Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Healthy Housing Today: A View from the National Healthy Homes Conference

by Mariel Wolfson
Meyer Fellow
This Spring, I attended the National Healthy Homes Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. The three-day conference attracted over 1,000 attendees, including more than 150 speakers who presented on a wide variety of topics, and was jointly organized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Rebuilding Together, a national nonprofit organization that provides critical home repair services to low-income homeowners. From asthma interventions in low-income housing to the latest lead-abatement technologies to green architecture, the conference’s range of educational sessions reflected the diversity of today's healthy housing field. But before I describe today's healthy housing "scene,” let me provide a brief background.

The modern American healthy housing movement has its origins in late 19th-century New York City, when reformers worked to improve the unsafe and unsanitary living conditions in tenement buildings, particularly for immigrants living on the city’s Lower East Side (conditions famously captured by the photographer Jacob Riis in his book How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890 and pictured below). In 1901, the Tenement House Act outlawed the severe overcrowding and fire hazards endemic to these buildings, and required such basic "amenities" as toilet facilities and windows providing natural light. These housing-focused reforms coincided with the emergence of public health as a professional discipline in the United States (the American Public Health Association was founded in 1872 and its core publication, the American Journal of Public Health was first published in 1911). Thus, interest in the relationship between housing and health has a long and rich history.


A second major healthy-housing turning point in the United States came in the winter of 1973–1974, with the OPEC oil embargo. Although perhaps most memorable because of the long lines it caused at gas stations, this fuel shortage had a lasting impact on the typical American home. Newly built houses achieved unprecedented "tightness" and energy savings. However, they were soon found to have high levels of indoor pollutants, especially combustion pollution from heating and cooking, formaldehyde, and radon. As a result, scientific research into residential indoor air quality began in earnest in the mid-1970s, with the goal of keeping homes both healthy and energy-efficient. The post-oil embargo preference for energy-saving homes did not create the problem of indoor air pollution; we’ve had pollutants in our homes for as long as we’ve been heating them and cooking indoors. But the zeal for saving energy did exacerbate some indoor pollution problems and – most important – it catalyzed scientific, popular, and governmental concern about indoor air.

Since that time, knowledge of indoor air quality has expanded exponentially. But as multiple conference speakers emphasized, we still have a lot to learn and accomplish, and we are now also focused on newer issues, such as the effects of climate change on our homes, pest management, asthma prevention, and recent technologies to save energy and manage pollutants. Below, I've outlined what I consider to be five salient themes of the conference:

1. Old hazards persist.
Lead paint, banned in 1978 but still present in older homes, is a “classic” healthy-housing problem that has been the focus of government attention for decades and remains a pressing issue affecting Americans at all income levels. Similarly, combustion pollution and radon, two of the major pollutants on the original IAQ research agenda of the mid-1970s, are still significant contributors to indoor air pollution. (You can learn more about combustion pollution from cooking and help Berkeley Lab researchers by completing a citizen science survey.) Even as scientists and the public grow increasingly aware of important new hazards (such as endocrine disrupting chemicals) it is important to remember that we have not eliminated older threats.



2. Healthy housing is about more than IAQ.
Indoor air quality is one vital aspect of healthy housing, but is not the definition of healthy housing. For many Americans, issues of basic safety are more immediate. According to Rebuilding Together, 2.6 million low-income homeowners live in structurally unsafe homes. Other concerns are best described as problems with “indoor environmental quality.” For example, as we explored in an as-yet unpublished Joint Center survey of homeowner concerns, noise and light pollution may not be getting sufficient attention. Finally, some conference sessions emphasized the role of neighborhoods in shaping healthy housing. This includes such factors as pedestrian-friendliness, access to exercise facilities, and access to healthy food. In fact, the conference’s motto was “leading the nation to healthy homes, families, and communities.” So, while IAQ is a rapidly expanding field of research with important implications for our homes, I am in favor of a more comprehensive and holistic definition of healthy housing.

