaddressed, that challenge “may in turn build long-term resentment towards the ruling party,” she warns.
That’s an uncomfortable prospect for the PAP, even as the opposition faces barriers to winning parliamentary seats. The ruling party is already under scrutiny for a disrupted leadership succession plan, and housing costs may add to the pressure.
Younger voters may express their discontent by moving away from the PAP, according to Ting. “In Singapore, the only form of protest we can do is to vote for the opposition,” he says. —Faris Mokhtar
Claire Kerrane is open about the role of housing in her winning a seat in Ireland’s parliament, the Dail.
Kerrane, 29, was one of a slew of Sinn Fein lawmakers to enter the Dail last year after the party unexpectedly won the largest number of first preference votes at the expense of Ireland’s dominant political forces, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.
While the two main parties went on to form a coalition government, the outcome was a political earthquake. Sinn Fein was formerly the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, yet it’s been winning followers more for its housing policy than its push for a united Ireland.
“Housing was definitely a key issue in the election and I think our policies and ambition for housing played a role in our election success,” says Kerrane, who represents the parliamentary district of Roscommon-Galway.
Ireland still bears the scars of a crash triggered by a housing bubble that burst during the financial crisis. A shortage of affordable homes means prices are again marching higher.
Sinn Fein has proposed building 100,000 social and affordable homes, the reintroduction of a pandemic ban on evictions and rent increases, and legislation to limit the rate banks can charge for mortgages.
Those policies have struck a chord. The most recent Irish Times Ipsos MRBI poll, in June, showed Sinn Fein leading all other parties, with 21% of respondents citing house prices as the issue most likely to influence their vote in the next general election, the same proportion that cited the economy. Only health care trumped housing as a concern.
Other parties are taking note. On Sept. 2, the coalition launched a housing plan as the pillar of its agenda for this parliamentary term, committing over 4 billion euros ($4.7 billion) a year to increase supply, the highest-ever level of government investment in social and affordable housing.
Whether it’s enough to blunt Sinn Fein’s popularity remains to be seen. North of the border, meanwhile, Sinn Fein holds a consistent poll lead ahead of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly due by May, putting it on course to nominate the region’s First Minister for the first time since the legislature was established as part of the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998.
For all the many hurdles that remain to reunification, Sinn Fein is arguably closer than it has ever been to achieving its founding goal by championing efforts to widen access to housing.
As Kerrane says: “Few, if any households aren’t affected in some way by the housing crisis.” —Morwenna Coniam
Eric Adams Pitches 25,000 Hotel Rooms As Affordable Housing Solution
The Democratic NYC mayoral nominee says shuttered hotels could help solve housing insecurity and are cheaper than new construction.
Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee for New York City mayor, called for tens of thousands of shuttered hotel rooms to be turned into housing to ease the city’s housing insecurity.
Adams, speaking at a campaign event on Monday, said the city has a chance to reverse years of bad planning and convert hotels that have become eyesores. The Brooklyn borough president and former cop said he was looking to turn 25,000 rooms into housing, adding that the city should foot much of the bill.
“The combination of Covid-19, the economic downturn, and the problems we’re having with housing is presenting us with a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Adams said in remarks outside of the Phoenix Hotel, a vacant property in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. “We can use this moment and find one solution to solve a multitude of problems.”
Adams echoed other recent initiatives to bolster housing security across the U.S. Earlier Monday, Bloomberg CityLab reported that the White House is launching a new national initiative, “House America,” to combat rising homelessness.
In August, then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that would finance the purchase of distressed hotels and commercial office properties by nonprofits to convert them into affordable housing.
The need for such housing remains urgent in New York City, where more than 45,000 people were being housed in city shelters at last count, and thousands more are grappling with unsheltered homelessness.
The new state law would address, at best, a small slice of Adams’ target of 25,000 units. It sets aside $100 million to help finance building purchases, splitting units evenly between low-income households and people experiencing homelessness. But converting hotels is pricey in New York City.
Manhattan hotels sold at a median price of $275,000 per unit in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to data from PWC’s Manhattan Lodging Index. The 100-room Z NYC Hotel in Long Island City, a Queens neighborhood, sold for $384,000 a room in May.
Adams, in his remarks, said acquiring and converting the units would be cheaper than new construction. “You need the city to invest city dollars to acquire and convert these units,” Adams said, adding that it can cost $500,000 and take years to create an affordable studio apartment, while converting existing space can be done at two-thirds of the cost and in one-third of the time.
“The numbers just make sense.”
The New York Hotel Trades Council, a union representing 40,000 hotel workers in the city, expressed support for Adams’ approach as a way to stem the overdevelopment that they believe has negative long-term effects on workers.
“Eric Adams’ support for converting failed hotel properties into affordable housing supply is exactly the type of common sense approach we need to better protect the safety of our communities and economic resurgence of the hotel industry,” said Rich Maroko, president of the union.
The state law doesn’t override local zoning rules in neighborhoods with a heavy concentration of hotels, such as the Garment District in Manhattan or in Long Island City. Some of the buildings that are being targeted for acquisition wouldn’t need zoning changes, according to Brenda Rosen, the president and chief executive officer of Breaking Ground, a group that specializes in supportive housing.
“The hotels that Breaking Ground is targeting actually don’t need any change in zoning rules,” said Rosen, who spoke at the event. “We just have to get over that hump of getting the deal together.”
Historic Home Prices To Whack Owners In Next Year’s Property Tax
U.S. homeowners enjoying historic gains in the value of their property will likely face a hit next year through a higher tax bill.
Property taxes — up the most in 15 years in 2020, according to recently released Labor Department data — will likely see even sharper jumps this year. The median price of previously-owned, single-family homes set new highs last year, and have climbed even more in 2021, which could haunt homeowners when the bills come due and potentially force Americans to dig deeper into their savings.
Six counties in the New York City area saw median property tax bills that exceeded $10,000 annually in 2020: Bergen, Essex and Union Counties in New Jersey; and Nassau, Rockland and Westchester Counties in New York.
Also among the top 20 is the San Francisco suburb of Marin County and Fairfield County in Connecticut.
U.S. Property Tax
The 9% jump in the median bill last year was the largest rise since 2005.
Last year, the country’s median property tax bill rose $194 to $2,353. While the increase reflects a boost in property value, and therefore enhances the homeowner’s wealth, the individual typically doesn’t realize such gains until the property is sold or refinanced. But tax collection doesn’t wait for either occurrence, and the bills have to be paid regardless.
“Unlike paper gains on stocks which don’t lead to tax consequences until you sell, paper gains in real estate have more immediate financial consequences in the form of real estate taxes,” said Danielle Hale, chief economist at Realtor.com.
While no one really likes taxes, property taxes are generally the most-dreaded because of the high amount owed and the fact that they’re presented in a tangible bill from state and local governments. That’s unlike income tax, which is usually paid through payroll deductions and can often result in an annual refund due to overpayment.
Property taxes are based upon an opaque home valuation estimate as prices for similar homes can vary widely, and they don’t settle until market forces decide on a price. Additionally, property taxes tend to be lagging, as they are based on a home’s value the previous year.
This was problematic a dozen years ago when many homeowners were left paying property taxes on home values that were considerably higher than those in the current market due to the 2008 recession.
This year and next, many homeowners will face a different issue. While many jurisdictions limit how much of an increase in property taxes a local assessor can impose, the rapid run-up in real estate prices will likely mean a higher tax bill is still coming.
How A Hot Housing Market Exacerbates Inequality
Homeownership is becoming even less attainable as bidding wars, cash offers and racist ideas about buyers further disadvantage people of color.
The hot housing market we’re experiencing right now in the U.S. is making things hard for homebuyers, and it’s making things especially difficult for homebuyers of color.
In places like Albuquerque, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and Raleigh, bidding wars, cash offers and waived appraisals have become commonplace, making homeownership less attainable for those who have already long been disadvantaged at nearly every stage of the purchase process.
That’s because strategies to assess a homebuyer’s risk depend on widely shared racist ideas and racial-economic inequalities. In my book Race Brokers, I investigated housing, race and racism in Houston, a market that (at the time in 2015-2016) was roughly balanced between buyers and sellers.
The findings were damning. Developer and licensed real estate agent Brad told me that Black neighborhoods are “not safe, generally … they are generally, you know, single parents raising kids that are crazy, because they’re just wild animals.”
Brad — and many other White real estate professionals I studied — used racist ideas like this to determine where they built homes and how they performed other aspects of their work.
Even if they did not state these racist ideas outright, they used big-picture racial-economic inequalities to justify not servicing or poorly servicing neighborhoods and clients of color.
One prominent example was White real estate agents not listing homes for sale in Black and Latinx neighborhoods because the low home values in these neighborhoods — themselves a product of historic and contemporary racism in appraisal practices — would result in lower pay to the agents themselves. (Agents are typically paid a percentage of the for-sale home’s sale price.)
In our current moment, as homes “fly off the shelves,” housing market professionals and home sellers are using ‘normal’ (racist) strategies like this in ways that intensify racist ideas and racial inequalities. In turn, they intensify racially unequal housing market access.
Homebuyers of color have less access to homeownership and wealth-accumulation prospects, while White homebuyers’ access to homes and wealth increases. This is because real estate professionals assume White buyers are less risky than buyers of color.
It is also because White buyers are more likely to have access to economic resources that give them a leg up when competing for homes — one of the most rapidly appreciating assets available to U.S. consumers.
Sellers in a hot housing market readily use racist stereotypes that harm buyers of color.
In a hot seller’s market, homeowners can be pickier about the offers they receive. They can insist on cash offers. They can choose offers where buyers waive a home inspection. Sellers are also likely to favor buyers who offer more up-front money to incentivize sellers to take their home off the market (e.g., due diligence, option period or time-off-market money).
And, real estate agents can coach sellers to prioritize offers that come with these waivers or higher up-front money paid. In the case of up-front money, buyers generally lose it all if the deal ends up falling through.
In a hot seller’s market, buyers with more disposable cash and who can risk thousands of dollars in a gamble on a home are especially advantaged. In the U.S., these buyers, whether individuals or — increasingly — investment companies, are disproportionately White or White-owned. In turn, this reality recreates longstanding inequalities like racial segregation and racial wealth gaps.
Like homeowners and real estate agents, lenders are more willing to bet on buyers they perceive as less risky — specifically, less risky in a mortgage loan context. Lenders may waive appraisals for buyers who are willing to bring enough cash to the table.
Sellers then favor prospective buyers who come with waived appraisals because one major hurdle on the way to the home sale closing has been removed. And, as with up-front offer money, buyers who have this kind of cash for a down payment and whom lenders perceive as less risky are disproportionately White. Again, longstanding housing inequalities are recreated.
Sellers in a hot housing market also readily use racist stereotypes that harm buyers of color. While researching my book, a White seller told a White real estate agent that they didn’t want a “Middle Eastern” buyer to purchase their home because they didn’t want to “support terrorists.”
White sellers are more likely to act on such stereotypes when they have a larger pool of buyers to choose from.
And, when owners sell their homes privately — through the assistance or recommendation of a real estate agent — they exacerbate racial inequalities. These private listings, often called pocket listings, are for-sale homes that real estate agents and brokers market to the people in their networks prior to or instead of listing them publicly.
But pocket listings are a flagrant violation of an ostensibly “open” housing market because real estate agents — especially White ones — have segregated networks. So, when White agents engage a pocket listing, they are disproportionately granting White buyers access to that for-sale home and disproportionately excluding prospective buyers of color.
As with housing market professionals’ and sellers’ use of racist ideas to determine market strategies and activities, pocket listings in this hot market are also contributing to racial housing inequalities and segregation — more so now than before. The number of pocket listings has increased during the current, frenzied market.
Policymakers need to act swiftly to create a more open housing market. Enhancing the racial diversity of real estate professions, including the appraisal and real estate brokerage industries, is not enough. Tweaking real estate professional training materials is not enough.
Multiple meaningful interventions, including capping up-front money on home purchase offers, penalizing pocket listings, and changing real estate agent pay norms are necessary to stem the tide of inequalities heading straight for us.
Without such intervention, housing market professionals’ and seller’s ‘normal’ strategies — currently on steroids during this hot market — will further entrench racial divisions and undermine equal housing opportunity.
Can Biden Deliver On His Promise To Expand Housing Vouchers?
The president pledged a major expansion of rental assistance, and the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill is his opportunity to deliver it — if housing aid can survive cuts in Congress.
As a candidate in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Joe Biden pledged to deliver an enormous expansion of the social safety net: He’d make housing choice vouchers — the 1970s-era rental assistance program also known as Section 8 — a federal entitlement.
