Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Remodeling Gains Expected to Continue Into 2014

by Abbe Will
Research Analyst
In our July 16 blog, Census Bureau Remodeling Data Revisions Out of Sync with Other Market Indicatorswe indicated that there would not be a Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity (LIRA) this quarter due to unusually volatile revisions to home improvement spending data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau.  On July 18, 2013, however, Census announced corrections to their annual revisions and today we are releasing our LIRA. 

General strengthening in the housing market over the past 18 months is translating into increased spending on home improvements. Remodeling contractors have been reporting improving market conditions for the past four quarters, and are seeing strength in future market indicators.  Spending trends have been on a solid upward slope, with the LIRA projecting continued strengthening of the market through the end of this year and into the first quarter of 2014.

Homeowners are more comfortable investing in their homes right now. Consumer confidence scores are back to pre-recession levels, and since recent homebuyers are traditionally the most active in the home improvement market, the growth in sales of existing homes is providing more opportunities for these improvement projects.

Yet, with housing starts leveling off in the second quarter and financing costs beginning to edge up, we may be seeing the beginning of more measured growth in the residential markets. Given normal timing patterns, this suggests that the pace of growth for home improvement spending should begin to moderate as we move into 2014.

(Click chart to enlarge)

For more information about the LIRA, including how it is calculated, visit the Joint Center website.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Climate Change and Indoor Air Quality: Lessons from the Energy Crisis of the 1970s

by Mariel Wolfson
Meyer Fellow
Current discussions of climate change do not often focus on housing. Unless large numbers of homes are destroyed or damaged by extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, or wildfires, we rarely scrutinize the effects of our warming planet on our homes. However, environmental health experts argue that this must change. In 2010, the US Environmental Protection Agency asked the Institute of Medicine to study the relationship between climate change and indoor environmental health. The Institute convened an expert committee of professionals from a range of fields, including earth sciences, public health, medicine, architecture, and engineering. Ultimately, they produced a thorough report - nearly 300 pages - arguing that climate change “may worsen existing indoor environmental problems and introduce new ones.” For example, extreme weather events and flooding could increase dampness and humidity, leading to mold growth and chemical emissions from decaying building materials. Or, extreme heat and cold could increase power outages, exposing already-vulnerable populations to dangerous temperatures or to carbon monoxide emissions from portable generators. Finally, well-intentioned attempts at energy conservation, such as weatherization, retrofitting, or excessively tight new construction, could reduce ventilation to dangerously low levels, exposing occupants to indoor air pollutants (radon, VOCs, and more).
This final example - tight, energy-efficient building - has an instructive history. The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-1974, memorable to many Americans because of the gasoline shortages it caused, was a turning point in residential construction. Everyone from Sierra Club President Theodore Snyder, to President Gerald Ford, to energy expert Daniel Yergin endorsed residential energy conservation as a promising, if partial solution to America’s energy crisis. From rural homesteaders to large developers, American builders eagerly pursued energy-efficient housing designs. This was a time of great enthusiasm for underground and earth-sheltered homes, alternative power sources such as solar and wind, and other housing experiments. While some now seem outlandish, other innovations from this era are now standard, such as continuous polyethylene vapor barriers. If you’ve ever seen a half-built house cloaked in Tyvek Homewrap, this is an innovation that dates to the energy crisis of 1973-1974. The ideal of the nearly-airtight, highly energy-efficient house became increasingly attractive to builders and buyers alike; the lower a house’s “air changes per hour” (ACH), the more it could promise in energy and cost savings.

Above: a “zero energy” Habitat for Humanity house produced in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Denver, Colorado. The home is tightly constructed, super insulated, and uses solar energy for space and water heating. It also has a mechanical ventilation system to conserve energy while preserving indoor air quality. Photo credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory Image Gallery

As residential energy conservation became a political and popular priority by the mid-1970s, the Department of Energy funded the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, to establish an energy-efficient buildings research program. Scientists studying residential energy efficiency began to investigate concentrations of indoor pollutants in these impressively-sealed homes. Focusing on nitrogen dioxide (a product of combustion from cooking and heating), formaldehyde (a common organic compound in building materials and furnishings), and radon (dependent more on the geology of a house’s site than the house itself), they found alarmingly high levels of indoor air pollution in some energy-efficient homes.