3. The Ventilation Conundrum
Adequate ventilation is a requirement for any healthy home. Indeed, “well-ventilated” is one of the eight healthy-home criteria contained in HUD’s new Strategy for Action. But defining and achieving adequate ventilation is not always straightforward, as a home’s ventilation needs are influenced by many variables: number of residents, location, local climate, indoor pollutant sources, pressure changes in the home, and more. Both natural and mechanical ventilation are important: natural ventilation is the normal movement of air in any building, through its envelope, doors and windows; mechanical ventilation takes many forms, including kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans, and a variety of heating and cooling systems that aim to control temperatures while conserving energy. Henry Slack, of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, cited research demonstrating improved decision-making performance among office workers and school children when buildings were well-ventilated, but explained that while the EPA has studied numerous ventilation technologies and strategies, the Agency does not have a “prescription” for achieving healthy IAQ.  In 2003, the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) introduced its much-debated Standard 62.2 for airflow in residential buildings, but debate continues surrounding the standard’s applicability and utility. Architect Peter Pfeiffer reminded all of us that the goal for any house is “healthy air,” not simply adherence to the ASHRAE standard.  Achieving optimal ventilation, he explained, really is a “conundrum” that requires consideration of multiple variables, including a home’s location and its number of residents.

4. Behavior is a Crucial Factor in the Healthy Home
A home – whether a single-family detached suburban house or an urban apartment – is living and dynamic, its air quality changing in relation to occupant activities (such as smoking and use of chemical-laden furnishings and products), season of the year, and more. A consistent theme among conference presenters was that occupant behavior can trump any technological innovation, even the most sophisticated, energy-efficient heating and cooling system. Residents who are uncomfortable with their home’s temperature and do not understand how to use a new type of thermostat, for example, will prevent it from functioning as intended. Building professionals at the conference commented that some state-of-the-art heating/cooling systems require frequent and expensive maintenance, which is yet another obstacle to their adoption and effectiveness. Engineers and designers need to be aware of installer and user needs when creating the next generation of home technologies: technology alone is not enough, and humans are unpredictable!




5. Reasons for Optimism: Healthy Housing is a National Priority
I was impressed with the number and diversity of organizations and individuals working to ensure safe and healthy homes for Americans of all income levels. From the Federal to the local level, there is significant interest in and commitment to, in the words of the conference organizers, “utiliz[ing] housing as a platform for improving the quality of life.” This indicates a desire to go beyond the basics of lead-abatement and pest control, and to promote housing where families can thrive, not just survive. This approach is reflected in the government’s new Strategy for Action on healthy homes, developed by the interagency Healthy Homes Work Group and presented by former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan in his plenary address.

Although the conference brought together an impressively diverse group of people, organizations, and topics, I believe we can still identify two general movements:

One – Bringing substandard American homes up to a basic level of safety and protecting children from persistent hazards like lead poisoning. One major facet of this movement focuses on public housing, and protecting its residents from serious health hazards like tobacco smoke. However, plenty of privately-owned homes are also in serious need of repair.

Two – It is clear that many Americans who already live in safe and seemingly healthy homes are concerned about the increasing number of chemicals we use in building, furnishing, and cleaning our homes, especially as we learn more about the long-term consequences of exposure to endocrine disruptors and other hazards. Creating a non-toxic (or less-toxic) home is one way to reduce our overall exposure to environmental risks, and I expect that we will see much more interest in this in the coming years and decades.


Photos 2 & 3 courtesy of Rebuilding Together

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Interactive Map: Where Can Renters Afford to Own?

by Rocio Sanchez-Moyano
Research Assistant
Homebuyer affordability remains near an all-time high, so where are all the first-time homebuyers? According to indexes that incorporate gross measures of house prices, interest rates, and household incomes, affordability remains at unprecedented levels. The National Association of Realtors® index, for instance, shows that the median-income household can afford to buy a home in all but 7 percent of the largest metros. Given that affordability looks good on paper, the lack of first-time homebuyers in all metros has been surprising. In 2013, first-time homebuyers made up 38 percent of home purchases, below the historical average of 40 percent, dating back to 1981. The most recent American Housing Survey shows that 3.3 million households were first-time buyers in 2009-2011, a 22 percent drop from the 2001 survey, which covered 1999-2001. This decline in first-time buyers comes in spite of real mortgage payments for the median home that remain below $800 (levels unprecedented before the recession) and a 7 percentage point decline in the mortgage payment-to-income ratio since 2001.

