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9 Surprising Stats about the State of Housing in 2015

by Peter Thomas Ricci

Housing has made considerable progress the last few years, but elements of the downturn still linger.

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Recently, there have been many promising developments in housing. New construction, for instance, is becoming more affordable, and new home sales are up more than 20 percent over last year. Delinquencies are at their lowest level in years. And foreclosures and equity levels continue to improve.

But despite all these improving measurements, there remain remnants of the housing downturn that the market cannot quite shake. Jed Kolko, the former chief economist at Trulia and now senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation, has provided a sobering reminder of those elements in his latest report, which takes a detailed look at the latest American Community Survey.

Here are the nine most important findings from Kolko’s research:

1. Homeownership Continues to Fall – Although home sales are rising, the actual homeownership rate has continued to drop. After peaking at 67.3 percent in 2006, the rate has declined every year since, most recently falling from 63.5 percent in 2013 to 63.1 percent in 2014.

2. Homeownership Differs Substantially – Housing costs differ quite a bit from metro area to metro area, and those costs end up influencing the subsequent homeownership rates. For instance, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area has a homeownership rate of 69.9 percent, which is the highest in the U.S.; Los Angeles, by contrast, has the lowest rate in the nation at 48.3 percent (here in Chicagoland, the rate is 64 percent).

3. Renters on the Rise – As the homeownership rate has declined, more and more Americans have opted for rentals, and in both a single-family and multifamily context. Since 2006, the number of single-family renters has grown by 3.9 million, or 34 percent, finishing 2014 with 15.2 million total; meanwhile, multifamily renters have grown by 2.7 million, or 12 percent, and now total 26.1 million.

And those stats are not heavily slanted to the immediate years following the downturn – even from 2013 to 2014, renter households grew at a far higher rate than owner households. While single-family and multifamily rentals grew by 2.1 and 1.8 percent, respectively, condo and single-family owners grew by 0.8 and 0.3 percent.

4. Housing Cost Burdens Remain High – Kolko notes that the share of households that are “cost burdened,” meaning they spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing, fell to a post-bubble low of 34.6 percent in 2014, although the decline was marginal from the 34.8 percent in 2013; also, complementary research from Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies is predicting cost burdens will only worsen in the future.

5. Cost Burdens Differ Substantially – As with the homeownership rate, cost burdens run the gamut from metro area to metro area. Pittsburgh, at 26.8 percent, has the smallest share of households that are cost burdened, while Los Angeles’ 48.4 percent gives it the largest share (Chicagoland comes out at a 38.2 percent share).

6. Renters Face Greater Cost Burdens – Because lower-income households are more likely to rent, the contrast of cost burden breakdown between renters and owners is stark. While 31.2 percent of homeowners with a mortgage face cost burdens, that number is 50.1 percent for renters. Also, while a majority of renters have been burdened since 2010, record-high refinancing activity pushed the share of burdened owners from 38.3 percent in 2010 to 31.2 percent in 2014.

7. Vacancies Remain High – The national vacancy rate of 8.4 percent is still historically high, and is unchanged from 2013. Since 2005, the number of vacant properties has risen nearly 8 percent.

As with all other areas of housing, local variation is strong with vacancies, ranging from 12.1 percent in Birmingham to just 3.8 percent in red-hot San Jose; here in Chicagoland, the vacancy rate is 8.5 percent.

8. Inactivity in Vacancies – The persistence of this high vacancy rate, on the surface, seems to defy logic. After all, if new construction is still operating at below-normal levels, would vacant properties not fill up as a result? The answer lies in the “inactive inventory” segment of vacant properties, meaning units that are not on the market. The number of inactive vacant units has risen nearly 34 percent since 2005, and has been above 8 percent of all housing units since 2010; as long as inactive units remain so high, the vacancy rate will not change in any substantial way.

9. Single-Family Vacancies – Finally, single-family and multifamily vacancies are running in opposite directions. While multifamily vacancies have fallen from a 2010 peak of 17.2 percent to 14.9 percent, single-family vacancies finished 2014 at 10.7 percent, which is near its 2011 peak of 11 percent and nearly a quarter higher than it was in 2005.

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