With the nation’s economy on sound footing and incomes on the rise, the number of people forming households in the United States has finally returned to a more normal pace. Housing production, however, has not.
The 2019 State of the Nation’s Housing report from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies documents how the housing shortfall is keeping pressure on house prices and rents, eroding affordability for modest-income households in many markets.
Center researchers found that household growth is now back from post-recession lows, but new home construction remains depressed, with additions to supply barely keeping pace with the number of new households.
Several factors may be contributing to the slow construction recovery, including excess supply following the housing boom, which took years to absorb, and persistent labor shortages.
“The most significant factors, however, are rising land prices and regulatory constraints on development,” said Chris Herbert, managing director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies.
“These constraints, largely imposed at the local level, raise costs and limit the number of homes that can be built in places where demand is highest.”
Meanwhile, a large percentage of new housing being built is intended primarily for the higher end of the market, Herbert said.
The limited supply of smaller, more affordable homes in the face of rising demand suggests that the rising land costs and the difficult development environment make it unprofitable to build for the middle market.
The report also finds that the number of homeowners rose sharply, even as the ratio of median home price to median household income rose from a low of 3.3 in 2011 to 4.1 in 2018, a sign of deteriorating affordability.
Conditions for would-be buyers vary widely across the country, with home values more than five times greater than incomes in roughly one in seven metro areas (primarily on the West Coast) compared with less than three times in about one in three metros (primarily in the Midwest and South).
On the renter side, the number of renter households fell for the second consecutive year in 2018, a stark contrast to the increases of the 12 preceding years.
Nevertheless, rents are rising at twice the rate of overall inflation. “The growing presence of higher-income renters has helped keep rental markets stable,” said Daniel McCue, a senior research associate at the Center.
“This has maintained demand for new apartments, even as overall rental demand has waned.”
At the lower end of the market, though, the number of units renting for under $800 fell by one million in 2017, bringing the total loss from 2011–2017 to four million.