Affordability indexes typically use median home prices and median incomes to estimate affordability, but it can be difficult to calculate the number of potential first-time buyers from these indexes, as median incomes differ for renters and owners and across age groups. To better estimate affordability for potential first-time homebuyers, the JCHS looked at how many renters in the age group most likely to be first-time homebuyers (25-34) have enough income to afford the costs of owning in different metro areas. Analysis was performed on the top 100 metros by population for which National Association of Realtors® quarterly median existing single-family home price data was available, resulting in 85 metros included in the final analysis. Affordability in this analysis is defined by the maximum debt-to-income ratio established in the Qualified Mortgage (QM) rule that went into effect in January of this year. The median home is considered affordable in this analysis if mortgage payments, with a 5 percent downpayment (more typical for first-time buyers), property taxes and insurance, and non-housing debt payments make up no more than 43 percent of a household’s income (extended metholodogy).

Historically, the majority of first-time buyers are households aged 25-34. Looking at renters in this age group, most would find the monthly costs of homeownership affordable in many metros across the country. Indeed, in 42 of the 85 metros studied, more than half of renters can afford the monthly costs of homeownership. Nearly 30 percent of the 25-34 year old renters in our sample lived in these affordable metros. Only in six metros, concentrated almost exclusively in California, are renter incomes so low compared to house prices that less than 30 percent of renters aged 25-34 can afford the costs of owning.

Click to launch interactive map


So why, given that so many metros are affordable to potential 25-34 year old first-time buyers, has the first-time buyer share remained low? Many demographic and economic forces are constraining the transition to homeownership for renters in their 20s and 30s. The first is the fundamental mismatch between incomes and prices as shown in this analysis. Even in the metros where the majority of renters 25-34 could afford monthly homeowner costs for the median home, more than one-third of renters in this age group cannot. Real renter income for households aged 25-34 remains at some of its lowest levels in more than a decade. The unemployment rate for this age group peaked above 10 percent in 2010 and stayed above 7 percent throughout 2013. Also, as we indicated in our recent State of the Nation's Housing report, an additional 2.4 million households in their 20s and 30s were living with their parents in 2013 (than if the share living at home had remained at 2007 levels). Aside from covering monthly homeowner costs, unemployment and income stagnation mean that even in the lowest-cost metros in this analysis, many potential buyers cannot afford at least $5,000 for a 5 percent downpayment. Finally, 39 percent of 25-34 year old households have student loan debt and often allocate a larger share of their monthly income to student loan payments than older households. As the economy improves, however, there should be more willingness and ability by these households to become first-time buyers.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Rental Supply is Catching up with Strong Demand, but not for Affordable Units

by Elizabeth La Jeunesse
Research Assistant
The Joint Center’s new State of the Nation’s Housing report summarizes ongoing and emerging trends in U.S. rental markets.  Foremost among these is the strength of demand for rental housing, which continued to soar in 2013 albeit at a slower pace relative to recent years.  Indeed, from 2005 to 2013, the U.S. saw a net increase of around 740,000 renter households per year.  This far exceeds historical renter household growth of around 410,000 per year on average from the 1960s through the 2000s.

With rental demand soaring, supply of multifamily rental units—which house over 60 percent of all renter households—did not keep up.  In 2009, for example, construction began on just 109,000 multifamily units.  According to apartment data from MPF Research, demand exceeded new additions to supply by nearly 200,000 units during 2010, and by 170,000 units in 2011.  Rental markets tightened as a result of this excess demand.  Rents rose, occupancy rates climbed to 95 percent for professionally managed apartments, and rental property values reached new peaks. 

