Thursday, April 28, 2016

Disability Housing - Best Practices and New Solutions

Micaela Connery
2015 Research Fellow
This summer I’m moving. Again. It will be my sixth “residence” since graduating college. Over the last seven years, home has included a three bedroom apartment in Somerville, my parent’s basement (Cellar Dwellers Unite!), a grad school dorm where adults regress to freshman status, full-size bunk beds on the Lower East Side (full-size bunk beds are a real thing), and a bedroom that was actually a closet found somewhere deep in a Brooklyn craigslist. Despite all the quirks that came with each dwelling place—communal showers, head whacks on the top bunk, et cetera—each one was home in some special way.

But, for many adults with disabilities, a suitable home is hard—sometimes almost impossible—to come by. In the time that I moved five times, hundreds of thousands of individuals with disabilities across the U.S. have sat on housing waitlists. They’re waiting, often many years, to make just one crucial move, the move out of their parent’s home into community or independent living. The United States spends over $77 billion dollars annually on special education, often working to prepare individuals with disabilities to be successful, independent, and included. Yet those opportunities for independence inclusion are almost non-existent after exiting the school system. We spend billions in public funds preparing individuals with disabilities for opportunities they may never be able to have.

The most obvious issue here is funding and availability of housing offerings. Most state agencies who are on the front lines of addressing this need are finding there simply isn’t enough public funding to support placements and support services for the high number of individuals with disabilities who need it. As state developmental services budgets are cut and numbers of adults with disabilities increase, the challenge is only growing over time.

While increasing funding (or at least preventing budget cuts) is a key part of the solution, it will only incrementally address the growing waitlists for housing services. Absent an increase in the supply of suitable housing options, funding alone won’t likely fix the problem. Many providers, families, and organizations have taken it upon themselves to innovate new solutions to housing placements; experimenting with different operational structures, engaging private funders, rallying parent support, and innovating new housing models. By understanding what makes these innovative models effective, and where they face challenges, policymakers can better support new solutions for the disability housing crisis. With support from the Joint Center, I spent last summer examining a few of these approaches and what we can learn from them, and have reported my findings in the paper “Disability Housing: What’s happening? What’s challenging? What’s needed?”.

Perhaps the most obvious finding from spending time with consumers and providers is that one size does not fit all. While there are some common best practices—engaging families, supporting choice, linking to employment and transit, and retaining quality staff—there is not one single housing type or model that is right for all people with disabilities. As for people without disabilities, what people want their home to look like varies greatly. Some people desire an apartment in a city while other prefer a house with lots of land in a more rural neighborhood. Some people want to live alone and other want to be surrounded by lots of friends, family, and activity. Policies must support a range of options and choices for individuals with disabilities.

The second key issue in finding housing solutions is the right to risk, meaning that housing options shouldn’t be unduly constrained by concerns about residents safety. A right to risk would bring a willingness to innovate and provide support for experimenting with new models. Policymakers and regulators, perhaps wary of litigation, seem to be resistant to anything that may lead to failure or risk. They want to protect people with disabilities, sometimes at any cost. But people with disabilities should be allowed to take risks themselves and providers should be supported to innovate with new approaches. While we should protect people as best we can, we can’t let protection stifle new ideas. The only way disability housing can improve is if we give it space to innovate, and even make mistakes.

While providing housing and adult services for people with disabilities presents challenges, it’s also full of opportunities. It’s an opportunity to better integrate our communities. Thinking about these issues helps us reexamine what it means to support quality and affordable housing for all populations, not just those with disabilities. It’s an opportunity to re-evaluate and innovate around how we create communities, connect with our neighbors, and age within our homes. With the right program design and service delivery, we can start to change the predominant concerns of parents of children with disabilities. No longer will they worry, “Where will my child live after I die?” or “Who will care for my child?” Instead, they can wonder: “Which housing option is right for my child?” And most of all: “What community will be lucky enough to have my child as a member?”

