It’s no secret that there’s a housing shortage in the U.S. and there’s plenty of blame to go around for its myriad causes. These range from the homebuilding industry citing laws and regulations like California’s Environmental Quality Act (popularly known as CEQA), to immigration advocates pointing out a shortage of foreign construction workers exacerbating an ongoing labor problem, to housing professionals criticizing NIMBYism and vacation rentals, to economists noting the lock-in effect of rising mortgage rates preventing moves, to builders choosing to build single family rentals rather than for sale homes in a recently-expanded BTR trend, to 60 Minutes turning the camera on investors converting resale properties – especially at the starter home level – to rentals with a dramatic headline: “Would-be home buyers may be forced to rent the American dream, rather than buy it.”
Why has homeownership been held up as the “American Dream” for more than a century? Lenders, builders and real estate professionals have certainly promoted it as a business opportunity for their firms, but its enduring popularity with everyday Americans and their elected officials speaks to more than pure commerce.
In a 2016 report, the National Association of Realtors wrote, “In addition to tangible financial benefits, homeownership brings substantial social benefits for families, communities, and the country as a whole.” It specifically cited civic participation, educational achievement, property maintenance, reduced crime and health benefits as among the reasons why lawmakers have provided incentives to buy and invest in homes.
I sent questionnaires to three housing experts to get their written responses on the shortage, its causes and impacts on different groups – particularly first time buyers and household health and well-being. I included their responses below. Here are a few quick take-aways:
- Homeownership often improves a family’s overall well-being, including physical and mental health.
- Those most impacted by the housing shortage are first-time buyers.
- Build to rent and resale to rental conversions aren’t major contributors to the housing shortage, but policy makers need to be looking at options to increase homes in their regions.
Housing and Health
“The pandemic illuminated the critical importance of home,” recalled Habitat for Humanity CEO Jonathan Reckford. “The message from public health officials was clear: For the health of your family, and that of your community, the best thing you can do is stay at home. But what if the home you are using as a refuge is making you even more sick? For many low-income households, especially vulnerable populations like the elderly and immunocompromised, the lack of safe and decent shelter made it extraordinarily more difficult to combat the coronavirus pandemic.”
Habitat actually published a Health Benefits of Homeownership report a year before Covid struck the U.S. It begins this way: “‘A quality home is more than just a roof and walls,’ says Renée Glover, former chair of Habitat for Humanity International’s board of directors. ‘It provides homeowners with feelings of stability and pride, as well as generating measurable results such as decreased doctor visits and increased high school graduation rates.’” The report cited a correlation between living in substandard housing and a range of health problems, including asthma, exposure to toxic substances, injuries and mental health issues. “Homeowners have a significant health advantage over renters, on average,” its authors stated. One quoted home recipient commented that her previous rental was contaminated by mold.
“Unsafe or unhealthy housing exposes residents to allergens and other hazards like overcrowding,” the report concluded, noting also that many of these areas without quality housing are food deserts with limited safe outdoor space and proximity to highways and industrial pollution.
Low income populations are most impacted by the housing shortage (and its related health impacts), which is most acute at the affordable level.
“The dramatic decline in entry-level home construction has been a major driver of our national housing shortage,” shared Reckford. “Annual production of smaller, less expensive newly constructed homes has fallen dramatically since the late 1970s, and we have built too few units ever since the 2008 housing market crash.”
The Habitat leader sees this most in the nation’s costliest states, including California, New York and Hawaii. “What is challenging now is that historically affordable markets like Tampa, Austin, and Charlotte have seen housing prices double or triple in a few years,” he added. Reckford cites land, the cost of construction and labor shortages as the dominant factors. “Zoning and regulatory barriers have increased costs and make it slower and harder to build,” he also noted.
Real estate industry group National Association of Realtors’ deputy chief economist Jessica Lautz wrote, “There are a number of factors that have held back building such as labor constraints, land availability, density restrictions within local communities, and – in recent years – supply shortages.”
First time buyers’ share of the market has dropped to its lowest level since the group started collecting data in 1981, she revealed. Year-over-year home price gains and a lack of equity have kept them out of the market, she added, noting. “The housing shortage is acutely impacting first-time buyers more than others.”
There may be more of these aspiring buyers entering the market too. According to real estate industry analysts John Burns Research & Consulting, there’s been an unexpected increase in family formations this year, and that often drives a couple’s home buying decision and timing. “While the number of adults in America grew at the lowest rate in decades from 2020–2022, household formations actually surged — the opposite of what we expected — to 1.5 million per year.” The company’s vice president of research Eric Finnigan tweeted those findings on June 20, adding his own take: “Home builders now expect to increase single-family starts this year,” emphasizing increase with all capital letters, and declaring, “Game ON!” Depending on what they build — and for whom — this could bring some relief to those would-be homeowners.
Build to Rent
One particular category won’t help them much — at least in the short term. Single family and townhouse rentals were largely the domain of local, individual or small-holdings landlords for many years, but have exploded recently as a corporate residential real estate category. Burns predicted a 90% increase in BTR supply, with 708 new communities totaling more than 131,000 homes in its latest newsletter. (Experts minimize the effect this may be having on competitive demand for land and construction teams for building homes for sale, but statistically, it can’t be zero and is rapidly increasing.)
Kelly Mangold, an RCLCO real estate consultancy principal, sees the Sunbelt as a BTR growth region, along with markets like Atlanta that are moderately priced with what she identified as having fewer barriers to entry. Reckford isn’t critical where BTRs are confirmed: “Build-to-rent increases supply, so that is more helpful at a time when we need far more units.”
Lautz sees it as a potential positive too. “The Midwest had the largest share of built-to-rent housing starts in 2022 at 12%. As this region is more affordable than others, it is possible this helps a segment who would like to purchase a home save for a larger space,” she suggested.
In the meantime, young savers can enjoy the benefits that come with having a yard and their own walls for single family rentals. While they’re avoiding the costs of homeownership, they aren’t building equity.
In that regard, the older homeowner who doesn’t want ongoing home maintenance chores and who is finding a shortage of appealing homes becomes an ideal BTR prospect. Downsizing retirees with decades of home equity are the least impacted by the housing shortage and current high mortgage rate environment, Mangold noted. “However, they still have to deal with the existing scarcity which may make it more difficult to find a home that meets their needs in their desired location.” A maintenance-free new construction rental community located near their adult children and grandchildren may be appealing to some.
More aging-in-place friendly developments can find eager, stable tenants among this older population, while young DIY-friendly parents can buy and improve their former properties.
“Reforming land use policies can help bridge the gap between construction costs and the prices that new homebuyers can afford,” Reckford suggested, and states are starting to implement those.
Mangold agrees that the regulatory environment makes it difficult to get new developments approved. This, she pointed out, “limits the supply in any given market and contributes to scarcity and high pricing.”
Policymakers across the country are looking at regulatory changes, especially where single family zoning is concerned. In some cases, builders can now put a duplex or fourplex in one of these former neighborhoods. In other areas, parking rules are being jettisoned near transit to accommodate more townhouse and multi-family construction. Some of those will be rentals. Others can offer new opportunities to own a slide of the American dream, condo-style.