The program currently provides subsidies to low-income households to help them rent a home on the private market. But millions of U.S. households who qualify for aid face long local waiting lists to receive a voucher; Biden promised to offer it to all eligible families.
As president, Biden now has the opportunity to make good on that pledge. House Democrats included $327 billion for housing in the reconciliation bill in the works by Congress, including $90 billion to expand rental assistance. This would provide support for more than 1 million new households, a substantial if not unprecedented push.
While that number would fall short of turning housing vouchers into a fully funded federal entitlement like Social Security, lawmakers who support the bill have described it as a major down payment toward fulfilling the president’s promise.
“If enacted, it will dramatically close the gap for low-income renters,” said California Representative Maxine Waters, speaking about expanded housing aid in a call with reporters.
Yet as Congress looks to bring down the $3.5 trillion price tag for the Build Back Better legislation, housing activists and other leaders fear that their agenda may be sacrificed to broker a compromise. A group of more than a dozen nonprofits known as the National Coalition of Housing Justice issued a letter calling on Congress to shore up housing aid against rumored cuts.
New York Representative Ritchie Torres, who along with other progressives met with Biden earlier this week, circulated a letter to colleagues to garner support for housing aid, noting that “these investments could effectively end homelessness in the United States.”
Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, agrees with that assessment: “There’s never been a moment like this one, where so many factors are aligned to create this opportunity to end homelessness.”
Section 8 renters have long faced stigma and discrimination, and the program’s eligibility requirements vary from city to city. Generally speaking, a family can’t make more than 50% of area median income and be eligible, and by law local public housing agencies must set aside three-fourth of their vouchers for extremely low-income households earning less than 30% of area median income. But in recent years things have changed to make the program better for tenants and landlords.
Many cities and states across the country have adopted laws to bar landlords from discriminating against tenants based on their source of income. The pandemic has also made landlords look more favorably on a rent check guaranteed by Uncle Sam. One study showed that vouchers can dramatically boost the social mobility of low-income households.
Sheer lack of funding has been the program’s biggest weakness. Waitlists for available vouchers run into the tens of thousands in some cities, and those that do have them can struggle to find affordable housing options, especially in higher-cost, higher-opportunity neighborhoods. And the systemic factors driving housing discrimination are deep and abiding.
“There are all of these ways to shore up the program to make it work more equitably. We shouldn’t expect it to fix neighborhood inequality, to undo all of segregation,” says Eva Rosen, assistant professor at Georgetown University and the author of The Voucher Promise. “It’s a private market program. It does wonders to help people afford their homes and to be more stable in those homes. It can’t do everything.”
Lawmakers may decide the ultimate shape of Biden’s housing agenda this month. Which is a novel thing in itself: Presidents don’t historically have housing agendas. Tenants and advocates are trying to impress upon lawmakers the urgency of the housing crisis as well as the scale of the opportunity.
Expanding vouchers could give a huge lift to lower-income tenants who were pummeled by the pandemic. Done right, those benefits compound over generations. If it passed in its entirety, those advocates say, the Build Back Better bill could conquer a problem that U.S. cities have wrestled with since the 1980s.
“There are 580,000 people homeless at any given time. The majority of people solve the problem by themselves. They’re homeless a little while, they exit, they don’t come back,” says Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “There are, however, a substantial portion of that number who need longer-term housing assistance. This level of funding would be able to provide that. It could easily end homelessness.”
But there is still a great deal that lawmakers misunderstand about vouchers, and with Congress looking to cut as much as $2 trillion from the reconciliation package, expanded rental assistance will have to compete with universal pre-K, free community college, cheaper prescription drugs, and other popular proposals. The Washington Post reports that the bill’s housing elements “may prove among the first to hit the cutting-room floor.”
Closing The Voucher Gap
A new report by the Housing Initiative at Penn looks at the impact of enacting Biden’s promise of universal housing vouchers and reveals the geography of the the nation’s largest voucher gaps: that is, the gulf between the number of households that have vouchers and the number of households that need them.
In terms of absolute numbers, California, New York and Texas lead the way. These states have vast renter populations, period, which is why housing precarity in the megalopolises of Los Angeles, New York and Houston tend to predominate in discussions about the safety net. But the share of renters who would benefit from an expansion of Section 8 is larger in states such as Mississippi, Nevada and New Mexico.
In the 25 largest U.S. metros, the deepest impact of expanding the program falls not in high-cost coastal cities but in places like Orlando, Phoenix and Charlotte, North Carolina — the three cities that have the biggest gaps between current vouchers and potential vouchers when weighted for the population of renters.
Smaller cities and even rural areas stand to see the biggest benefits. For example, in Arizona — where Senator Kyrsten Sinema may hold the deciding vote on Biden’s housing agenda — expanding vouchers would help renters in Phoenix a great deal, but it would go even further toward lifting up low-income Arizona families in Flagstaff, Prescott and Yuma.
Looking at weighted voucher gap ratios is a way of determining “where you have the biggest bang for your buck,” according to Claudia Aiken, director of the Housing Initiative at Penn and co-author of the report with Vincent Reina and Jenna Epstein.
This work serves as a counterpoint to the argument that high housing costs soak up the benefits of vouchers (a real but solvable problem with the formula for subsidies). And as advocates note, Build Back Better includes billions to preserve and build affordable housing units — a supply-side solution that goes hand-in-glove with vouchers.
“One of the most defining characteristics of our housing policy approach is how constrained our policies are,” says Reina. “The Section 8 program is very much emblematic of that. We spend a lot of time talking about how to make it more effective, when the reality is that one of the clearest characteristics of it is that there are more households that need the subsidy than can receive it.”
Long Lines, Epic Waits
As the Penn report confirms, universalizing housing vouchers would indeed be a massive expansion of the safety net: If every extremely low-income household (earning at or below 30% of area median income) eligible for vouchers received one, that would mean 10.4 million households.
At the very low income threshold (at or below 50% of area median income), the number would rise to 17.7 million households. In 2020, there were approximately 2.6 million housing vouchers available — roughly one voucher for every five eligible families.
As a result, households who are eligible for rental assistance languish on incredibly long waitlists. Many housing agencies have more households on their waitlists than they have total available vouchers, according to a new report by Sonya Acosta and Brianna Guerrero at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Their findings are stark: In the city of Baltimore, for example, the waitlist equals 135% of the available number of vouchers. For San Diego County, that figure is 388%. For Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, it’s 788% — eight households in line for every available voucher.
How A $2 Million Condo In Brooklyn Ends Up With A $157 Tax Bill
Opaque methods, hypothetical numbers and ‘bonkers’ adjustments shift the property-tax burden toward middle- and working-class New Yorkers.
For years, when confronted with complaints of uneven property taxes, the New York City Department of Finance has blamed a state law that requires it to ignore the sale prices of condos and co-ops when determining their taxable value. Instead, the law requires city assessors to engage in a kind of thought experiment: Pretend co-ops and condos produce income for their owners—even though they don’t—and set their taxable values based on a hypothetical amount of income they’d generate if they did.
That law, designed to protect condos and co-ops from higher taxes, lays the groundwork for warped results. But now, for the first time, a Bloomberg News investigation reveals that city officials have made a bad situation worse. They’ve invented data points that bear no resemblance to market reality and used them in opaque calculations that tend to favor wealthy property owners. These flawed valuations shift hundreds of millions of dollars in tax burden from higher- to lower-priced properties and to rental apartment buildings every year.
City ordinances have created special exemptions that reduce taxable values for qualifying properties and abatements that shrink eligible tax bills—special breaks that have significant effects. But flawed valuations present a problem at a deeper level, one that’s far less apparent to most taxpayers.
A Bloomberg analysis of millions of city records related to condo sales and taxes shows that, in effect, two steps in New York’s assessment process combine to help perpetuate unfairness. First, city officials reduce the taxable values of condos across the board by adjusting an important data point—the so-called capitalization rate—in their calculations.
Capitalization rates help investors gauge the value of income-producing properties; the higher the rate, the lower the property value. The rate that assessors apply is more than double the actual rates reflected in New York real estate markets.
As a result, New York condo owners see low taxable values on their annual bills. But here’s what they don’t necessarily see: In modest neighborhoods, those values are set somewhat closer to actual sale prices; in upscale areas, they’re much farther below the market. In other words, big-dollar properties get a bigger break.
That citywide phenomenon stems from the second step in the assessors’ process: They create their hypothetical income estimates by using data that reflect comparatively high amounts for the low-priced condos and relatively low amounts for the high-priced, an analysis of actual sales prices and city data shows.
Bloomberg found that officials have used opaque methods to adjust these data inputs, producing results that depart from market realities. The process drives down taxable values for tens of thousands of condos en masse, by about 80% on average—inaccuracies that occur before any exemptions or abatements take effect. (The city uses a similar approach to value co-op buildings. But a lack of readily available data on the property taxes that individual co-op units pay precludes a similar analysis of co-op valuations.)
“They are wildly undervaluing properties and, as they’re trying to make up income for residential buildings, they’re biasing their estimates too,” said Andrew Hayashi, a University of Virginia law professor who specializes in property taxation and has examined New York’s system. Hayashi, one of four independent experts who reviewed Bloomberg’s analysis, added: “I don’t see how state law constrains them from doing a better job on this.”
City officials declined to grant interviews for this story. In written responses to questions, they defended the methods they use and attributed any unfairness or inaccuracies to the state law they have to follow. Standards set by the international industry group for assessment officials call for local offices to conduct regular studies of their fairness and accuracy, but New York officials say they haven’t done such studies for condos, co-ops or rentals.
The industry standard for fairness studies is a “sales-ratio” analysis, which compares prices for recently sold properties to the assessors’ values for them. Bloomberg’s analysis used sales ratios to determine how closely assessors’ values for condos and rental buildings track with actual market prices. City officials said that because state law requires them to use a hypothetical income-based approach for valuing condos and co-ops, using sale prices to check their results isn’t valid.
Yet several national experts say sales-ratio studies are the best tool for gauging assessors’ accuracy—even for income-producing properties. “Assessment offices must attempt to derive market value and ratio studies establish whether that job is done accurately,” the International Association of Assessing Officers said in a written statement.
Independent property-tax experts have used sales-ratio studies to examine New York; one of the most recent found that flawed valuations for condos shift roughly $292 million in annual property taxes from the top 10% of such residences by value to the remaining 90%.
The author, Christopher Berry, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, found an even larger such shift for single-family homes: $450 million.
Owners such as Jeesselle Suero and Domino Kirke reflect how these shifts affect New Yorkers. It was Suero who purchased the Throggs Neck apartment in 2018, when the annual property tax bill was $3,917. And it was Kirke, a singer, actress and doula to celebrity clients, who sold the $2.15 million condo in Williamsburg in 2019, the same year its tax bill totaled $157.
Much of the disparity in their tax bills stems from the values that city officials arrived at for each property: They valued Suero’s unit at $85,774, about 37% of its actual market value. Kirke’s unit was valued at $279,079, just 13% of its market value. (After that, tax breaks for converting old buildings into condos drove Kirke’s 2019 tax bill down to $157.)
The contrast stunned Suero, who at first told a Bloomberg reporter that the figures must be incorrect. “It’s not right,” she said. “I don’t mind paying my fair share, but I want everybody else to pay their fair share.” In a brief telephone call, Kirke said she recalled the Williamsburg apartment having low taxes, and declined to discuss the matter further.
U.S. property taxes, which raise more than $500 billion annually for public schools, fire departments and other local services, are supposed to be based on property values as determined by local assessors—the higher the assessment, the higher the tax bill. But a series of studies has shown systematic unfairness throughout the country: Officials tend to overvalue low-priced properties while undervaluing the high-priced.
A University of Chicago study last year examined 2,600 U.S. counties and found that more than 9 out of 10 reflected this unfair pattern, known as regressivity. Researchers have highlighted New York City, which collects about $30 billion a year in property taxes, as a primary example.
The city’s valuations can produce absurd results. In 163 cases across New York, assessors set values for entire condo buildings that are lower than the sales price of a single unit in the building, city sales and tax records for 2017 through 2019 show.
In Brooklyn, owners of rental apartment buildings pay an effective tax rate that’s more than eight times higher than the rate for condos, despite national standards that say New York officials should be treating them the same. The contrast suggests that the city’s assessment methods shift about $237 million in tax burden from condo owners to rental property owners in Brooklyn each year, Bloomberg found.
For condo owners on the losing end—those of comparatively modest means who pay higher effective tax rates—the system is so opaque that it’s hard for them to know they’re losing.