With these troubling findings as motivation, the Berkeley Lab pioneered scientific study of the complex relationship between residential energy efficiency and indoor air quality, and sought to balance these two necessities in cost-effective ways. In my recent working paper, I examine a crucial period in this history: during the early 1980s residential indoor air quality went from an obscure academic subject to a source of national anxiety. The Federal government, the popular media, and the public became increasingly concerned that America’s houses - especially its newly-popular energy-efficient ones - were full of insidious poisons. The media often oversimplified the situation by portraying energy-conservation as the enemy of healthy indoor air, when in reality the relationship between the two was complicated.

Above: Sources of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) problems, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Indoor Environment Department. Conventional and energy efficient houses alike can contain harmful indoor air pollutants if not properly ventilated. Climate change is likely to exacerbate existing IAQ problems and introduce new ones. Photo credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory Image Gallery

Knowledge of energy-efficient building, indoor air quality, and their relationship has increased exponentially since the energy crisis of 1973-1974. However, the continual proliferation of new building materials and household chemicals makes it difficult, if not impossible, for even the most ambitious indoor air experts to keep up. As the Institute of Medicine’s committee concluded, climate change adds even more variables to an already complicated set of equations.

The experience of the 1970s offers valuable lessons as we face the defining environmental problem of our time with an increasing sense of urgency. First, energy conservation in housing and other buildings is imperative, but can affect indoor environmental quality both negatively and positively. It might seem counterintuitive, but drafty old houses do not necessarily have better indoor air quality than tighter new ones: for example, well-insulated houses have the potential to burn less fossil fuel to maintain comfortable temperatures, thus releasing fewer combustion products and maintaining better indoor (and outdoor) air quality. Second, our homes are not isolated from the environments in which they are built: local, regional, and, increasingly, global conditions affect the longevity of housing and the quality of the indoor environment it envelops, which in turn affects the physical, mental, and financial health of occupants. Third, during the “environmental decade” of the 1970s, energy independence appealed to diverse sectors of American society for environmental, political, and financial reasons. This was a time of remarkable ingenuity in the residential energy sector. For example, the Federal government funded the Solar Energy Research Institute, the Department of Energy asked its National Laboratories to design energy-saving houses, major developers created conventional-looking homes that used thermal mass and solar power, and motivated Americans experimented with a variety of energy-saving strategies. Americans have a tradition of ingenuity in the face of energy crises, we have four decades worth of knowledge about indoor air quality and energy-efficient building, and we have a rapidly expanding knowledge of climate change. We can surely combine these advantages to ensure healthy homes on a healthy planet.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Census Bureau Remodeling Data Revisions Out of Sync with Other Market Indicators

PLEASE NOTE: On July 31, 2013, we updated this blog with a new post, Remodeling Gains Expected to Continue Into 2014

by Abbe Will
Research Analyst
Since 2007, the Joint Center for Housing Studies has produced a quarterly Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity (LIRA), which makes use of several economic indicators that historically have had strong correlations and leads over remodeling spending to anticipate near-term changes in the market. The Joint Center relies on the homeowner improvement expenditure data reported in the U.S. Census Bureau’s monthly Construction Spending Put in Place series (C-30) to estimate and benchmark its LIRA.

On July 1, the Census Bureau released its regularly scheduled annual revisions to the C-30, which adjusted the monthly improvement spending estimates back two calendar years to January 2011. As seen in Figure 1, these revisions increased estimates of home improvement spending by 6% for 2011 (from $114 billion to $121 billion) and decreased spending over 10% for 2012 (from $125 billion to $112 billion).
Source: US Census Bureau, Value of Private Construction Spending Put in Place (C-30).