Individuals with disabilities and advocates have been fighting for thoughtful supports, inclusion in communities, and independent living since the 1960s. The challenge isn’t new, but the solutions will need to be.

Micaela Connery was a summer research fellow for the Joint Center for Housing Studies. She is an MPP Candidate at Harvard Kennedy School focusing on disability, inclusion, and community development. She is a member of the inaugural class of New World Social Enterprise Fellows at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard. She will continue with her studies as a Mitchell Scholar in the Fall of 2016, pursuing her MBA at the Smurfit School at University College Dublin.

She is presenting a Housing Studies Seminar on this topic at noon on Friday, April 27, 2016 at the Joint Center offices. See our calendar listing for more information.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Rising Tide of Online Home Services

Grant Farnsworth
The Farnsworth Group
The swell of young homeowners and the rapid evolution of the online home services market could lead to a big wave of growth in this sector over the coming years. But how aware are consumers of the availability of these services, and how is the industry responding to this new wave of offerings?

Guest post by Grant Farnsworth of The Farnsworth Group, a member of the Joint Center Remodeling Futures Steering Committee. The blog is based on a recent presentation to the Remodeling Futures group.

GM investing $500M in Lyft, Google investing in Uber, The Home Depot buying Red Beacon, the launch of Amazon Home Services… these large players know something is in the water when it comes to online services. We appear to be witnessing “Uber-ization” of the home services market.

As the platform matures, important questions are beginning to take shape.
  • What exactly are online home services? How is this space being defined?
  • Who is using these services?
  • Are the users’ needs being met?
Early evidence suggests that while millennials are beginning to latch onto these services, older owners are less engaged, and home improvement contractors generally aren’t viewing these service delivery models either as potential partners or as competition to their current business models.

To gain insights on the use and perceptions of online home services, The Farnsworth Group completed a study that surveyed homeowners who had recently hired a service professional. Also surveyed were remodelers and specialty contractors, to better understand their awareness of – and potential integration with – these service delivery models. For this survey, online home services were defined as “websites or apps that are intended to help homeowners and service professionals with home design, home improvement, and/or home repair and maintenance projects”.

Given their relatively recent introduction, much of the population is largely unaware of these services. Both homeowners and professionals view these platforms to best fit with modest improvement and repair projects in the under $5,000 range. Both groups also indicate similar features that are important to them when working with a service pro or client. However, that is where many similarities end. Results show dramatic differences in the adoption of online home services by younger homeowners, older homeowners, and contractors.

Homeowners who hired a service professional within the last 12 months were asked which of the following services they have ever used, or currently use: Angie’s List, HomeAdvisor, Houzz, Porch, TaskRabbit, Thumbtack, and Homeowners between the ages of 21-34 are much more likely to have consulted these home services, and used them in their selection process. Nearly 75% of those using online home services end up hiring a service professional from one of the services.

Online Service
Angie’s List
Home Advisor

However, when remodelers and the trades were asked what apps and websites they have used or are currently using, they are often not as engaged with online home services as homeowners, and certainly not as engaged as younger homeowners.

Online Service
Specialty Tradesmen
Angie’s List
Home Advisor

Younger homeowners in the study were also generally more willing to engage home service sites. Over three-quarters of millennials are somewhat to extremely willing to do business online, a figure that drops closer to 50% for boomers.

 click to enlarge

So what is driving homeowners and professionals alike to utilize these new online home services platforms? Homeowners that have used online service sites use them for a variety of reasons, but three stood out in the survey:
  • Getting project estimates/costs
  • Information on the home services provider
  • Being matched with a home services provider
However “being matched with a service pro” is low on their list of importance when it comes to homeowners hiring a service professional. The majority use “word of mouth” for getting a few contractor names.