Robert Donate paid $185,000 for a two-bedroom condo in the Bronx in December 2017. His first-year tax bill was $3,936, an effective tax rate of 2.1%. That doesn’t sound too bad—until you compare it to the average effective tax rate for condos citywide: 0.5%, or less than a quarter of his rate. “That’s kind of ridiculous,” Donate said. He knew that new-construction condos benefit from lucrative exemptions and abatements, he said, but he expected a fairer system nonetheless.
The breadth of this unfairness suggests it’s the result of systemic causes, not targeted favors for individual taxpayers. The city’s methods generate inequities on a mass scale with no favor-trading needed. But that hasn’t always been the case.
In his heyday in the 1990s, Howie Habler was among the top earners in a crew that collected $10 million in dirty money across Manhattan, according to a federal indictment. He wasn’t a money launderer or a con artist. He was a property tax assessor.
Habler and 17 other assessors were indicted in 2002 on charges of taking bribes from commercial real estate interests to reduce property values across Manhattan. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 27 months in prison for his part in a scheme that federal prosecutors said spanned decades and included 562 properties.
According to court records, the crooked assessors were able to take bribes for decades without drawing attention. In an interview, Habler said his office’s tolerance for wide variations in assessors’ results helped camouflage his crimes.
“I could swing 30% and still be legit,” Habler recalled. “Fifteen one way and 15 the other. And still get paid for it from both ends; get my salary and from somebody in the street.”
The 30% “swing” that Habler describes doesn’t meet national assessment standards that call for “uniformity.” Put simply, the value assigned to every property of a particular type should represent the same portion of its actual market value. Theoretically, that should result in no swing at all. But nobody’s perfect, so experts developed a standard that allows some leeway:
Divide each property’s estimated value by its actual market price to produce a set of scores. Then take the median score—the one that sits in the middle—and make sure all your results stay within 7.5 percentage points on either side. Average scores outside that 15 percentage point range don’t meet the standard.
Today, New York’s uniformity scores for condo valuations have a range of more than 35%, Bloomberg found—exceeding the national standard and eclipsing even Habler’s 30%.
City officials have said studies based on condos’ actual sales aren’t valid for measuring the quality of their work. They rejected any comparison to the previous scandal, saying “assessors are dedicated public servants who follow the law and hold themselves to high standards.”
The investigation that swept up Habler and others centered on commercial property, but it gave rise to a full city review in 2002 that criticized New York’s process for valuing various types of real estate. A resulting report that recommended several changes cited a “high degree of subjectivity” that created an environment where “opportunities for corruption abound.” Some adjustments were implemented temporarily; many, including recommendations aimed at reducing subjectivity, are not in place today.
The 2002 report wasn’t the first attempt to overhaul New York’s system. In 1993, a mayoral commission found that New York’s system was inherently unfair and benefited people with higher incomes. Most recently, in 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced another panel.
It issued a preliminary report in January 2020 that recommended valuing condos and co-ops like single-family homes, using the sales approach. The latest commission has yet to issue a final report. Its recommendation would require state legislation; none has been introduced.
A spokesman for Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee and favorite in next month’s mayoral election, said Adams is a “supporter of reform” but didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment on the findings in this article.
Some taxpayers have turned to the courts. A group of civil rights organizations, community activists and high-end rental-apartment developers has sued the city and state to try to force changes in assessments. The group, Tax Equity Now New York, or TENNY, alleges that city property taxes are both unfair and racially biased, claims that city and state officials deny.
The plaintiffs won in a lower court, but the city and state prevailed on appeal last year. In August, TENNY asked the New York state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, to hear the case. The court’s decision on whether to hear the case is pending.
Prior efforts to improve the process haven’t resolved a fundamental problem: Assessors’ values for lower-priced condos represent larger shares of the condos’ actual market prices than their values for higher-priced condos do.
That pattern slices millions from the bills of the wealthy and sticks the not-so-wealthy with the tab—though the outcomes differ somewhat from borough to borough. In Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island, such low-end valuations are roughly twice as high, relative to market price, as valuations for the highest-priced condos. In Brooklyn, they’re 75% higher and in the Bronx, they’re 63% higher.
These disparities are rooted in an inscrutable passage in state law that has prompted city assessors to spend much of their time coming up with hypothetical numbers.
Section 581 of the New York Real Property Tax Law says, in essence, that assessors can’t set the value of any condo or co-op higher than it would be if the property were not a condo or co-op. In time, state courts interpreted the law to mean that both types of property must be assessed “as if they were conventional apartment houses.” That interpretation required assessors to use a different approach.
Most U.S. residential property is valued for tax purposes on a “sales” basis; assessors study recent sale prices as guides. But rental apartment buildings are valued on an “income” basis, meaning assessors determine a market value for the income each building produces.
In transferring that approach to condos and co-ops, which generally produce no income, assessment officials have to create hypothetical, on-paper-only income figures for them. For each condo building, this process begins when assessors choose as many as three rental properties as “comparables” and find the income that their owners have reported in mandatory annual filings.
In most cases, Bloomberg found, assessors then change the comparables’ income numbers completely. City officials declined to describe their process in detail, but records show that in case after case, assessors used different values for the same comparable’s net operating income.
In 2019, a stout brick rental building at 433 West 21st Street in Chelsea was used to help value 20 nearby condo buildings, but officials used different income figures in each case, ranging from $1.9 million to $3.4 million. None of them matched the net operating income that the owner of 433 West 21st Street reported to lenders that year: $1.2 million.
Overall, the city’s changes to the income figures don’t correspond with actual market prices of the condos they’re used to value, Bloomberg’s analysis found. Instead, the data show that as market prices increase, the average amounts that assessors use remain flat. In other words, assessors have used relatively higher incomes to value low-priced condos and relatively lower incomes for high-priced properties.
“It’s completely bonkers, and the result is most likely regressivity,” said the University of Chicago’s Berry.
City officials declined to discuss how they choose comparable rental buildings, but many go unchosen. In 2019, officials used only about 5,000 out of roughly 24,000 possible choices to help value more than 185,000 condo and co-op properties, city data show. Assessors sometimes use the same piece of rental property to help value more than 100 different condo or co-op buildings, changing the rental’s income figure dozens of times.
Officials say they have to adjust the income figures to ensure appropriate comparisons. But their changes go beyond mere tweaks, raising questions about the comparisons’ validity.
The 2002 report on overhauling New York’s property tax system recommended that assessors stop producing their own income estimates and instead use widely available market data for them. But city officials said in response to Bloomberg’s questions that the available market data “is not adequate for valuing the variety of income-producing properties in NYC.”
Regardless of the data source the city uses, several experts criticized the city’s lack of disclosure on how assessors calibrate their adjustments to the income figures—or precisely how they use the adjusted amounts to arrive at a hypothetical net operating income for each condo building they value.
“At this point, the results are so absurd that they need to be more transparent about the adjustments they are making,” said Mark Willis, a senior policy fellow at New York University’s Furman Center, who has advocated for assessors to value condos and co-ops based on sale prices. “I don’t think there is anything malicious going on here. They aren’t doing this intentionally. So something is going on, and it needs to be addressed.”
Once they’ve generated a hypothetical income stream for each condo building, city assessors still have to figure out how much that stream is worth. To do so, they use another number that bears little resemblance to real-world conditions, Bloomberg found.
Real estate investors have long used a relatively straightforward ratio to measure the market value of a property’s income. In its simplest form, this ratio, called a capitalization rate, or “cap rate,” is calculated by dividing the annual net operating income by the property’s current market value.
New York’s assessors use essentially the same calculation. They have the income numbers they’ve generated, so if they divide each one by a valid cap rate, they could arrive at market values.
But the cap rate they use is far from valid, Bloomberg’s analysis found; it’s more than double the rates found in local real estate markets, a choice that wipes out billions of dollars of taxable value at a stroke.
“If you tried to sell me an apartment building at a 12.4% cap rate in New York in the current environment I would wonder what was wrong with the building,” said Jim Costello, senior vice president at Real Capital Analytics, a real estate data company. Using such a high rate grossly undervalues property in New York, he said.
City officials provided only a smattering of documentation on how they devise their cap rates, saying they use a method that was developed in the late 1950s. But one reason for the extra-high cap rate is clear: In constructing it, city officials attempt to account for the prior year’s property tax payments.
To do so, they add an estimated effective tax rate of 5% or more onto their cap rate—an estimate that’s wildly overstated, according to Bloomberg’s analysis. On average, New York condo owners pay an effective rate of 0.5%, more than 10 times lower.
That 0.5% rate means condo owners, on average, get a better deal than rental building owners, who pay 0.8%, according to Bloomberg’s analysis. New York officials value rental buildings twice as high, relative to their sale prices, as condo buildings, the analysis found.
That shifts more tax burden onto rental properties and, by extension, onto renters. Moreover, because city sales and assessment data show that rental properties’ valuations also lead to regressive taxation, low-income renters can be hit particularly hard.
It’s “a hidden tax on renters,” says Jay Martin, executive director of the Community Housing Improvement Program, which represents landlords of New York’s rent-stabilized properties. Each year, the city mandates a limit on rent increases in roughly 1 million apartments in such properties.
Property taxes often push those limits higher. Over the last 17 years, landlords’ tax bills rose to make up roughly 30% of their costs, up from 22%, city data show. During the same period, the median stabilized rent in the city’s oldest buildings increased 79% to $1,364. “God willing, one day, elected officials will understand there is a direct correlation between property taxes and rent,” Martin said.
That correlation affects minority groups disproportionately because more minority households rent their homes. Only 11% of Hispanic New Yorkers and 30% of Black New Yorkers own their homes, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Governance. For White New Yorkers, it’s 42%.
By now, experts say, an implicit expectation of unfair taxes is built into sales prices for New York real estate, making the chance of repairing the system remote. If its flaws were corrected overnight, billions of dollars in value would disappear from high-value properties, experts say, triggering potentially tectonic shifts in the market.
“It would be a huge wealth transfer, and that’s where I think the real obstacle to reform comes from,” said Berry of the University of Chicago. “There is a loud and clear message for places that are not New York: Get a handle on these problems before you reach the point New York has reached.”
Housing Market Shows Cracks With Price Cuts In Pandemic Boomtowns
In places like Boise, homebuyers are gaining an edge after a real estate frenzy.
No city exemplifies the mania of the Covid-era U.S. housing market better than Boise, Idaho, where prices have surged by more than 30% in the past year. But in a sudden reversal, buyers are now the ones with power.
Asking prices for houses are being slashed. Bidders no longer have to waive inspections to win over sellers juggling multiple offers. Demand has slowed so much it’s like a light switch suddenly turned off, said Dominic Zimmer, a local Realtor.
“You’re seeing the fear of missing out switching from buyers to sellers,” Zimmer said. “Now sellers are afraid of not scoring the way they saw their neighbors do a year ago.”
The cracks in one of the nation’s hottest housing markets mark an early sign that the U.S. boom — fueled by low mortgage rates and remote-work moves — is losing intensity. While much of the country is still seeing record price increases and plunging listings, in some destinations builders who could hardly put up homes fast enough now have inventory sitting.
The slowdown is particularly pronounced in areas away from major urban hubs where buyers were seeking affordability and picturesque havens during the pandemic. That demand has ebbed as people have more reasons to stay put this fall, with the return of in-person school and more companies ordering workers back to the office, or at least requiring them to be somewhere in the vicinity.
The Result: Prices are running up against the reality of local economic fundamentals.
“The markets where we’re seeing the most price cuts were flying a little too close to the sun earlier this year,” said Daryl Fairweather, chief economist for the brokerage Redfin. “Sellers got eager in their asking prices. It was not sustainable and benefited from pandemic trends that still persist, but not as extremely.”
Across the U.S., home-price appreciation slowed for a second straight month in September as part of a modest cooldown, Zillow Group Inc. reported this week. The number of homes with price cuts is growing, with counties near Denver, Salt Lake City and Indianapolis seeing more than half of listings get reductions, according to Redfin.
Even some of the hottest areas where workers from large urban cities sprawled out to, such as the counties including Portland, Maine, and Tacoma, Washington, have had cuts on more than 40% of listings, Redfin data show.
In Idaho’s Canyon County, about eight out of 10 listings have had price cuts, the biggest share in the U.S. It’s a popular area for people who can’t afford nearby Boise, a city of about 230,000 that has boomed as Californians and other escapees of high-cost regions spread out. Its biggest employers include Albertsons Cos. and Micron Technology Inc., which are both based there.
Homes started when the market looked unstoppable are getting discounted as they’re completed. A Toll Brothers Inc. house in Nampa with a gourmet kitchen and dual-sink vanity in the master bathroom is on sale for $575,000, down $44,000 since it was listed at the end of June.
CBH Homes, the most prolific builder in Idaho, has 100 Canyon County homes with active listings on Realtor.com. As of Friday, 80 have price reductions.