Typically, these annual revisions are minimal and, in the past, changes were always in the same direction as the original estimates, often revising the whole series downward somewhat (Figure 2). This time, not only was the magnitude of the revisions significantly larger than in recent years, but the direction of the revisions was extremely divergent from what could have been expected based on previous annual revisions.
Source: US Census Bureau, Value of Private Construction Spending Put in Place (C-30).

Certainly, the extent of these revisions by itself calls for a thorough analysis and understanding of the reasons behind such dramatic changes, but the fact that the adjustments are at odds with other key industry data is even more worrisome. Figure 3 compares the annual rates of change in data series that historically correlate highly with home improvement spending (and are used as main inputs in the LIRA) with the pre- and post-revision C-30 data. As seen in the figure, key industry indicators including retail sales at building material and supply stores, remodeling contractor sentiment (RMI), pending home sales (PHSI) and single family housing starts all trended closely with the pre-revised C-30 estimates of homeowner improvement spending since January 2011.

Sources: US Census Bureau, Value of Private Construction Spending Put in Place (C-30), Monthly Retail Trade Report and New Privately Owned Housing Units Started; National Association of Home Builders Remodeling Market Index (RMI); and National Association of Realtors© Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI).

At this time, there is no obvious explanation for why the revisions to the C-30 improvements data were so extreme this year. As part of the Joint Center’s investigation of this issue, we will be in contact with the federal agencies involved in collecting the survey data and developing these estimates to assess whether changes in survey methodology or weighting procedures, for example, might explain these large shifts. As the Joint Center reviews the underlying source data for home improvement spending and the procedures that generate these estimates, we have decided to forgo publication of the LIRA this quarter. The next LIRA is scheduled to be released on October 17, 2013.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Housing Recovery Unlikely to Ease Renter Cost Burdens

by Chris Herbert
Research Director
The headlines continue to trumpet good news about the housing market, including falling vacancy rates and increased construction in rental housing markets across the country. But the flip side of this good news for the rental market is that the share of renters who face severe cost burdens, paying more than half their income for housing, has surged in recent years. As documented in our most recent State of the Nation’s Housing report, the number of renter households facing severe cost burdens reached a new record of 11.2 million in 2011, an increase of 2.5 million households since just before the recession in 2007 (see Figure 1). To make matters worse, this rise comes on the heels of what had already been a decade of worsening rental affordability; the number of renters facing severe housing cost burdens increased by 1.4 million between 2001 and 2007.  In all, the decade from 2001 to 2011 saw an increase of more than 50 percent in the incidence of severe rental cost burdens.

Notes: Severely cost-burdened households spend more than 50 percent of pre-tax income on housing costs. Source: JCHS tabulations of US Census Bureau, American Community Surveys.

To a substantial degree, the sharp rise in renter cost burdens reflects the significant growth in the number of low-income renters who are most likely to struggle to afford housing.  Between 2007 and 2011 the Great Recession pushed the number of renters earning less than $15,000 up by 1.8 million, while those earning between $15,000 and $30,000 rose by 1.1 million. ($15,000 roughly corresponds to what is earned by those working year round at the federal minimum wage.) But over the same time frame, rising rents made it even more likely that households within these income bands would face severe burdens.  Over this four year period, the share severely burdened households among those earning less than $15,000 rose from 67 to 71 percent, while among those earning between $15,000 and $30,000 the share rose from 29 to 33 percent.