Remodelers and trades professionals, on the other hand, use online home service sites to generate leads, get design ideas, and market their company. Unfortunately, these features also do not align with what the survey showed was most important to them:
  • Communicating with clients
  • Managing projects
  • Providing estimates
Getting leads via an online service is of little importance because, like homeowners, nearly all contractors get leads from “word of mouth”.

It is clear that the features of online home service sites do not always align with what’s most important to the users. The gap between what’s important and how online service sites are being used indicates either a lack of understanding as to what the platforms provide, OR a failure for the platform to provide appropriate services.

Regardless of the needs for knowledge, education, and platform development that this study illuminates, young homeowners are extremely likely to utilize these online home services sites. They also perceive these sites to be “more beneficial” and “easier to use” than traditional “offline” methods. In contrast, the professionals we surveyed, while willing to test the waters, do not share as much enthusiasm as younger homeowners.

Those who utilize online service sites may see it pay off given the increasing use and high conversion rates. Millennials are the largest generation in our history, and as such are the generation with the most future buying power. As they continue to enter the homeowner market, awareness and use of online home services seems inevitable. With that will come more informed and educated consumers, which should propel a modest swell in online home services to something much, much more significant.

So home improvement professionals are well advised to grab a surfboard, paddle out, and be prepared, because they may catch a killer wave to ride with the new generation of home buyers.

For the complete study results contact The Farnsworth Group at or 317-241-5600 x.301.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Neighborhood Change and the Right to the City

Adam Tanaka
JCHS Meyer Fellow
Adam Tanaka reviews Priced Out: Stuyvesant Town and the Loss of Middle-Class Neighborhoods by Rachael A. Woldoff, Lisa M. Morrison and Michael R. Glass.

This post is cross-posted from
New York City’s Stuyvesant Town is the largest housing development in Manhattan, and also one of the most controversial and most studied. Adam Tanaka reviews the latest contribution to studies of Stuyvesant Town, by Rachael A. Woldoff, Lisa M. Morrison and Michael R. Glass. Gentrification and rent deregulation have changed the composition of the development, and longtime renters now coexist with younger and wealthier households. Woldoff et al. explore this coexistence using ethnographic methods, and situate the transformation within a broader shift to a neoliberal housing policy.

Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village as seen from the air over the East River looking north (cc) Alec Jordan/Wikimedia Commons

Stuyvesant Town: between myth and reality

Seventy years after opening its doors to World War II veterans, Stuyvesant Town remains by far the largest housing development in Manhattan. The project looms over the Lower East Side, with its 35 red-brick towers, 8,755 apartments and superblock design providing a marked contrast to the surrounding urban fabric. Stuyvesant Town also remains one of the city’s most controversial real-estate developments. In its early years, the project was a maligned symbol of urban renewal and racial segregation. More recently, the development sparked heated debates about the viability of middle-class housing in Manhattan as it was bought and subsequently foreclosed upon in the largest real-estate transaction and mortgage default in American history.

The project has also been the subject of considerable research. Historian Samuel Zipp’s Manhattan Projects (2010) explored the politics of development and the culture of early occupancy, while real-estate journalist Charles Bagli’s Other People’s Money (2013) drew attention to the financial speculation that drove the highly leveraged purchase of the complex in 2006 and the subsequent post-recession fallout. Priced Out: Stuyvesant Town and the Loss of Middle-Class Neighborhoods, co-written by Rachael A. Woldoff, Lisa M. Morrison and Michael R. Glass, also examines the most recent chapter of the Stuyvesant Town story. But rather than studying the elite politicking of private investors and public officials that animated Bagli’s book, Priced Out shifts its focus to the politics of everyday life within the complex.

In particular, the authors explore the impacts of rent deregulation on the social composition of this previously “stodgy” middle-class neighborhood. As younger, market-rate residents have gradually replaced older, rent-stabilized tenants, a “curious menagerie” has come to occupy Stuyvesant Town’s anonymous red brick towers (p. 3). Using ethnographic methods, the authors examine the intergenerational and class conflicts between the project’s various subgroups, and the role of management in exacerbating tensions. Criticizing the economistic focus of much housing scholarship, Woldoff et al. argue that it is impossible to fully understand transformations in the city’s housing market without examining how these changes affect the social dynamics of specific communities.

