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When will housing affordability improve? Spoiler alert: It will take some time

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Casey Quinlan, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
February 19, 2024

Inflation is slowing and job growth has surged, but many Americans still feel the burden of expensive housing – fueled in part by high demand, low inventory and mortgage rates.

Home prices across the U.S. rose 5.5% over the past year in December 2023 and they are projected to increase 2.8% year over year by December 2024, according to CoreLogic, a consumer and business information company. None of the states in CoreLogic’s data showed home price declines.

Rents shot up 23.9% between the beginning of 2020 and the start of of 2023 and home prices rose 37.5% according to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies’ 2023 state of the nation’s housing report. The median sales price of a home sold in the U.S. is $417,700, according to the St. Louis Fed.

Given the state of housing affordability in the U.S., here’s what to know about ongoing construction shortages, high interest rates, where housing prices are climbing, and what policymakers could do about it.

How did the housing market get this way?

Much of the current predicament renters and homebuyers face is linked to high housing demand, low housing inventory and the Fed’s cycle of hiking interest rates.

Very low mortgage rates – January 2021 saw the lowest recorded mortgage rate at 2.65% – fueled demand but drove up prices, exacerbated by low housing inventory, Matthew Walsh, economist at Moody’s Analytics explained. The Federal Reserve then raised interest rates in 2022 to combat inflation, which in turn influenced mortgage rates.

Those rates reached near 8% in October, and higher rates put constraints on housing supply, with more homeowners staying put. It’s now 6.77% for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage.

A lack of housing stock, both in for sale and overall inventory, is a key long-run problem for housing affordability, said Robert Dietz, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders. A lack of accessible rental inventory that provides both single family and multi-family rental housing is a problem, he said.

“We simply don’t have enough developed land to build on, particularly in the places where it’s needed the most, which tends to be highly dense, more regulated markets in the largest metros where there’s a lot of population growth,” he said.

He added that a lack of  construction labor as well as expensive building materials – partly affected by supply chain problems – have exacerbated the problem.

A 2023 Home Builders Institute report found that construction would need to add hundreds of thousands of workers to meet residential construction demand. An HBI survey done in 2021 found that around 90% of home builders for single family homes said there was a shortage of carpenters and that more than 80% of remodelers said there was a shortage in most of the construction trades they needed subcontractors for.

What is the Federal Reserve doing with interest rates?

The Fed is expected to cut rates this year, which should have some impact on housing prices. The Fed may not cut rates until May or later, but economists have forecast multiple rate cuts this year.

Many homebuyers and renters are hoping that a cut in interest rates could provide lower home and rental prices, since a lack of homebuying can drive up rental costs.

But economists say there won’t be meaningful relief anytime soon.

“It should push mortgage rates down into the low 6% range and perhaps in 2025 moving into the high 5s,” Dietz said. “That’s not the 2 to 3% rate that we saw earlier, but it will help price in some demand by lowering the monthly payment on a hypothetical mortgage. It is going to have a disproportionate impact on first-time buyers who tend to be particularly sensitive to changes in rates because they don’t have any home equity as first-time buyers.”

Selma Hepp, chief economist at CoreLogic, said home prices will remain pricy for quite some time, even when mortgage rates come down.

“Because home prices have gone up 40%, no matter how much you adjust mortgage rates —  and we’re not expecting them to come down to 2% any time soon if ever again — you’d really have to get them to 2% to get that affordability back,” she said.

Why are home price trends in different parts of the U.S.?

New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island saw the highest home price increases in December, according to CoreLogic’s data, but no states saw home prices go down.

Hepp said that is significant because until this report, a couple states continued to show year-over-year declines: Utah and Idaho as well as the District of Columbia. She said that change may have been fueled by people moving from parts of California and from Seattle who drove up home prices in their new states.

A Moody’s Investor Service report released in October showed Florida, Montana, Nevada, and Idaho had the largest decline in affordability, due in part to growth in new residents.

But no part of the country is being spared by the effects of rising housing prices. Walsh said some of the fastest price appreciation he’s seen is in parts of the northeast and midwest because some of those markets are more affordable compared to parts of the country that saw an influx of residents earlier in the pandemic, such as metro areas in Mountain states including Colorado and Arizona

“The places where we’ve seen the most moderation in home prices have been in the places that lost that affordability edge…,” he said. “… Some of the fastest growing places in the northeast, like upstate New York, a place that really hasn’t seen quick increases in home prices in a long time, have been showing signs of life over the past year.”

How are policymakers helping?

Some states and cities are stepping up to the challenge of improving its affordable housing stock.

A program in Maine is funding more affordable rental housing, which includes the improvement of existing housing. Minnesota’s Family Homeless Prevention and Assistance Program is expanding rental assistance.

In Pennsylvania, lawmakers have pushed for renewal of the state’s Whole Home Repairs program, a home improvement initiative that offers funding of up to $50,000 in grants and forgivable loans for eligible homeowners and landlords. Passed by the Legislature on a bipartisan basis in 2022, the $120 million program was funded with American Rescue Plan funds, and administered by the state Department of Community and Economic Development. Funding for the program that was included in the state budget approved last August was not included in the final code bills passed in December, but Gov. Josh Shapiro proposed $50 million in funding for Whole Home Repairs program in his 2024-25 budget.

“We can’t leave struggling homeowners out to dry,” Shapiro said during his Feb. 6 budget address. “This is a smart investment. We know it works, and demand is high.”

Voters in Phoenix and Albuquerque, New Mexico, last year supported bond measures that will spend millions on affordable housing. In 2022, voters approved housing bonds to fund more affordable housing for Buncombe County, North Carolina; Columbus, Ohio, and Kansas City, Missouri. Localities in Colorado and Montana voted to use tax revenues on affordable housing development and projects in 2023 as well.

On the federal level, the Biden administration announced in July it would address low housing supply by incentivizing projects with greater density and creating a program to fund projects that focus on zoning reforms. In October, the administration also introduced new housing initiatives to increase homeownership, such as loans to boost affordable housing on tribal lands and letting homeowners use prospective rental income from “dwelling units” at their home as part of their income when they want to qualify for FHA-insured mortgages. Some economists say that zoning is far too restrictive to increase housing supply and make it more affordable.

Government policies to address housing affordability should include “thinking about ways to incentivize state and local governments to reduce regulatory burdens and enact zoning reform to promote density where the market demands it,” Dietz said.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.