But while the number of low-income renters has risen sharply, the supply of housing they can afford has at best remained stagnant (see Figure 2).  In 2011 there were 12.1 million extremely low-income renters who earned 30 percent or less of median incomes in the areas where they lived.  (This is a common income cutoff for eligibility for housing vouchers and is roughly equivalent to our $15,000 threshold but is adjusted for differences in area incomes and family size.)  Meanwhile, there were only 6.8 million rental units affordable at this income cutoff, representing a gap of 5.3 million housing units.  The shortage of affordable housing is made worse by the fact that many of these affordable units are occupied by higher income households. When the number of units affordable for extremely low-income households and available to them is considered, the supply gap in 2011 was even larger – 7.9 million units.  The magnitude of this supply gap testifies to the fact that it is nearly impossible to produce new housing at such low rents, and almost as difficult to maintain existing housing. In fact, 650,000 housing units renting for less than $400 a month in 2001 were permanently lost from the housing stock by 2011.

Note: Extremely low-income households earn less than 30% of area median income.
Source: JCHS tabulations of US Census Bureau, American Housing Surveys.

With the market unable to supply housing affordable for the nation’s lowest-income households, addressing the problem of rising rent burdens may largely come down to efforts to increase household incomes. But there will always be some households facing temporary financial struggles and others facing long-term challenges who will need more assistance to afford decent housing. Currently, only one in four of those eligible for federal assistance are able to obtain subsidized housing. Those who do are among the nation’s most vulnerable families and individuals – 35 percent are disabled, 31 percent are age 62 or older, and 38 percent are single parents with children. With the population of households struggling to afford housing at record levels and continuing to expand, there is a compelling need to assess whether existing resources for assisted housing are both sufficient to meet the need and being used effectively through current programs. 

But while options for reforming the housing finance system have been subject to a vigorous debate, to date the issue of how to address the significant problem of rental housing affordability has received relatively little attention.  The Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) Housing Commission report this past year was a notable exception as it both framed the importance of this issue and advanced specific policy options that should be considered. 

The next snapshot of renter cost burdens will come this fall when the 2012 American Community Survey is released.  But as we showed in this year’s State of the Nation’s Housing report, rents are continuing to increase in markets across the country, against a backdrop of continued stagnation in household incomes. As a result, it is likely that this more up-to-date data will once again find that rental housing affordability has only gotten worse. Hopefully, the BPC report will start a dialogue on what should be done to address this urgent problem.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Word of Caution about Census Bureau Projections

by George Masnick
The Census Bureau recently released its high and low immigration series population projections going out to 2060, complementing its middle series released in December 2012.  Among the talking points in the press release announcing the projections was the assertion that the high immigration series “projects that the U.S. resident population will become majority-minority by 2041, two years earlier than the December (middle series) projection of 2043.”

The point is well taken that the growth of the minority population depends upon future levels of immigration, and higher immigration means an earlier date at which the country becomes majority-minority. But between now and the 2040s there is a great deal more uncertainty about immigration trends than is captured in the Census Bureau’s latest assumptions, including uncertainty about how attitudes and norms will affect who is counted as minority.  In addition, all three of the Census Bureau’s population projections use the same assumption about projected fertility levels of each race/Hispanic origin group.  Not only are fertility trends difficult to predict over many decades, but different immigration levels will surely affect fertility rates.

The new middle series immigration assumptions trend from 725,000 per year in 2012 to 1.2 million in 2050. Low assumptions trend from 702,000 to 808,000, and high assumptions from 747,000 to 1.6 million annually.  All three immigration assumptions are well below those of the previous Census Bureau population projections released in 2008 and 2009, with the new high immigration series even projecting fewer immigrants in 2050 than the previous low immigration assumption (Figure 1). Such a wide range of uncertainty about future levels of immigration should make one wary about the reliability of projections that reach almost 50 years into the future.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2009 National Population Projections

However, the projected level of immigration is not the only area of uncertainty that will affect the projected white-minority tipping point.  Predicting a specific year when the population actually becomes majority-minority sometime three decades ahead will also require assumptions about how Americans in the future will identify themselves in terms of race and ancestry.