The book is structured in four parts. First, the authors provide a brief historical overview of Stuyvesant Town’s origins. The authors then describe Stuyvesant Town’s evolution from a racially segregated veterans’ community focused almost exclusively on child-rearing to an increasingly disparate mixture of rent-stabilized seniors and new market-rate renters, comprising students, professionals and young families drawn to the project’s convenient downtown location.

Inset chapters describe the policy context driving the deregulation of the city’s middle-income housing stock. The authors pinpoint New York State’s Rent Regulation Reform Act of 1993 and Vacancy Decontrol Law of 1997 as watershed moments in the transformation of Stuyvesant Town from a relatively stable middle-class community to a so-called “luxury rental” development. They situate these changes within a broader paradigm shift from a managerial urban housing policy with state-enforced rent controls to an increasingly neoliberal agenda promoting the “invisible hand” of the market at the expense of permanently affordable housing.

Daily life in a community in flux

The authors’ principal focus, however, is on how the transformation of Stuyvesant Town from community to commodity has impacted daily life. “What is it like for such different groups to live in Stuy Town together?” they ask. “Are all of these residents happy here? How long do they plan to stay?” (p. 3). These questions are explored through interviews with 49 residents across the range of subgroups living in the project. In-depth “vignette” chapters describe the experiences of representatives of the two resident groups perhaps most at odds with each other.

Chapter 3 tells the story of Ruthie, who has lived at Stuyvesant Town since 1948. Ruthie describes the transformation of the neighborhood from an age- and income-homogeneous community to a diverse set of groups with competing interests and expectations. While Ruthie herself is relatively indifferent to these changes—and highlights moments of collaboration between young and old—she relates anecdotes of other senior citizens who feel victimized by managerial decisions that they feel promote the interests of young residents at their expense.

Chapter 7 explores life at Stuyvesant Town from the perspective of Kara, a senior-year student at nearby New York University (NYU). Kara is emblematic of the trend of “studentification” in Lower Manhattan’s private rental sector. Pre-existing residents argue that they cannot compete with students willing to subdivide apartments and split the rent, particularly when such practices are encouraged by revenue-maximizing landlords. With college-based social networks and a short-term view of her residency, Kara’s relationship to Stuyvesant Town differs from that of long-standing residents. Like Ruthie, Kara does not recount any out-and-out conflicts between her and her elderly neighbors. She views the area without sentimentality, as a temporary housing solution rather than a community in which she has a deep stake.

Change at Stuyvesant Town: a neoliberal story?

While Priced Out’s ethnographic research is balanced and precise, giving equal weight to the various constituents in Stuyvesant Town’s “curious menagerie,” the book stumbles when trying to tie the story to broader political-economic and theoretical concerns. The authors situate Stuyvesant Town’s transformation from rent-regulated to market-rate housing within a structural shift from a Fordist–Keynesian to a neoliberal urban-policy paradigm. At first glance, this appears to be a plausible analytic framework. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that the authors’ use of a neoliberal framework is more of a hindrance than a help.

Critiques of neoliberalism tend to romanticize either the state or the community as the appropriate scale of social management; Priced Out does both. The authors contend that “New York City’s policies in the mid-twentieth century were in keeping with larger societal ideals grounded in justice and pragmatism, in which housing was viewed as a right” (p. 101). But the early history of Stuyvesant Town itself directly contradicts such a thesis. Not only did the project benefit from significant public subsidies to clear a low-income neighborhood in favor of a racially homogeneous, middle-class enclave—hardly a policy of “justice and pragmatism”—but its contractual arrangements guaranteed only 25 years of rent controls, tied to ongoing tax abatements, after which MetLife, a life-insurance company turned developer, could charge market rents—hardly a vision of housing “as a right.” While the authors argue that Stuyvesant Town was built due to “a need for middle-class families to have access to affordable housing in the city,” they fail to acknowledge that the project was as much—if not more so—driven by a rationale of fiduciary profit and the upgrading of Manhattan’s property values: nothing short of state-sanctioned gentrification.