Toll Brothers declined to comment. CBH builds homes on spec — without a buyer in place — so it always has 100 to 200 houses available at any given time, said CeCe Cheney, a spokeswoman for the company. “In regards to pricing, as the market changes, our pricing must change with it,” she said.
Zimmer, an agent with Amherst Madison Real Estate in Boise, said he didn’t have a single buyer succeed in winning a below-asking-price bid until August. That’s when John Blake, deputy chief of Ada County Paramedics, decided to jump into the fray. He was able to win a two-bedroom house for $327,000, below the $349,900 asking price. There were no other bidders.
“I looked at a number of homes that were outrageously priced for what they were,” Blake said. While he’s thrilled to get the house, he worries he might have purchased near the top of the market.
The pullback is a sign of prices getting too far ahead of what locals can pay, said Rick Palacios, director of research at the John Burns real estate consultancy. In the third quarter, 75% of U.S. counties had median-priced single-family homes that were less affordable than historic averages, according to real estate data firm Attom. That’s the highest share in 13 years.
Canyon County was the least affordable relative to its average wages and housing costs in the past, based on an Attom analysis of more than 300 counties with a population of at least 200,000 people. Boise’s home of Ada County ranked second.
“You’re transitioning from every market under the sun going nuts to now starting to see where long-term fundamentals actually matter,” Palacios said.
To be sure, Boise sellers don’t have much to worry about because most are sitting on a mountain of equity. And even as asking prices are being cut, the drops would have to be steep to fall below year-ago levels.
In some ways, a slowdown should be expected. It’s the comeback of seasonality that skipped over 2020, said Julie Russell, an agent with Coldwell Banker in Farmington, Utah, 20 minutes north of Salt Lake City.
In December, Russell listed a home that got 23 offers within 24 hours. But she put two houses on the market in the last two weeks and had to cut prices on both.
Buyers have lost some urgency now that mortgage rates are starting to rise, she said.
“It’s still better than it was two years ago,” Russell said. “It just feels so dramatic because we had so many offers, sometimes sight unseen, and now we’re returning to a sense of normalcy.”
The boom remains strong in many Sun Belt havens such as Phoenix and Austin, Texas, where jobs are growing fast. But in Pasco County, Florida, a relatively affordable coastal area about 45 minutes north of Tampa, sellers can no longer shoot for the moon, said Gerard Buglione, an agent with Charles Rutenberg Realty.
He’s working with a family that moved from New Jersey during the height of the boom in April. They beat out multiple bidders and paid $270,000 for a four-bedroom house with an open floor plan on a cul-de-sac.
They didn’t like Florida and now want to move back. They sought a big profit, listing the home for $369,900 in early September. The price has come down by $20,000 since then. A neighbor just sold a house with the same floor plan for $10,000 less than that.
“A lot of buyers have gotten frustrated and put purchasing on the back burner,” Buglione said. “Prices are leveling out.”
Housing Analyst Famous For Pre-Crash Warnings Is Concerned Again
Ivy Zelman, the housing analyst famous on Wall Street for calling the top of the market in 2005, less than two years before the collapse, sees warning signs once again.
After a historic run-up in values during the pandemic, housing in the U.S. is at — or near — the peak, she says. She’s cautioning clients that overheated areas with heavy concentrations of investors, including Phoenix, are likely to face “corrections.” A modest rise in 30-year mortgage rates, even to 4%, would bring demand to a halt, according to Zelman.
Cracks are already appearing: The pace of price growth nationwide has started to slow, and in Covid boomtowns such as Boise, Idaho, and Salt Lake City, bidding wars are suddenly giving way to discounts.
Zelman, 55, isn’t forecasting a nationwide crash on the scale of the last bubble, which was magnified by risky subprime mortgage lending. But the signs of trouble look familiar, she says: Investors are distorting the market by driving up prices beyond the reach of primary buyers, and builders with growing construction pipelines are bidding up land values.
The risk is that investors — from iBuyers to private equity firms acquiring and building single-family homes for rent — get spooked and start selling, overloading the market with supply. By the time builders finish homes they’ve now just started, demand may no longer be there, she says.
“If I’m a homebuyer right now,” Zelman says, “I want to wait because I think we’ve gotten to a level that’s not sustainable.”
Zelman, a former Credit Suisse Group AG analyst who co-founded her firm, Zelman & Associates, in 2007, talked to Bloomberg about her views. Her responses have been edited and condensed.
Is this the first time you’ve called the top of the housing market since the last crash?
It definitely is the first time that I’ve been concerned about the market being at peak levels, or near peak levels, since the last downturn, absolutely. And our concerns are obviously not very much the party line. We are the contrarians. Our views are grounded in fundamental research and understanding and appreciating the risk that right now I call “yellow flags.” So it may be that our concerns don’t come to fruition this year or possibly even in ’22, but we definitely see a storm brewing.
Investors, from iBuyers to private equity firms and sovereign wealth funds, are chasing housing in all forms. Won’t that just continue to prop up values?
It’s really a function of when does pricing hit a wall and when do you start to see pushback, whether it’s affordability or just buyer fatigue. I’m concerned that the market is definitely artificially inflated by investors. Prices won’t be sustainable if the returns start to flatten out or even come under pressure.
We’re faced with the worst housing shortage in history. How could that possibly change?
We don’t believe we’re in a shortage, so our view is different than the market’s perception. We’ve been more concerned about the level of growth in household formations in the U.S. Actually this past decade, it grew at the slowest pace on record.
The U.S. is seeing more consolidation in terms of households. We’re seeing more multigenerational living. I think what we are concerned about is that the normalized level of demand is being clouded, which is creating this perception that we don’t have enough inventory because of all the second homes that people now own, as well as investors, just driving up pricing.
If you’ve got iBuyers and you’ve got fix-and-flip buyers, and you’ve got private investors trying to diversify their position away from just owning equities, you’re going to have a lot more difficulty delineating true primary demand versus what I call just non-primary demand.
Would a jump in rates do more than depress affordability? Would it dissuade homeowners with low rates from trading up?
The terrible Fed policy of continuing to purchase mortgage-backed securities at $40 billion a month has kept rates at artificially low levels. The backlash of that is it’s going to impact mobility because when you look at the number of homeowners that are locked in, not at 4%, but below 4%, we’re talking almost 70% of mortgage holders.
Right now, the benefit of the arbitrage is still there. If you can buy a home and get a rate lower than where you were locked in at, and you have a higher home price that you have to digest, that’s offset by the lower rate. If you have higher home prices plus higher rates, it just disincentivizes mobility.
Which homebuilder markets are you most concerned about?
Where all of the iBuyers are, where all the build-for-rent guys are, where all the for-sale guys are building. Those markets are the trifecta that are much more at risk. Phoenix, No. 1. Austin, Dallas, Houston and, to a lesser extent, Atlanta, the Carolinas.
Are we heading for a crash?
There are going to be corrections. And I think there are going to be corrections that are more pronounced if rates go higher. I certainly would be concerned if I was buying a home today in, let’s say, the Phoenix tertiary market in a higher-rate environment.
One Of The World’s Hottest Real-Estate Markets Tries To Cool Down
New Zealand is pulling every lever to tame property prices without shaking its economy and crashing the market.
New Zealand is emerging as a test case of whether authorities can restrain rising home prices without tanking the market and destabilizing the economy at the same time.
The South Pacific nation’s efforts could offer a blueprint for the many other countries facing a similar dilemma after the coronavirus pandemic. A combination of low rates, economic stimulus and changes in buying patterns as people work remotely is pushing real-estate values higher all over the world, pricing out many first-time home buyers.
The problem is particularly acute in New Zealand, where housing supply failed to keep up with population growth over much of the past decade. Home prices have risen more than 30% in the past year, according to a property-price index from the Real Estate Institute of New Zealand.
The country’s home-price-to-income ratio, a measure of affordability, is the highest compared with the long-run average among 30 key economies analyzed by research firm Capital Economics. For each economy, the firm created an index setting at 100 the long-term average of the ratio of home prices to incomes. New Zealand’s score on the index was 178, or well above its long-term average. By comparison, the U.S. score of 93, or just below its average, was the sixth-lowest on the list.
Governments have several tools at their disposal to influence real-estate prices, including boosting housing supply either through direct investment or changing land-use regulations, restricting mortgage lending and offering financial assistance to first-time buyers.
Economists and policy makers debate whether central banks should use interest rates to try to rein in housing prices by influencing the cost of borrowing. Higher rates could make mortgages more expensive and cool demand for housing, but they could also have unwanted impacts on inflation or employment, the traditional areas of focus for central banks.
New Zealand is pulling every lever. In October, the country’s central bank raised its benchmark interest rate to 0.5% from a record-low 0.25% and signaled more increases over the next year, in part because of skyrocketing home prices.
And earlier in the year, New Zealand’s government, in a novel move, directed the central bank to consider home prices when making decisions about monetary policy, even though bank officials warned that would have little impact on the market and could lead to lower employment and below-target inflation.
New Zealand has also restricted low-deposit lending, a move designed to reduce risky mortgages and lower the chance of a damaging housing market correction, which could destabilize the broader economy.
Starting Nov. 1, only 10% of lending to owner-occupiers can have a loan-to-value ratio of more than 80%, down from the 20% of lending that is allowed now. It is working on debt-to-income restrictions as an additional tool.
The government also plans to make higher-density housing easier to build in cities and limit the deductibility of interest costs on residential property investments. The tax change aims to stem investor demand for existing residential properties, a dynamic that has contributed to higher real-estate prices in the past and made it more difficult for first-time buyers to get on the property ladder.
Whether New Zealand’s efforts have a measurable impact on housing prices, without any unwanted economic or social side effects, isn’t yet clear.
In September, the latest month for which data is available, property prices in seven of New Zealand’s 16 regions reached record median levels, according to the Real Estate Institute.
Prices in Auckland, the country’s biggest city, declined 4% from August to September, but a Covid-19 lockdown in the city had curtailed buying and selling. The institute said it expects activity to pick up when the lockdown lifts.
Gareth Kiernan, chief forecaster at Infometrics, doesn’t expect New Zealand home prices to fall soon. All the government and central-bank measures combined might succeed in slowing price increases, he said, but that still means a grim outlook for first-time buyers.
“It’s going to remain very painful I think, very difficult for people wanting to get into the housing market, for a long time.”
— Gareth Kiernan, chief forecaster at Infometrics
Demand is also likely to increase, Mr. Kiernan said. The government recently decided to allow residency for tens of thousands of people on temporary visas, which means more people will be looking to buy homes. And the construction industry is still struggling to build houses fast enough to meet existing demand.
Mr. Kiernan said interest rates would need to rise by quite a bit more than currently expected to bring about a fall in prices. New Zealand’s central bank in August projected that the cash rate would reach 1.6% by the end of 2022 and 2% in the second half of 2023.
Even if home prices stopped rising, and assuming incomes grow 3% a year, the home-price-to-income ratio would take until 2050 to decline to its level in 2000. Mr. Kiernan said.
“It’s going to remain very painful I think, very difficult for people wanting to get into the housing market, for a long time,” he said.
Capital Economics, in its recent analysis, expects home-price inflation in major economies to moderate naturally in the coming months and isn’t expecting a destabilizing drop in prices.
However, it said the risk of a crash is elevated in countries such as New Zealand where affordability was stretched even before the pandemic. Other countries in a similar situation include Canada, Denmark, Australia, Sweden and Norway, the firm said.
“We would not say that house price falls in any of these countries are certain or imminent—some have been flashing red for several years yet house prices have continued to defy gravity,” the economics firm wrote. “But it would not take much to tip them over the edge.”
Retirees Spend A Lot Of Time And Money To Buy Their ‘Forever Home.’ Then They Sell It
It doesn’t take long for people to discover that what’s perfect now is far from perfect before too long. And it costs them.
To Rick Brown and Jeanne Brown, finding a forever home has seemingly taken forever.
In just five years, the couple—he’s 71 and she’s 72—bought or built two different houses that they planned to live in for the rest of their lives. But their tastes changed—so they decided to pick up stakes both times. Now they have settled on a third home that seems to be their final choice.
If there is one takeaway, Mr. Brown says, never use the words “forever home.”
Like the Browns, many couples near or in retirement embark on a quest to find the perfect place to spend their twilight years. Soon, however, some people realize that what’s perfect now may be less than ideal later. Poor health and dwindling finances are obvious reasons some seniors choose to move. Other retirees retool their priorities when they realize how much they miss the grandchildren or hate their new neighborhood.
In truth, most home buyers don’t stay in their homes as long as they think they will, says Jessica Lautz, vice president of demographics and behavioral insights with the National Association of Realtors, a trade group. “People may not want to move,” she says, “but they may decide to because life happens.”