But as of 2012, supply picked up and demand eased, bringing the two closer in line with each other (see Figure 5, from our report below).  Indeed, that year demand for apartments outpaced supply by only 21,000 units.  Last year the two measures came even closer into alignment.  Completions of new, professionally managed apartment units reached 163,000 in 2013, marginally exceeding the increase in the number of occupied units.  In other words, supply and demand lined up fairly evenly. (Click charts to enlarge.)


Relative equilibrium also became evident in a slight easing of rent pressures.  Indeed, growth in rents for professionally managed units lowered to a still-healthy rate of around 3.0 percent on average in 2013, down from 4.0 percent two years earlier.  Growth in net operating income for owners of large apartments moderated to 3.1 percent in 2013, down from between 6 and 11 percent in 2011-12 according to data from the National Council of Real Estate Fiduciaries.  The annual rate of return on rental property investment likewise lowered to a more modest but sustainable 10.4 percent, about the same as in the ten years preceding the housing bubble and bust (1995-2004).

While supply of multifamily units rebounded at the national level, the story is more varied across metro areas.  In over half of the nation’s largest metro areas, the volume of permits for new multifamily units in 2013 remained below last decade’s average.  For example, previously booming metros including Las Vegas, Chicago, Atlanta and Phoenix all saw permitting decline by 25 percent or more compared to levels seen between 2000 and 2009 (see Figure 25, from our report) Yet several metros in Texas, as well as Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. registered growth relative to that boom period.  Demand would need to remain strong in such areas to absorb this future supply.

Not all segments of the market are in balance either.  Demand for units affordable to low-income renters and families far exceeds the supply of available units.  An Urban Institute analysis indicates that in 2012, 11.5 million extremely low income households competed for just 3.3 million affordable, available units.  This suggests a supply gap of 8.2 million units needed to house extremely low-income renter households, up from a gap of 5.2 million units ten years earlier.  Lack of affordable, available housing often requires struggling households to pay excessive shares of their income on housing, reducing the money they have left over to buy other goods and services, such as food and healthcare.

As Daryl Carter, Chairman of the National Multifamily Housing Council, pointed out during the webcast release of our new report, greater attention needs to be focused on the types of units being built to ensure that they meet the affordability and sizing needs of today’s renter households. These include not only low income households, but also an increasing number of families with children, a group who saw particularly steep declines in homeownership rates since the Great Recession.  Panelists on the webcast also emphasized the importance of federal rental assistance measures to address the undersupply of affordable units, as well as steps local communities and developers can take.  These include relaxing zoning rules to allow more residential construction and tying affordable housing plans to development projects at the local government level.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What Will Stop the Slide in Homeownership Rates? Keep Your Eye on Incomes.

by Chris Herbert
Research Director
As highlighted in our new State of the Nation’s Housing report, the national homeownership rate declined for the 9th straight year in 2013 and now stands at its lowest point since 1995 (see Figures 18a and b, from our report, below). The falloff in homeownership has affected a broad range of demographic groups, but has been most severe among those in their late 20s through their early 40s, with their rates down at least 8 percentage points since 2004. In fact, while the overall homeownership rate is still slightly above the pre-boom rate of 64 percent, the share of households age 25-44 owning a home is at its lowest point since annual data became available in the early 1970s. Since these are prime ages for both first-time and trade up homebuyers, this substantial decline in owning has been an important reason for the continued weakness in the housing market.  


Predicting when homeownership rates will stabilize—and possibly turn back up— must begin with an understanding of what’s been driving the downturn.  There are many culprits. The dramatic fall in home values, which decimated housing wealth and forced millions into foreclosure, has made everyone far more aware of the financial risks associated with buying a home. Still, our analysis, and a variety of other surveys, indicate that the majority of young adults want to own a home someday. So changing preferences for owning would not seem to account for such a dramatic falloff in the homeownership rate over such a short period.