It is not only the state’s historic role in social welfare provision that is uncritically embraced, however. Priced Out also romanticizes the notion of community as an ahistorical and morally upright social unit, without unpacking its complexities. Many scholars have explored the question of whether community—particularly middle-class community—is a necessarily exclusionary concept, a literature with which Woldoff et al. do not engage or even acknowledge (see Herbert Gans, The Levittowners, 1982; Suzanne Keller, Community: Pursuing the Dream, Living the Reality, 2003; and Robert Nelson, The Private Neighborhood, 2005, among others). Instead, they lament the disintegration of a previously homogeneous urban neighborhood, implicitly suggesting that cities work best when composed of a mosaic-like fabric of introverted communities.

Whose “right to the city”?

The authors deploy urban theorist Henri Lefebvre’s concept of “the right to the city” to assert the primacy of existing residents’ claims to the neighborhood over the rights of newer, richer tenants. The authors assert that, historically, “Stuyvesant Town provided a sense of place” and a “sense of stability,” qualities currently being eroded by market pressures (pp. 38–39). But who qualified for entry into that community in the first place? The authors admit that MetLife’s original leasing procedures were hardly meritocratic. Beyond the racial restrictions, many early tenants had professional or personal connections with the life insurers that fast-tracked their applications and left others to languish on the waitlist for years, if not decades. What of their “right to the city”?

In contrast to the original tenants, who apparently came in search of “the promise of community,” the authors castigate new, market-rate residents for using the development “as a foothold to begin an ambitious life in New York City, or as a stepping stone on the way to an aspirational, higher-status residence” (p. 184). This is also a simplistic dichotomy. Many of Stuyvesant Town’s early tenants were driven into the project by a desperate postwar housing shortage as much as any romanticized notions of community life—arguably exactly the same reasons why so many people are willing to pay exorbitant market rents to live in Stuyvesant Town’s institutional tower blocks today.

Many of the project’s early tenants also benefited from rent controls to build up savings and later purchase a home, using Stuyvesant Town as both foothold and stepping stone to homeownership—possibly the prime function of urban rental housing. There is nothing wrong—and indeed, much right—with arguing that pre-existing residents should have a greater right to the community by dint of longevity of tenure. But the authors do not grapple with the thorny issue of how to evaluate, let alone rank, rights-based claims to shelter, and they tend to romanticize the motives that drew residents to Stuyvesant Town in the first place.

Neighborhood politics: possibilities and constraints

The book’s most intriguing moments come when the authors engage with the multifaceted meanings and uses of Stuyvesant Town to different resident groups. They describe how Stuyvesant Town is appropriate for senior living; single-floor apartment layouts and elevators are convenient for mobility-impaired residents, while proximity to major hospitals in “Bedpan Alley” make trips to the doctor less stressful. At the same time, the authors show that many aspects of Stuyvesant Town’s design and location are convenient to younger residents. Students from nearby universities and young professionals working in Midtown are drawn to the walk-to-work location, while young families appreciate the lack of through traffic and the plentiful recreational facilities.

In the book’s closing pages, the authors also acknowledge the importance of politics—or the process of collectively binding decision-making—to the future of increasingly age- and income-diverse urban neighborhoods. “In order to achieve community in the city, the heterogeneous groups who inhabit the same space must establish strong relationships and unify politically in pursuit of their best interests,” they write, in a statement that could apply to urban governance more generally (p. 192).