The association released the results of a survey earlier this year in which recent home buyers were asked to list factors that would compel them to move. “Life changes,” such as a marriage, birth or retirement, was cited as the top reason by 25% of the respondents aged 56 to 65 and 16% of respondents 66 to 74.
The second-most common reason was a household member’s health, cited by 14% of respondents 56 to 65 and 25% of those 66 to 74. The third top reason, for both age groups, was downsizing to a smaller house.
But moving multiple times carries a big price tag. Forever homes are often cheaper than current homes, because the couples are downsizing. But, like any other sellers, retirees may face losses on their current properties because of the fluctuating market—losses that can pile up with each move. And, of course, every move brings more expenses—closing costs, commissions, moving charges and more.
That’s why some experts urge buyers to learn as much as they can about a new location before shelling out for a home. “It’s OK to take a couple of years to explore other areas and don’t jump in immediately,” says Mike Leverty, a financial adviser in Hudson, Wis.
He advises his clients to rent in the area where they think they want to live, even if it is only part time. “You really have to view it as a second home and not a vacation,” he says. “Factor in amenities like shopping and healthcare—things you wouldn’t think about if you just vacationed there for a couple of weeks.”
It Just Didn’t Click
The Browns began their forever-home quest in 2011, when they sold a bed-and-breakfast in Annapolis, Md., that Mrs. Brown had operated since 1997. Cash flow had been good for a while, but in time, neighbors started listing their homes as vacation rentals, cutting into the B&B business.
Then came the 2007-09 recession. When Mr. Brown retired from his full-time career in banking in 2010, the couple decided to close their business. They sold their B&B—purchased for $540,000 in 1996—for $925,000.
The Browns found their first forever home in Southport, N.C., near the Intracoastal Waterway. They paid about $200,000 for land and another $400,000 to build “the nicest place we have ever lived in,” Mr. Brown says. Still, the nearest big city was Wilmington, N.C., over a half-hour away. “We loved the area and our home there, but it was isolated,” Mr. Brown says. “We were accustomed to good restaurants and the theater, and the like.”
While living in Southport, the Browns traveled west to Asheville, N.C., for a tennis tournament. Driving around, they realized Asheville offered the best of both worlds—the trappings of city life and the outdoor activities in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. So, they sold their Southport home for $480,000 in 2016.
“Where we got clobbered was the purchase price of the lot,” Mr. Brown says, which the couple had purchased right before the recession of 2007-09. “When we left, the value of the lot had fallen about 50%.”
The couple spent about $470,000 to build their second forever home, situated on the side of a mountain about 15 minutes from downtown Asheville. To stay busy, both Browns took part-time jobs, volunteered and pursued their hobbies. “But despite being a nice area, we had a tough time breaking into the social arena,” Mr. Brown says. “I didn’t click with the different types of groups. I thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t the place for us.’ ”
That realization led to their third—and current—forever home. In 2019, the Browns sold their house in Asheville for about $570,000 and moved to the Villages, a sprawling 55-and-older community in central Florida.
There, they bought a modest three-bedroom home for $408,000. Mr. Brown plays golf, softball and pickleball; Mrs. Brown golfs, belongs to a book club and teaches pottery classes. Together they foster puppies.
Mr. Brown says he and his wife have no regrets—their experiences in Maryland and North Carolina helped them realize why Florida is such a good fit. To them, an enjoyable retirement is more about the lifestyle and less about the house. “Right now, we’re saying we’re going to stay put.”
Michele A. Peters says she moved out of Ridgewood, N.J., because “the cost of living was totally insane.” Ms. Peters, a 68-year-old retired attorney, was paying $18,000 a year in property taxes and another $12,000 annually for health insurance. In 2015, she sold her New Jersey home for about $860,000 and moved to Newport, Ore. Choosing the state seemed natural—she had been born there, and remembered her father saying he was happiest when living in the Pacific Northwest.
She bought her first forever home in a rural area, paying $487,500. In time, however, she realized that the location was too remote, she says. So she sold that house and bought her second forever home, a condo on the coast.
Ms. Peters spent about $460,000 on the unit and another $100,000 on renovations. In terms of nature, the place was perfect. “To wake up in the morning and see an eagle floating on the air currents outside my window, it’s gorgeous.” In other ways, however, her forever home was less than perfect.
“What they don’t tell you is that there are freezing winds that come down from Alaska,” she says. “During intense storms, the windows are bowing from the wind.” There were also difficulties connecting with the locals. “I didn’t have anything in common with the people around me,” she says.
Living in Oregon also convinced Ms. Peters that she’s “an East Coast person,” she says. “Just being back here, I was happy. I felt more at home.” So, in November 2019, she loaded her cat and dog into the car and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she could live in her mother’s vacation condo before finding her own place.
“But once I got there, I found out that I hated it,” she says. Visiting family there was one thing, but living there full time was entirely different. Then the pandemic struck, which only deepened her disdain. “Nobody would wear a mask. People would gather together in large groups,” she says. “One doctor told me, ‘This Covid thing is nothing. It’s going to pass.’ ”
It was time to leave. In March 2020, Ms. Peters packed up again and moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., a Gulf Coast city a friend had told her about. She paid $480,000 for her third forever home, a roughly 1,500-square-foot bungalow in a charming, historic neighborhood. “I love it,” she says. “This was what I was looking for in Oregon and couldn’t find.”
Still, the journey that eventually landed Ms. Peters in St. Petersburg was pricey. Selling her home in New Jersey cost her 4% in real-estate commissions plus about $10,000 in moving and storage fees.
When moving from Oregon to Florida, she paid 4.5% in commissions and about $2,500 for a shipping container that she packed herself. Moving from Fort Lauderdale to St. Petersburg cost another $2,500. She handled many of the legal aspects of the real-estate transactions herself, which reduced some of her expenses.
For now, she plans to stay put in St. Petersburg, persuaded in part by the kindness of a neighbor who helped her when she fractured her ankle. “But in my head, I’m still open,” Ms. Peters says. “Who knows where I’m going to end up?”
Bill Fonshell and Claudette Fonshell decided to downsize from their five-bedroom, 4,400-square-foot house after their youngest child went off to college. They were living in what they already considered their forever home in Haddonfield, N.J., but the house, built in 1905, wasn’t getting any younger either.
On the horizon were pricey projects that involved replacing the roof and the heating/cooling systems. “We got to a point where we realized we can’t stay there forever,” Mr. Fonshell says.
The Fonshells, both in their mid-50s, decided to move to Philadelphia’s historic Center City neighborhood, where Ms. Fonshell works in healthcare. In their new home, the couple wanted two to three bedrooms and a garage or designated parking, since Mr. Fonshell travels for his sales job in the restaurant trade. Very quickly, they realized that their $400,000 budget couldn’t buy them everything they wanted.
Then, all of a sudden, a 2,200-square-foot townhouse that was less than a mile from their house in Haddonfield came on the market. Even though it was built in 1834, it had a new roof, a new gas burner and air conditioner, “literally all the things that were going to fall apart in our old house,” Mr. Fonshell says. It was also within budget, at $382,000.
In 2018, the Fonshells moved to their new old house. And because it is smaller and lacks a yard, they are saving $7,000 a year in taxes. Overall costs for things like upkeep, utilities and lawn care are 40% lower than their previous home, Mr. Fonshell estimates.
They are also happy to remain in a town they love. “It’s a little storybook community,” Ms. Fonshell says. “We’re friends with the [former] mayor, have our church community and the friends we made when our kids were in school.” The Fonshells still go to high-school football games.
But having once sold their forever home, the couple is reluctant to commit to their new house for the rest of their lives. “It’s a comfortable house, but it has stairs. It might not be good when we’re elderly,” Ms. Fonshell says. Plus, she adds, if they have grandchildren down the road, they would want to live close to them. “At the end of the day, you want to see your grandkids.”
U.S. Cities Risk Losing Millions In Federal Emergency Rent Assistance
Rent relief has been slow to come in many states — especially those with Republican leadership. Now those funds could be redistributed elsewhere.
The U.S. Congress authorized $47 billion in emergency rental assistance to prevent evictions and displacement due to economic disruption from the pandemic. But the funds, which were introduced in December 2020 and then expanded under the American Rescue Plan in March 2021, have been slow to reach tenants. So far, states and local governments have only disbursed about $10 billion in payments.
In an effort to push that money out the door, the Biden administration is now enforcing a deadline for sluggish state and local governments, which have until 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 15 to submit a plan to Treasury demonstrating their commitment to helping tenants receive the funds, a Treasury spokesperson told Bloomberg CityLab.
About 150 cities and counties as well as 32 states have spent less than 30% of their allocation as of October, according to federal data, and will need to submit a program improvement plan if they want to keep the funding. Those that don’t could see the money redistributed to other cities or states entirely.
States with Republican governors make up the lion’s share of those that failed to hit the spending threshold. Of 32 states that have yet to meet the mark, 27 are led by Republicans. Conversely, only two states with GOP governors, Alaska and Texas, distributed enough of their funds to escape scrutiny from Treasury.
In some states, the disparity between state and local performance was vast: While the city of Atlanta has spent 90% of its first round of federal aid, Georgia has spent only 9% of its state-level funds.
The worst-performing states of all were GOP bastions in the West. These include Montana (which has distributed 11% of its state funds), Idaho (9%), Wyoming (4%), North Dakota (4%) and South Dakota (3%). Republican lawmakers in more recalcitrant states have tried to slow down or reject federal funds for residents.
These less-populous areas where local governments didn’t receive direct funding could see much of their federal allocations redistributed to other states.
Slow-moving rent relief isn’t exclusively a problem for state governments, however. New Jersey, for example, has spent 100% of the money made available to the state in the first round of funding, but its local governments have spent just 25% of their funds.
In Texas, which received $1.9 billion from the first tranche of federal rental aid — the largest amount of any state except California — the money is divided between a state purse and 36 individual funds for cities and counties.
Texas closed its portal for applications for the state-level fund on Nov. 5, as state authorities determined that the applications it had received likely exceeded the available funding.
Yet more than a dozen local jurisdictions in Texas, from heavily Latino counties along the U.S. border with Mexico to affluent suburbs in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, have yet to distribute their funds. Some have spent just a fraction.
“The timing of this is unfortunate,” says Ben Martin, senior researcher for Texas Housers, a nonprofit advocacy group for low-income tenants and fair housing. Texas closed its applications for the state-level funds, he says, “right at the same time that local jurisdictions, for whatever reason, are having difficulty getting money into the hands of tenants and landlords.” Now, those cities “are at threat of having that money taken back by Treasury and then redistributed elsewhere.”
Struggling tenants are at risk of falling into the gap between places that have already spent all of their rent relief funds and those who have spent little to none. With the end of the federal eviction moratorium in August, the need is now pressing. Courts in Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston — and in many other cities around the country — are registering a steep rise in evictions, according to data from Princeton University’s Eviction Lab.
“The threat of eviction, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, remains a fact of life for too many households across the country,” said Treasury Deputy Secretary Adewale Adeyemo, in a letter to emergency rental assistance program grantees.
Some places would be happy to receive dollars redistributed from any laggards. Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, D.C., has asked Treasury to send excess or unused funds from other states to her city, where the need outstrips available funding.
The District ranks first in the nation for funds disbursed per capita and second among states (after New Jersey) for the share of its allocation it has spent. The city did not respond to a request for comment.
This is not the last check-up from Treasury: Every two months through at least March 31, the department will reassess how rent relief program grantees are doing. Each month that goes by, the target measure for spending will go up by 5%.
Most of the Texas jurisdictions that are late with their allocations will likely submit an improvement plan with Treasury, according to Martin. For Texas alone, there’s more than $26 million on the line. Some local governments are close to the target goal:
For example, the Dallas suburbs of Arlington and Garland have spent 25% and 26% of their allocations. These cities don’t have far to go to get into compliance.
Texas, for its part, hopes to be a net recipient of the federal funds that Treasury redistributes. Tenants in cities and counties that don’t appeal for more time, however, may not get another opportunity for aid.
“It’s not the local governments that are going to suffer,” Martin says. “It’s the tenants and landlords.”
The Housing Proposal That’s Quietly Tearing Apart Atlanta
Secession efforts by Buckhead residents are gaining momentum as the city proposes zoning changes to create more apartments and affordable housing.
For those leading a campaign to secede from the city of Atlanta, an uptick in crime has been a headline-grabbing way to rally residents to their side. But tucked neatly behind this issue is another that’s just as animating: housing.
Residents of the area collectively known as Buckhead in northern Atlanta are trying to ward off new proposals working their way through city planning channels that would allow for more multifamily housing, and many of them are willing to create a new city to prevent this from happening.