Perhaps the most important wild card is the growing rate of inter-ethnic/race marriages, particularly when one parent is non-Hispanic white and the other is not, both because the rates of intermarriage will help determine the future minority composition of the population and because it is unclear how the children of such unions will be classified in future censuses and how they will self-identify as adults.  According to a Pew Research Center report, among all newlyweds in 2010, 9% of whites, 17% of blacks, 26% of Hispanics and 28% of Asians “married out."  Most of these marriages involved one partner who was non-Hispanic white. The same report notes that during the past 25 years, public sentiment about inter-marriage has changed markedly: in 2010, nearly two-thirds of Americans said it “would be fine” with them if a member of their own family were to marry someone outside their own racial or ethnic group, while in 1986, two thirds of the population held the opposite view.  During the next 25 years, marrying out is likely to become even more common and more widely accepted.

Such trends in inter-marriage tell only part of the story regarding inter-racial childbearing, however. The percentage of births that are non-marital has been increasing steadily since the 1940s, and the greatest increases have taken place in recent years.  Today, 36 percent of all births taking place in the U.S. are non-marital, with much higher percentages among teens (86 percent) and women in their early 20s (62 percent). Given that younger cohorts are more favorably disposed to inter-racial relationships, many of which result in childbearing outside of marriage, the statistics on inter-marriages in the Pew report could well underestimate the implications for future inter-racial/ethnic childbearing.

The number of inter-marriage/partnerships taking place over the next 30 years, the number of children born to these relationships, and how the race/ethnicity of these children get classified in censuses and surveys will fundamentally affect the share of the population that is identified as minority.  More importantly, how these children will self-identify as adults in 2040 is basically unknown.  Census Bureau population projections tacitly assume that this variable is held constant at today’s levels, and that young adults will self-identify in the future the same way that they were identified as children by their parents.

A strong argument has been made that racial and ethnic identity is highly variable over time and depends upon social and political conditions. In 1970, the question on Hispanic origin was added to the Decennial Census, and in 1980 the question on ancestry, both after concerted political lobbying by Latinos in the case of the former and those of European descent for the latter.  The Asian community successfully lobbied to expand the number of Asian options listed in the 1990 census. However, since then the percentage of the population whose ancestry was not identified by the census has increased, slightly between 1980 and 1990, and dramatically between 1990 and 2000 (increasing from 11 percent to 20 percent).  In 2010 the ancestry question was shifted to the American Community Survey.  In that survey ancestry was unidentifiable or not reported for about 12 percent of the population, but only after a persistent effort with follow-up interviews with respondents having not answered this and other questions. Such follow-up was not conducted for the 2000 census.  

In short, ancestry appears increasingly to be less important in how Americans identify themselves. And if ancestry, and perhaps by extension race and ethnicity, becomes less important in how we self-identify as Americans, it is entirely likely that in 30 years the percent minority will become a statistic that has become less robust.  Specifically, fewer persons of Hispanic origin might check that box. Likewise, fewer of mixed-race ancestry might identify as such.

A third way that the majority-minority tipping date might be influenced are the apparently arbitrary definitions of whom the Census Bureau counts as minority.  For example, immigrants from Brazil are not counted as minority (Hispanic/Latino) because of Portuguese ancestry, even though most Brazilians also have some indigenous South American native ancestry.  Persons with ancestry in the Middle East and in North Africa are also categorized as white. But a future OMB directive could require that these persons be counted as minorities.

Finally, it has already been demonstrated that such simple factors as questionnaire wording, order of asking questions about nativity, race and ethnicity, and examples used as prompts to questions, will all influence responses.  It is very unlikely that current questionnaire protocols for these items will be used decades in the future.

While there is a lot of uncertainty about the projections 30-50 years into the future, the new projections for the next 10-20 years are likely to be much more accurate.  And they are extremely valuable for showing the magnitude and importance of different immigration assumptions for relatively near-term trends in population growth and for broadly understanding the changing age, race and ethnic composition of the population. Longer-term trends in race and ethnic composition will depend as much on fertility levels, on rates of intermarriage, and on how we think about others and about ourselves, as it does on actual immigration trends.