Whether the pursuit of disparate interests can be achieved through political action is a promising avenue for further research, and arguably more fruitful than the authors’ reliance on an orthodox neoliberal framework. That said, any analysis of political organizing at the neighborhood scale must also engage with the role of both public and private sectors in structuring outcomes. After all, in the recent October 2015 sale of Stuyvesant Town to private equity giant Blackstone and Canadian pension fund Ivanhoe Cambridge, the new landlord’s pledge to maintain affordable rents in 5,000 apartments for another 20 years was as much a product of closed-door negotiations between investors and politicians as it was a result of direct community action.


  • Bagli, Charles. 2013. Other People’s Money: Inside the Housing Crisis and the Demise of the Greatest Real-Estate Deal Ever Made, New York: Penguin.
  • Gans, Herbert. 1982. The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community, New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Keller, Suzanne. 2003. Community: Pursuing the Dream, Living the Reality, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Nelson, Robert. 2005. Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government, Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.
  • Zipp, Samuel. 2010. Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold-War, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Robust Remodeling Growth Anticipated by Re-Benchmarked LIRA

Abbe Will
Research Analyst

Strongly accelerating growth in home improvement and repair spending is expected heading into 2017, according to the newly re-benchmarked Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity (LIRA) released today. The new and improved LIRA projects that home remodeling spending will increase 8.6% by the end of 2016 and then further accelerate to 9.7% by the first quarter of next year.

Ongoing gains in home prices and sales are encouraging more homeowners to pursue larger-scale improvement projects this year compared to last with permitted projects climbing at a good pace. On the strength of these gains, the level of annual spending for remodeling and repairs is expected to reach nearly $325 billion nationally by early next year.

Notes: The former LIRA modeled homeowner improvement activity only, while the re-benchmarked LIRA models home improvement and repair activity. Historical estimates are produced using the LIRA model until American Housing Survey data become available.

Source: Joint Center for Housing Studies.

Our freshly recalibrated indicator now forecasts a broader segment of the national residential remodeling market that includes both improvement and repair activity to the owner-occupied housing stock. With this re-benchmarking, the LIRA now more accurately sizes the remodeling market and continues to anticipate major turning points in the spending cycle.

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

Note on the LIRA model: As of April 21, 2016, the LIRA has undergone a major re-benchmarking and recalculation in order to better forecast a broader segment of the national residential remodeling market. For more information on the implications of this change, see our earlier blog post, and read the research note:
N16-4: Re-Benchmarking the Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Greater Coverage of Flourishing Home Improvement & Repair Market Reflected in Center’s Re-Benchmarked Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity

Abbe Will
Research Analyst

On Thursday, April 21, the Joint Center will release a newly re-benchmarked leading indicator that projects short-term trends in the broader home improvement and repair market. This re-benchmarking and recalculation of the Center’s Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity (LIRA*) provides three major enhancements over the former LIRA that the Center has produced since 2007:
  • More accurate reflection of the true size of the home remodeling market: The re-benchmarking provided an opportunity to better align the LIRA reference series with a more comprehensive remodeling market size that now includes maintenance and repair spending to owner-occupied homes, in addition to improvement spending—at present a nearly $300 billion market for homeowner spending alone.
  • Updated drivers of home improvement and repair activity as industry emerges from the Great Recession: The housing and home improvement markets have gone through possibly the most severe cycles in their recorded histories since the LIRA was first released, necessitating a review of the original LIRA model and inputs for accuracy.
  • Better reflection of historical spending patterns by homeowners: A major motivation for this re-benchmarking has been the declining quality and reliability of the LIRA’s former benchmark data series, which has been subject to unusually large revisions to its cyclical trend in recent years (see previous blog post on this topic). 