“Changes now being proposed by the City of Atlanta would subdivide residential lot sizes, increase housing density, decimate the tree canopy, tangle traffic, and strain resources,” reads the website of the Buckhead City Committee, the organization lobbying to form a new city. “Such devastation, proposed ostensibly to increase ‘affordable housing’ will only enrich developers at the cost of Buckhead’s livability.”
That argument is running up against Atlanta’s housing crunch. Atlanta planners anticipate the city’s population could more than double to 1.2 million by 2050, and leaders are looking to convert more single-family homes into multifamily dwellings. Currently almost 60% of the city’s residential zones restrict such arrangements.
They would also like to rezone areas within a half-mile radius of public transit stations so that moderate-sized apartment buildings could be built nearby. One to four units per building would be the standard, but a developer could build as many as eight units if one of them is below-market rate, and as many as 12 if two or more are below-market.
The proposed zoning modifications are in line with what several cities across the U.S. have already passed, some with much broader reach. While Atlanta just wants to modify single-family housing zoning around transit stations and for accessory dwelling units, Minneapolis recently voted to end single-family zoning across the entire city, as did the entire states of Oregon and California. The theory is that with more housing supply and density comes better affordability.
“This is not a proposal bringing foreign, extreme ideas to the table — these are surgical proposals,” says Tim Keane, Atlanta’s planning commissioner. “The idea that somehow this rezoning will result in the destruction of single-family and historic homes, changing a neighborhood’s whole dynamic is just erroneous. On every side of the city you can see the replacement of smaller, more affordable single-family homes with larger mansions — that’s happening right now.”
To understand the current fight over housing in Atlanta, you have to go back almost 100 years. Before 1929, Atlanta was divided into two residential zones: “R-1 white district” and “R-2 colored district.” After a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibited such explicit segregation, “R-1” became a “dwelling house” zone and “R-2” became an “apartment house” district.
To this day, much of Atlanta is still organized this way, leading to a lack of affordable housing — and housing in general — as the city expands.
And while Buckhead City supporters have fought aggressively to ward off zoning changes, the proposed zoning reforms wouldn’t apply to the bulk of that area. The legislation crafted by Atlanta city councilman Amir Farokhi exempts several kinds of single-family zoning districts — districts that happen to cover the majority of Buckhead neighborhoods, where 3,000 square foot homes listed for upwards of $675,000 are the norm.
Farokhi and planning commissioner Keane say the decision to leave several single family districts out of the proposal was less about pressure from neighborhood groups and more about protecting the diversity of neighborhood types that Atlanta is known for. But some worry that preserving neighborhood diversity is coming at the expense of sparing housing diversity.
“Frankly, we should be looking at approaches like this across the city, but that’s where good policymaking sometimes meets the reality of politics — it just wasn’t going to be viable to do a citywide approach,” says Farokhi. “I would say the decision to focus on rezoning properties close to a train station is good policy, though. And this is where you want to see folks living or choosing to live without a car because of more walkable neighborhoods and access to transit.”
Atlanta has almost 110,000 single-family homes, and 76,000 apartment complexes with 50 or more units, but lacks in small apartment buildings: The city had only about 15,000 in 2019, according to a memo from a recent zoning review board meeting.
The city could create an additional 11,500 new units if just 15% of single-family zoned properties could be modified to add new dwellings.
If that doesn’t sound like a lot of new units, that’s because it’s not, and by design. Keane says that “gentle density” is the preferred approach here, such that neighborhoods can keep their character mostly intact, and also to ward off accelerated gentrification.
The modifications they are proposing will hardly change the landscape of any neighborhood, and in fact they simply provide legal cover for what thousands of property owners had historically already been doing with their homes — subdividing them into smaller rental units — until new zoning rules outlawed this practice in 1982.
Keane and Amir would like to undo that 1982 rule as part of a reckoning with the historical racism that led to its creation. But they are clear that it is only the beginning of a much larger package of reforms needed to truly confront that racist legacy and bring some small measure of affordability to the city. And it’s the threat of that larger package that spooks the people who want to branch Buckhead off from Atlanta.
“The reason you have zoning is to keep and preserve the the quality of life that the individuals that bought that land want,” says Buckhead City Committee President Sam Lenaeus, a Buckhead-based realtor. “It’s not to keep anybody out. It’s not to limit who lives here. We are a very diverse community and we’ll continue to have plenty of ways to have affordable housing for people that want to live and work in this community.”
A Racial History
For some in Atlanta, one underlying motive for the proposed Buckhead City is racism. According to a September Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll, 21.8% of voters across Atlanta, but outside of the Buckhead City footprint, said that race was the second-most motivating factor for the cityhood effort, as did 13.5% of Buckhead residents.
Race is hard to ignore when considering that the Buckhead neighborhoods are where the bulk of Atlanta’s white residents have lived historically and continue to live today. It’s the city’s most conservative region and contains the only parts of Atlanta where Trump won in 2020.
Buckhead didn’t actually become part of Atlanta until 1952, after several Black communities in the area — Johnsontown, Piney Grove, Savagetown and Macedonia Park — were razed to build Lenox Square, a mall that today sits in the heart of one of Buckhead’s largest commercial districts.
According to Coleman Allums, an urban geographer at the University of Georgia, Buckhead was annexed to bring more white and wealthy residents into city coffers as Atlanta’s Black population began increasing and lower income residents became a larger share of the city due to white flight.
Like many parts of the American South, the area’s legacy of racism runs deep. The Cathedral of Christ the King in uptown Buckhead, home to the largest Catholic congregation in Atlanta and one of the largest in the U.S., was built on land that was once the home of the Ku Klux Klan. The Catholic church bought the land and the “Imperial Palace” mansion accompanying it from the Klan, which used the properties as its national headquarters from 1922 to the mid-1930s.
“Buckhead has this specific kind of racial history and part of what gets ignored in these debates about whether zoning restrictions should be lifted is the question of: Why is it that Buckhead looks the way it does in the first place?” says Allums. “There is a reason that it looks the way it does, and it’s not unrelated to questions of racial equity and wealth-building through homeownership.”
The Buckhead City campaign is just the latest in what Emory University urban political scientist Michael Leo Owens calls the quest to create “affinity cities” around metro Atlanta, where neighborhoods are drawing new municipal boundaries to keep in people who earn, dine, shop and look alike. Since, 2005, just over a dozen new cities have formed around metro Atlanta, in what’s called the “cityhood movement,” which began with the creation of the city of Sandy Springs, just north of Buckhead.
In Allums’ research, he found that most have been majority-white (two of the more recent new cities formed, Stonecrest and South Fulton, however are not majority-white) and usually encompass areas of concentrated wealth and commerce. While all of those cities have formed for a variety of reasons, what nearly all of them have in common is that each wanted more control of how their neighborhoods were zoned and how their taxes would be spent.
“At its heart, the question about Buckhead is a question about who gets to control a certain body of territory and who gets to make decisions about the rents and extractions that can be made from that territory,” says Allums. “It’s all about who has access to a particular territory, and who does not. And I think what this new sort-of Trumpian project is tapping into is anxiety about those sorts of territorial questions and power.”
“There’s a difference between creating a city out of an unincorporated area and slicing and dicing up an existing city.”
What all of the previous new city campaigns also have in common is that they were created from unincorporated land — land that isn’t part of any municipality. What makes the Buckhead City attempt so controversial is that residents are attempting to form it with land and property that are already part of Atlanta. They want a de-annexation, which is unprecedented in Georgia, and most of the U.S. Just a few years ago, there was a failed attempt in Stockbridge, a southern metro suburb of Atlanta.
When former Georgia state House Majority Whip Ed Lindsey served as representative for the district that encompasses Buckhead, he was all for cityhood, and in fact sponsored the legislation responsible for creating Sandy Springs, which kicked off the cityhood movement. Today, he opposes cityhood for Buckhead, though, and co-chairs the Committee for a United Atlanta, which works to defang and defeat the campaign for Buckhead City.
His main beef with this cityhood attempt is that it would financially devastate the city of Atlanta, due to the heavy volume of tax revenue Buckhead contributes. According to a fiscal impact study conducted by KB Advisory Group for the Committee for a United Atlanta, the secession would lead to a net fiscal loss somewhere between $80 million to $116 million annually, with even more money lost for Atlanta schools.
Not to mention, because of the bond debt that currently binds Buckhead residents to Atlanta, a severance could negatively impact not only the bond rating of Atlanta, but every city in Georgia due to the risk of other neighborhoods deciding to break off from their cities.
Lindsey is also miffed that the state legislature is allowing the Buckhead City political process to move forward despite the fact that not one state lawmaker from the local Atlanta delegation supports the break-off. The legislation in support of Buckhead City is sponsored by a lawmaker whose district is dozens of miles outside of Atlanta.
“There’s a difference between creating a city out of an unincorporated area and slicing and dicing up an existing city,” says Lindsey. “The other side likes to use the word ‘divorce,’ but in a divorce both parties get a say-so on how things look. So, certainly the delegation from the city of Atlanta should have a sign-off.”
Yet, while he opposes the Buckhead City campaign, he believes that its proponents are correct about their suspicions regarding changes to single-family zoning. Lindsey, a partner at the Dentons law firm in Atlanta, is in the camp that Buckhead deserves to keep its housing character intact.
“It changes the complexity and the values of the homes that are within those neighborhoods by decree, and that’s a legitimate concern,” says Lindsey about the proposal to modify single-family housing zoning. “Atlanta is made up of different kinds of neighborhoods, and each neighborhood needs to decide what works for them.”
Lindsey’s hate-the-sin (divorcing from Atlanta) not-the-sinners (people who prefer single-house zoning) approach illustrates just how complex the Buckhead cityhood matrix is. Many of these residents would like to preserve a way of life that arguably keeps Buckhead prohibitively expensive for low-income families and immigrants — groups that are overrepresented with people of color — while simultaneously holding that the motivations for Buckhead to break away might be fueled by racism.
The Next Mayor
Meanwhile, the single-family zoning issue is quietly becoming a blunter wedge issue, even outside of Buckhead. The two front-runners in Atlanta’s recent mayoral race, Felicia Moore and Andre Dickens, who will later compete in a runoff election, are themselves on opposite ends of the zoning spectrum. Moore, who’s currently city council president, has voiced her opposition to the plans and has vowed to stop any legislation that comes before her on it if she becomes mayor.
Moore signed the “Buckhead Pledge” — a list of issues that Buckhead’s city council representative J.P. Matzigkeit says are “at the heart of the so-called Buckhead City movement,” including agreeing to oppose zoning changes that would eliminate single-family residential zoning designations and that allow for accessory dwelling units (ADUs).
Dickens responded saying he was “committed to expanding the affordable housing options throughout the city while not displacing legacy residents or dramatically affecting the character of our neighborhoods,” and that he supports “ADUs and duplexes where they make sense and can help with our affordability.” On his campaign site, he said he would expand inclusionary zoning policies citywide if he became mayor.
The winner of the Nov. 30 runoff could very well determine the future of housing and zoning in Atlanta — and by proxy, the future of Buckhead City. Ultimately, the question of secession will be decided via ballot referendum in November 2022 if state lawmakers vote to allow it next spring.
Only people who live within the proposed Buckhead City boundaries will be able to vote on it, meaning the majority of Atlanta residents will have no say in this proposed secession, though they will be severely impacted by it.
The campaign against rezoning goes beyond Buckhead. Drive through the prosperous Ansley Park neighborhood in Midtown Atlanta — just south of the proposed Buckhead City — and you’ll see “No to Rezoning” signs on the lawns of sprawling mansions alongside slogans such as “Yes to Trees” or “Yes to Family-Friendly Community.” They’re part of a neighborhood campaign to stop Atlanta’s meddling with single-family zoning.
“What does that mean? Family friendly for who?” says Keane. “It’s as though a single tree in the city is more important than a vast forest.”
Biden Administration To Redirect Rental-Assistance Funds To Areas With Greater Demand
Treasury plans to move money from some states, localities to those with backlogs of requests.
The Treasury Department is redirecting rental-assistance money from some states and localities that haven’t used the bulk of their funds to others facing backlogs of aid requests, according to administration officials.
The officials said they couldn’t specify which jurisdictions would lose and gain funds. But they said those with large amounts of unused funds include rural states—like Montana and North Dakota—while local officials in several more populous states—like New York and Texas—are expected to exhaust their rental-assistance money over the coming week and months.
Officials said an initial reallocation, set to be unveiled in early December, could exceed $800 million and come at the request of states and localities that acknowledge they have more money than they can spend.
Much of that money may be moved within states, rather than from one state to another—for instance, from a state-run program to a city-run program, or vice versa.