The incredible increase in the use of student loans is no doubt also a contributing factor.  Between 2001 and 2010 the share of 25-34 year olds with student loans rose from 26 to 39 percent.  And since 2010 the total amount of student debt outstanding has increased by about 40 percent.  At the same time, however, the median amount owed among 25-34 year olds only rose from $10,000 to $15,000 between 2001 and 2010, which should not be a substantial deterrent to buying a home.  Our analysis also found that the share of these young borrowers with high amounts of debt ($50,000 or more) rose from 5 to 16 percent, but this still a minority of all households in this age group. A recent Brookings Institution report came to a similar conclusion, finding that the median loan payment to income ratio has not exceeded historical levels.  So while mounting student loan debt and increasing delinquency among these borrowers is not the main reason young Americans are deferring homeownership, it is certainly a factor.

Today’s far more restrictive mortgage underwriting standards are another limitation for those looking to buy a home.  The decline in lending to borrowers with credit scores in the 600s has pushed up the average score for new borrowers well into the 700s. Since roughly half of all consumers have credit scores under 700, this is making it hard for many to qualify for mortgages. While there are some indications that lenders are starting to relax their standards, so far there hasn’t been much movement in the average score for borrowers.

But at a fundamental level, it may not be necessary to look much further than trends in household incomes to explain the rise and fall in homeownership over the past two decades.  Median household income for 25-34 year olds and 35-44 year olds grew sharply from 1994 through 2000, during a period when homeownership rates showed steady gains. Growth in homeownership then slowed as incomes softened during the mid-2000s (see Figure 4, from our State of the Nation's Housing report, below).


While many blame lax underwriting for driving the homeownership rate boom, in fact much of the gains occurred during the 1990s when the economy was producing solid income growth. Since 2006, median household incomes have fallen substantially for those 25-44, with the homeownership rate declines mirroring these trends.  In fact, just as the share of households 25-44 owning a home is as its lowest point since the early 1970s, the real median household income for this age group is at its lowest point since 1972. So, while young households are facing a number of headwinds to buying a home, until we see a resumption in income growth we are unlikely to see an upturn in homeownership rates.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Millennials the Key to a Stronger Housing Recovery

The U.S. housing recovery should regain its footing, but also faces a number of challenges, concludes The State of the Nation’s Housing report released today by the Joint Center. Tight credit, still elevated unemployment, and mounting student loan debt among young Americans are moderating growth and keeping millennials and other first-time homebuyers out of the market.

The housing recovery is following the path of the broader economy.  As long as the economy remains on the path of slow, but steady improvement, housing should follow suit.

Although the housing industry saw notable increases in construction, home prices, and sales in 2013, household growth has yet to fully recover from the effects of the recession. Young Americans, saddled with higher-than-ever student loan debt and falling incomes, continue to live with their parents.  Indeed, some 2.1 million more adults in their 20s lived with their parents last year, and student loan balances increased by $114 billion.

Still, given the sheer volume of young adults coming of age, the number of households in their 30s should increase by 2.7 million over the coming decade, which should boost demand for new housing. Ultimately, the large millennial generation will make their presence felt in the owner-occupied market, just as they already have in the rental market, where demand is strong, rents are rising, construction is robust, and property values increased by double digits for the fourth consecutive year in 2013.

One key to realizing the millennials’ potential in the housing market is for the economy to grow to the point where their incomes start to rise. Another important factor is how potential GSE reform will affect the cost and availability of mortgage credit for the next generation of homebuyers, which will be the most diverse in the nation’s history. By 2025, minorities will make up 36 percent of all US households and 46 percent of those aged 25–34, thus accounting for nearly half of the typical first-time homebuyer market.

The report, as well as an interactive map released by the Joint Center, also highlights the ongoing affordability challenge facing the country, as cost burdens remain near record levels and over 35 percent of Americans spend more than 30 percent of their income for housing. The situation is particularly grim for renters, where 50 percent are cost burdened and 28 percent are severely cost burdened (meaning they spend over half of their income for housing).


Click map to launch; may take a few seconds to load.

When available, federal rental subsidies make a significant difference in the quality of life for those struggling the most.  Between 2007 and 2011, the number of Americans eligible for assistance rose by 3.3 million, while the number of assisted housing units was essentially unchanged. Sequestration forced further cuts in housing assistance, which have yet to be reversed.