By the end of the year, the administration expects as much as $20 billion of the $47 billion in rental-assistance funding Congress authorized to be spent. An additional $5 billion to $10 billion will be committed to a specific tenant or landlord but not yet distributed.
“There is less unspent money today than there was six months ago, but we’re still committed to make sure that the money that is unspent gets reallocated as quickly as possible,” said Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo. “There is a need to make sure that we get this money to tenants who need it.”
The rental-assistance program got off to a slow start this year. Though just a fraction of the aid was distributed before a national eviction moratorium ended this summer, more money is now finding its way to tenants and landlords.
While the program is overseen by the Treasury Department, it relies on a patchwork of more than 450 state, county and municipal governments and charitable organizations to distribute the aid, which can be used to cover back rent, future rent and utilities.
It took states and localities months to build new programs from scratch, hire staff and craft rules for how the money should be distributed. Often, tenants and landlords didn’t know money was available, and many of those who applied had to contend with cumbersome applications and requests for documentation.
Treasury officials issued guidance to ease the paperwork burden and boost the flow of money to renters and landlords.
Several months later, administration officials say much more money is out the door but the data show uneven demand.
Administration officials said that some rural states, such as Montana and North Dakota, were allotted significantly more money than they have spent.
As of Sept. 30, Montana had distributed just 11% of its $200 million in rental assistance while North Dakota had distributed a mere 4%.
Meanwhile, New York, Texas and Oregon, facing intense demand for the assistance, have announced plans to shut down their much larger programs to new applicants because they expect to exhaust their funds. California and Illinois could soon be in a similar situation, federal officials said.
“Given the significant need and rapid pace of the program’s distribution of assistance, California will soon require additional Emergency Rental Assistance funds,” Lourdes Castro Ramírez, secretary of the California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency, wrote to Mr. Adeyemo last month.
The first $25 billion in the rental-assistance program was included in a pandemic aid package signed by then-President Donald Trump in December. Congress appropriated another $21.6 billion in March.
Administration officials said they are considering intrastate reallocations—from states to city-run programs or from cities to states.
Treasury won’t begin to reallocate money from the second, $21.6 billion pot of money until March.
As a result, officials said, some heavily populated regions of the country may continue to experience a shortage of funding even after they receive reallocated funds from other jurisdictions.
Gene Sperling, a senior adviser to President Biden, said too many avoidable evictions will take place unless the administration uses reallocation “to get more places to up their game and more funds to those most effective in getting aid quickly to very vulnerable renters and small landlords.”
Suburban NYC Home Sales Plunge Because There’s Nothing To Buy
A shortage of home listings is putting a damper on property sales in the suburbs of New York City.
Potential buyers are coming up empty in their search for a place– and that’s sent contracts plunging for the fifth consecutive month in Westchester County and Long Island, according to a report Thursday by appraiser Miller Samuel Inc. and brokerage Douglas Elliman Real Estate. In tony Greenwich, signed deals fell in November for the fourth straight month. It has been sixth straight declines in the Hamptons.
“There’s confusion that falling contracts means declining demand, but that’s not the case,” said Jonathan Miller, president of Miller Samuel. “The reality is demand is unusually high but there just isn’t enough inventory to satiate it.”
Buyers are snapping up homes faster than sellers are listing them. In Long Island, excluding the Hamptons, there were 1,950 signed contracts last month — or 13% fewer than a year ago. At the same time, new listings fell 26%, to 1,751, the firms said.
Pending deals for single-family homes in Westchester fell 19% to 452 last month. There were just 286 new listings added to the market, or 33% fewer than a year ago.
Manhattan Rents See Record Surge Even With Slow Office Return
Fevered demand for Manhattan apartments sent rents soaring the most on record in November, even without a mass return to the office.
The median rent jumped 23% from a year earlier to $3,369, according to a report Thursday by appraiser Miller Samuel Inc. and brokerage Douglas Elliman Real Estate. It was the biggest increase in a decade of record-keeping, though the median is still 3.8% below where it was in November 2019, before the pandemic.
Apartment hunters are scouring for whatever deals remain in a market that’s been whittling down a mountain of inventory. Those still largely working from home are growing tired of being far from the city’s cultural institutions and nightlife, even as offices remain sparsely populated.
“They just want to get back into the city — they’ve been away long enough,” said Hal Gavzie, executive manager of leasing for Douglas Elliman. “There’s a kind of fatigue with being out of Manhattan, and missing it.”
Higher-priced apartments in doorman buildings accounted for much of last month’s rent surge. The median for those fancier homes — a draw for Manhattan’s white-collar office workforce — jumped 27% from a year earlier to $4,108. That’s above the November 2019 median of $4,016, the firms said.
Apartments without doormen, usually lower-frills units popular with people on a budget, are still well below their pre-pandemic rates. The median for such units was $2,584 last month, 12% less than two years earlier.
The Cost of Rent Is Where Many Americans Are Feeling Inflation Most
Cities such as Phoenix, Tampa and Boise are seeing huge increases, forcing tenants to decide about their budgets and what matters.
Rising inflation is hitting the wallets of many Americans. The cost of rent is where some are feeling it most.
Over the past year, the median cost of rent has risen by nearly 20% in a handful of areas including Phoenix, Tampa, Fla., and Boise, Idaho, according to analysis conducted by the Urban Institute. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Sarasota, Fla., for example, was recently at $2,004 a month—a 40% increase compared with the previous year, according to rental listing site Zumper.
Many factors are driving the rent surge including a short supply of housing inventory. There is a deluge of renters who huddled with family members early on in the pandemic but are now driving demand for dwellings.
Landlords, meanwhile, are looking to recoup some losses from the pandemic, when some gave discounted rents to new tenants and existing ones missed payments. Those priced out of the hot housing market are pushing into rentals.
For Americans, rising rent comes on the heels of several other issues that are pressuring wallets. During the current period of inflation—when higher prices for goods and services begins to sap the purchasing power of the dollar—consumer budgets are besieged by the prospect of higher heating bills, home-insurance premiums and an auto market in which the cost of a used car can outstrip that of a brand-new one.
Some renters are coping by putting less into savings or making more-drastic life changes such as moving to a more-stable rental market.
“Even before the pandemic, rental prices were pretty high up there,” said Jung Choi, senior research associate with the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “The pandemic has just made things worse.”
Here’s what financial planners, economists and housing professionals say renters should be thinking about now.
How Much Should I Be Spending On Rent?
The classic personal finance rule is to keep housing costs at around a third of your monthly take-home pay. That rule might be less relevant, or simply impossible, for those facing higher costs in metropolitan areas or rising rent markets, said Kristen Euretig, certified financial planner and founder of Brooklyn Plans.
Ms. Euretig recommends thinking of rent as part of your fixed cost bundle. If you are paying more on rent but less on other fixed costs, such as utility bills or car insurance, then you can budget for higher rent. The important thing is to keep your fixed-cost expenses at half of your take-home pay, she said.
“Once it gets past 50%, you start to see sometimes that people just don’t have enough left over for going out to eat and traveling, and that can lead to credit-card debt,” she said.
Cynthia Meyer, financial planner and founder of Real Life Planning, recommends paging through listings on Zillow or Trulia or checking resources such as Rentometer.com to check median rent in your area. This way, you can gauge whether you are paying too much for the size and location of your place.
She also recommends having a leaner financial plan prepared so that you can pivot quickly if catastrophe strikes.
“So you got one budget when things are good, but then maybe have a budget that’s 25% less,” she said.
Should I Go Into Debt Or Get A Personal Loan To Pay Rent?
Falling behind on rent payments is risky. Taking on debt to keep from falling behind can increase the risk by adding debt payments down the line.
Before going that route, Ms. Meyer recommends talking to your landlord about possible options. Discuss a rent modification, which allows a tenant to pay a reduced amount in rent in exchange for making a written plan on how payments will be made up, or ask about slowly integrating the rent increase over a few months.
“If you have someone who always pays on time and says, ‘I don’t know if I can do this rent increase,’ or, ‘Could we do this in stages?’ that is valuable to the landlord,” she said. “Vacancies cost money.”
For those in dire need, Ms. Meyer also recommends that tenants ask their landlords about applying for rental assistance. The availability varies across the country, so Ms. Meyer recommends working with your landlord directly to ask about the process.
My Lease Renewal Is Coming Up, But I Can’t Afford The Increase In Rent. What Should I Do?
Negotiating rent might sound intimidating, but doing so could save you money.
First, consider your relationship with your landlord. Talking to an individual property owner will be different from talking to a large management company, but you can prepare for both conversations by making a list of the qualities you bring to the table, such as making consistent payments.
The important thing is to convey your concern about the rise in rent, she said.
“I’ve seen successful negotiations, and I’ve seen people ask and just get a flat ‘no,’ but what do you have to lose by asking, right?” she said.
Should I Try To Move To A Cheaper Place?
First, survey the landscape of available properties out there and ask: How much do I save by switching apartments? Second, consider the costs of moving, from breaking a lease to hiring movers. There are other upfront expenses, too, such as paying to set up new utilities.
“It’s going to cost more to move, even if it’s just across the street,” said Brian Carberry, senior managing editor of Rent.com.
If you are struggling to add up the costs all to save $100 a month on a new apartment, trimming other parts of your budget might be your best option.
Should I Consider A New City?
Big cities are often more expensive. They are also often more predictable in terms of rental prices. For renters, it’s about judging what is more important to you.
Britton Hennessy is a 29-year-old user-experience designer in Boise. After paying $1,000 a month for a two-bedroom, one-bathroom, 850-square-feet apartment, his landlord raised the rent last summer to $1,150.
The increase pushed Mr. Hennessy and his wife, Sara Meyer, 31, to prolong their plans to buy a home in the area. They are eyeing cities such as San Diego and Seattle, where they have friends and family and where the market is slightly more expensive but more stable.
They are giving themselves until March, and then making a decision.
“We’re privileged and lucky to be where we are. It just means we can’t afford a new car or put as much into our savings,” said Mr. Hennessy. “Boise is a weird place right now.”
Apartment Occupancy Just Hit A Historic High. Is That Good?
There’s a silver lining to astronomic U.S. rent hikes: Most tenants won’t pay them, because they’re already locked into their leases.
Apartment occupancy in the U.S. has hit an all-time high, meaning anyone looking for a new place is going to have a rough time of it.
Fully 97.5% of professionally managed apartment units are spoken for as of December, the highest figure on record, according to data from the property management software company RealPage.
That’s more than 2 percentage points higher than the occupancy rate in December 2020, a difference that represents hundreds of thousands of households.
“I don’t think most people realize just how crazy that is,” says Jay Parsons, deputy chief economist for RealPage. “Not only is that a record, typically we consider 95 to 96% to be essentially full.”
But for most tenants, there may be a silver lining to the lack of options. Rents for available apartments have seen record increases over the last year, yet the occupancy rates suggest that most renters aren’t paying those prices.
High occupancy rates leave little margin for renters who need to relocate for jobs, education or other reasons. Winter is the shoulder season when it comes to these moves: Families typically settle in for the cold, the holidays and the school year, then upend their lives over the summer.
(The same seasonal pattern applies to forced exits through evictions.) In 2021, however, the occupancy rate rose steadily throughout the year, without the typical seasonal variation — another quirk of the pandemic.
Such low vacancy levels reflect a historically high number of renters renewing their leases. The lack of churn means that people hunting for new homes have fewer options.
Apartments may be put on the market and leased before tenants leave the unit: “Clean, prep, paint, change the carpet, and get the next person in,” Parsons says.
Abnormal is the pandemic normal, of course. Rents for market-rate apartments cratered during the first year of the pandemic as some residents decamped from cities (and, more importantly, new renters didn’t move in to replace them).
Rents fell furthest in high-cost cities but also dipped in the suburbs of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and a few other places.
This plunge led building owners to offer huge discounts and concessions to try to lure renters — followed by steep double-digit rent hikes in 2021 as tenants finally returned to those buildings.
It’s not just the large apartment buildings in major metros that are experiencing big swings in rental trends. Rental homes and apartments across the U.S. are witnessing the lowest vacancy rates in nearly 40 years.
People just aren’t moving: Despite the scramble in spring 2020 following the arrival of the pandemic and the countless stories of Covid-fueled migration patterns, a record low number of households moved between March 2020 and March 2021, according to a report by the Pew Research Center.
For tenants who already signed a lease or never left in the first place, spikes in rent listings might not affect them much. Landlords face a loss on paper when it comes to filling units, known in the industry as loss to lease.
This is the difference between the advertised rent and what renters actually pay. An apartment building owner in Dallas might list a vacant unit at $200 higher than what the renter down the hall is paying.
Property owners want to narrow this gap, and in a tight market they have more leverage.
Yet that same Dallas landlord marking up vacant units might not want to risk maxing out a current tenant’s rent when their lease comes due. It’s easier and more cost-efficient to keep them in place paying a less-than-maximum rent than to search for a new tenant.
Very few apartment operators are going to move a household up to full price, Parsons says. Keeping a paying tenant in place is a high priority, especially after the chaos of the last two years.
“When you send a renewal notice, 90 days out, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Especially in the Covid era, so much could change,” Parsons says. “There’s a real risk that we could have another economic challenge. There’s a balance of a higher chance of collecting revenue in an occupied unit versus a chance of zero revenue. Do you want to roll the dice?”
Rents are rising, and the discounts and concessions of 2020 are likely a thing of the past. Moreover, demand for housing continues to outpace the supply.
In this specific moment, with omicron surging and rental chaos a recent memory, many landlords will stick with their current tenants. No matter: The housing shortage is so severe that property owners likely don’t need to charge max rents to make a bundle.
Families that do need to move right now face tough choices — or rather, fewer choices.
‘Magic’ Multigenerational Housing Aims To Alleviate Social Isolation
Two co-living communities set to break ground this year seek to address loneliness, as well as the caregiving and affordable-housing shortages, in the U.S.
The U.S. is facing an aging population, a shortage of caregivers, a dearth of affordable housing and an increase in social isolation that threatens well-being. Some think what we really need is Magic.
That is, multi-ability, multigenerational, inclusive co-living, or communities where young and old, families and singles, live side by side, supported by inclusive design, technology and neighbors.
Rethinking community in this way could reshape how and where older adults and people with disabilities live and receive care, while building symbiotic relationships between people of all ages, supporters say.
Magic is the brainchild of geriatrician William Thomas, who spent decades working to improve long-term care. Spurred by a belief that segregating older adults, as well as people with special needs, negatively impacts their well-being, Dr. Thomas co-founded Kallimos Communities to develop neighborhoods based on Magic principles.
Groundbreaking is expected to begin in the second half of 2022 on two neighboring 7.5-acre communities in Colorado—the first of what he hopes will be many across the country.
Others in the caregiving field are reimagining the way people live and care for each other and coming up with similar solutions. Another Magic community, the Village of Hope, is slated to start construction in the spring in rural Pennsylvania, catering to parents with adult children with disabilities, grandparents raising grandchildren and those with early onset Alzheimer’s.
Marc Freedman, chief executive of Encore.org, a nonprofit working to promote intergenerational connection and second careers, says the U.S. is among the most age-segregated countries in the world, which has led to ageism and loneliness. Magic communities could help counter that, he says.
“Housing and community design can be used to rectify some of the wrongs we see,” says Mr. Freedman.
Intentional intergenerational models exist in small pockets around the country, where preschools operate in assisted living facilities, and on a grand scale in Singapore, he says, where the government is spending $2.4 billion to build three-generation flats and housing developments that have space for both elder care and child care.
Creating new communities, rather than offering services in existing ones, faces special challenges, including startup costs and getting people to move into them. About 70% of adults 50 and older want to “age in place,” remaining in their homes for the long term, according to a 2021 AARP survey of nearly 3,000 U.S. adults.
Kallimos Communities aren’t meant to replace long-term-care facilities or aging in place, Dr. Thomas says.
“Not everyone wants to stay in their house. For some people, there are negative consequences—social isolation, undernutrition, financial abuse, injury,” he says.
The first of Dr. Thomas’s Kallimos Communities, in Loveland, Colo., will consist of two communities, each with up to 50 rental homes, designed for people of all ages and abilities.
Kallimos will employ staff, known as “weavers,” to meet residents, introduce them to each other and plan meals and activities in the common areas. They would work closely with “keepers,” staff who would help residents with transportation, cleaning and cooking.
“We’re creating a community founded on reciprocity,” says Dr. Thomas. Other Kallimos Communities, the name derived from a Greek word meaning beautiful, are planned for Texas and New England, but are still in the early stages.
The Loveland community, built with the Loveland Housing Authority, a city agency which will develop and own the property, will include communal space and gardens.
Houses will be studios to two-bedrooms and universally designed, with wider doorways and hallways, no steps, and showers that are flush with the floor to accommodate people of all abilities.
Residents can pay for additional technology, such as motorized lift systems mounted to the ceiling and adjustable countertops for those with disabilities and confined to wheelchairs.
“When it comes to aging, a small house equals big life. Big house equals small life.”
— William Thomas, co-founder of Kallimos Communities
Rents haven’t been set yet but will be aimed at the middle of the market.
“When it comes to aging, a small house equals big life. Big house equals small life,” says Dr. Thomas.
Weavers would connect neighbors to foster reciprocity, says Megan Marama, chief operating officer of Kallimos, which will manage the community. For example, a person with dementia who loves to garden could contribute by helping tend flowers.
Magic communities could also appeal to younger people, including students, looking for less expensive housing and more inclusive neighborhoods. “There are a lot of younger people who are attracted to neighborliness and close relationships with people around them,” says Dr. Thomas.
Can You Game Your Way Out of American Housing Injustice?
A new video game uses a choose-your-own adventure format to interrogate the illusion of choice in the U.S. housing system.
The U.S. housing system contains a morass of hard-to-understand policies past and present that have delivered injustice to many Americans, particularly people of color.
But there’s one simple theme that unites these policies: The narrative that the American dream of homeownership can be achieved by anyone through hard work and smart decision-making is a myth.
A new project created by housing and community advocates seeks to communicate this illusion of choice and opportunity in the housing system through a format particularly suited to the subject matter: a choose-your-own-adventure video game.
In “Dot’s Home,” players step into the shoes of Dorothea “Dot” Hawkins, a young Black woman living in her grandma’s house. The home, in a disinvested Black neighborhood in Detroit, is in desperate need of repairs. “Dot” travels back in time, via a magic key, to help her family make crucial housing decisions that will ultimately affect her own future.
These decisions include whether her grandparents should invest in a shoddy house as their first home, and whether her parents should move away from their community to the suburbs after their home in a public housing development is set for demolition.
But here’s the rub: In the game that is the American housing system, there are no great outcomes for a Black woman — just ones that are more or less bittersweet.
As Dot, players pass through different decades, each one highlighting a defining moment in history for Black homeownership: the Great Migration of the 20th century, urban renewal efforts in the 1990s, and finally, the 2010 foreclosure crisis that helped spur gentrification.
Along the way, players navigate racist housing policies and predatory lending practices whose impacts reverberate across generations in real life.
“We wanted players to play the game and not necessarily empathize with Dot’s family but just to bear witness to, and accompany them through, these very intimate but consequential moments,” says Christina Rosales, housing and land director at the community organizing nonprofit PowerSwitch Action and a co-producer of the game.
By offering an intimate look at how housing discrimination affects one family, “Dot’s Home” aims to be relatable to its target audience — someone who knows these challenges first-hand, and whose experience is not unlike that of the team behind the game.
“This game is essentially made by people of color, for people of color,” says Rosales. “So it contains all of these intimate moments that are a reflection of the team’s own family histories and interactions with neighbors.”
The game, free to download through Steam, was recently featured at the Game Developers of Color Expo and was a 2021 Impact Award Nominee at IndieCade.
It’s one of five projects in the Rise Home Stories series, a multimedia collaboration between social justice advocates and storytellers rethinking how to better educate the public about land and housing inequality, and the power of collective action. The other projects include an online comic series, children’s book, a podcast and an interactive web experience.
CityLab spoke with Rosales about the takeaways of the game, and what it was like as an advocate to build a game from scratch. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s Unique About Using A Game Format?
We are often told, when it comes to housing, that we have a choice. We can choose where we want to live, we can make all these sacrifices and build our wealth. We are told that, if we just do the right things, we can have a prosperous life.
But in real life, the choices have been constructed in this very distorted way. In a game as a player you feel like you have agency and choice and you can impact the ending. But because it is a game and because of the limitations of technologies, the choices are rigged for the player, and they get an ending that has already been pre-constructed for them.
So in essence, it’s sort of this mirror of reality. I don’t think a story or comic book or video could quite convey that feeling of false agency and false choices.
How Did You Decide On Detroit As The Setting Of The Game?
After the foreclosure crisis, people were like, “Wow the city of Detroit is paying people to move there.” And there was this ugly narrative of the city as a blank canvas ready for people to move into and make their own. It was such an ugly colonialist narrative.
Behind that there was a lot of disinvestment, and questionable decisions about the development in Detroit in the post-foreclosure crisis. We wanted to make sure that we conveyed disinvestment and neglect of neighborhoods and homes, but more so as a systemic thing, and not just focus on one family.
Rather, this whole community has been left on their own, which made it easy for speculators to come in and sell that narrative of, “Make your money and your future in Detroit.”
Why Use Dot As The Main Character And Not, Say, Grandma?
The dominant narrative in this country is that if you play your cards right, you, too, can have wealth and prosperity — and our generation just doesn’t buy it. We wanted to make a game that validates that cynicism, because it’s an important tool for questioning what is, and imagining what could be.
So it was important to have Dot at the center; she is the ideal audience: the young Black woman who is faced with so many decisions in her life, but also carries the legacy of her family and the community, and has to interrogate why [her community] is where they are, how things could have been different.
We thought it was important for her to be witty, and to think she knows everything as she goes back in time to learn what happened.
Dot has this line in the game, something like, “Why does it seem that every time there is progress, we’re just short of reaching our dreams?” I think that’s very poignant for where we are today, and she contemplates that as she makes that final decision that takes you to the ending.
The game doesn’t just explore what happens internally within Dot’s family, but also their relationship with the community. What were you trying to convey about the conflicts between individualism and collectivism that Black families grapple with?
Dot’s sister flips houses [in the midst of] the foreclosure crisis, and she decides, you know, “I’m a Black woman who’s struggled, and who’s watched my parents and grandparents struggle, so I’m going to work for myself and get my family what they need by flipping houses and sell it for a big profit.” But she’s questioned by Dot and her partner, who say, “That’s not what we need, and that’s not what community is.”
I think that was a tough one to grapple with. It’s pretty obvious what we would want someone to do in that situation, but I still think it’s a tough thing to balance if you were to put yourself in [the sister’s] shoes.
As An Advocate, What Did You Take Away From The Experience?
What I learned from game designers and narrative designers while working on this game is that we are telling this very complicated story in history, and we have to do it in this intimate personal way. I had to learn to let go of the details about policy and things like that, and focus more on the real impact of these policies on people.
And that what was more important than conveying policies and histories was getting people to understand the themes of keeping the family legacy alive, about collectivism and working for the community.
From what I’ve heard, people got that from watching it play out in the game. The dialogue in the game between Grandma Mavis and Dot is tender and funny, and relatable.
How Does The Game Fit In With The Larger Rise Home Stories Project?
Over the years, the real estate industry has created this vision of the American Dream: Move out of cities where there are slums and blight and all these things like overcrowding, to the suburbs, where you can buy your own house and gain capital.
But we need to start interrogating that, and questioning the corporate interest behind it. So all of the projects try to do that.
They challenge all these dominant narratives of scarcity, that there isn’t enough to go around and that’s why everything is so expensive. And of individualism; we know there is value in community.
There’s a children’s book about tenant organizing, and a web series about working with communities and protecting land. Then there’s a podcast about disaster recovery and making communities better to protect each other.
There’s also an interactive experience revealing the big corporate interest and speculators that have stolen land and houses from communities of color all over the country.
Mortgage Rates Jump To Highest Level Since March 2020
Higher borrowing costs, combined with record-high prices, could push some buyers out of the market.
Mortgage rates have hit their highest level since March 2020, the month the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S. and roiled markets.
The average rate for a 30-year fixed-rate loan was 3.45% for the week ended Thursday, according to mortgage finance giant Freddie Mac, up from 3.22% a week ago.
Expectations that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates multiple times this year are driving up mortgage rates, which are closely tied to the 10-year U.S. Treasury.
Rates have now risen for three straight weeks. A year ago, the rate on America’s most popular home loan was 2.79%, just above its record low of 2.65%. Still, rates remain near historic lows.
Higher borrowing costs, combined with record-high home prices, could push some would-be buyers out of the market. The median price for existing homes rose 13.9% in November from a year earlier to $353,900, according to the National Association of Realtors.
“Given the fast pace of home price growth, [higher rates] will likely dampen demand in the near future,” Sam Khater, chief economist at Freddie Mac, said in a statement.
Mortgage payments are already less affordable relative to income than at any time since 2008, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
In early 2021, Americans needed about 29% of their income to cover a mortgage payment on a median-priced home, the Atlanta Fed estimated. That rose to 33% by October.