The regularly scheduled release of the LIRA later this week will also include a Research Note* describing the re-benchmarking motivations and methodology and revisions to the LIRA model inputs in detail. Moving forward, the LIRA will be benchmarked to a measure of home improvement and repair spending based on estimates from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s biennial American Housing Survey. Including home maintenance and repair activity results in a somewhat less cyclical LIRA than previously, but ultimately the re-benchmarked LIRA still anticipates turning points in the market well (Figure 1).

 click to enlarge
Notes: The most recent data available from the American Housing Survey is 2013. LIRA data only include historical estimates produced by the model. Regular quarterly LIRA releases will project with a time horizon of four quarters.
Source: Joint Center for Housing Studies

Major enhancements to the LIRA model inputs include measures of house prices and residential remodeling permits that together with traditional inputs, such as retail sales of building materials and home construction and sales, are expected to better predict post-Great Recession market trends for the remodeling industry (Figure 2).

 click to enlarge
The re-benchmarked LIRA, measured as an annual rate-of-change of its component inputs, provides a short-term outlook of national homeowner improvement and repair activity for the current quarter and subsequent four quarters, and is intended to help identify future turning points in the business cycle of the home remodeling industry. The LIRA is released by the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University in the third week after each quarter’s closing. The release of the First Quarter 2016 Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity is set for 9:00 AM ET on Thursday, April 21. 

*Note - links will be updated Thursday with the release and publication of the research note

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Three Things We Need To Do To Develop a Healthy Housing Stock

Mariel Wolfson
2012 Meyer Fellow
Our new working paper explores healthy home concerns and behaviors among American homeowners and renters. We show that both groups are interested in improving the indoor environmental health of their homes, but face myriad challenges to doing so. Below, we highlight three important steps we can take toward improving the health of our housing stock.

1. Demonstrate and Respond to Consumer Demand

Healthy housing is becoming more than a niche market. Nearly one in four households in our survey had some concern about health-related issues in their homes, and more than 20% acknowledged uncertainty about whether their homes might contain health risks. Nearly half of American homeowners responding to our survey have some level of interest in healthy home issues. In fact, 60% had already taken action – even if minor – to create a healthier indoor environment at home.

Notes: Sample size is 529.  Households that expressed some basic level of healthy housing concern were asked, "Which general category(ies) best describes your concern about the impact of your home on your household’s health? "Source: JCHS tabulations of Healthy Home Owner Survey, The Farnsworth Group.

The leading concern among respondents was indoor air quality (IAQ). As outlined in our paper, the most important action we can take to improve residential IAQ is to reduce indoor emissions, including the pollution that comes from heating and cooking, as well as from chemicals that are off-gassed by our furnishings, carpets, paint, and the materials used in constructing our homes. It is therefore critical that both consumers and building professionals have more options for non-toxic/less-toxic materials and products.

In a recent example, Home Depot and Lowe’s announced that they would stop selling flooring containing phthalates, a category of chemicals believed to disrupt human hormones. This “retailer gatekeeping” is one way to start shifting away from hazardous products and toward safer ones. As consumer demand grows and is recognized, forward-thinking manufacturers, retailers, and service providers who make healthy building a priority will be in a strong position to serve this market What’s good for health and the environment will also be good for business.

Notes: Sample size is 465. Households that expressed some basic interest in ‘invisible’ healthy housing issues were asked, “Among the healthy home issues that concern your household, please select up to three of them that generate the most concern."
Source: JCHS tabulations of Healthy Home Owner Survey, The Farnsworth Group.

2. Demystify the Problem

One encouraging conclusion of our working paper is that both homeowners and renters are interested in making their homes healthier, especially by improving indoor air quality and water quality. However, these same consumers report that information – including a lack of time to research options – is an obstacle to taking action. They are suspicious of spurious environmental and health claims (“greenwashing”) and aren’t sure where to turn for trustworthy, science-based information on healthy home products and services.

This problem is amplified when the potential project – remediation, remodel or replacement – is costly in terms of money, time, and energy. A homeowner concerned about potential mold or unhealthy insulation might be just as worried and confused about whether remediating the problem can guarantee a healthier home or improve symptoms such as asthma or allergies.

Another dimension of this problem is the sheer volume and complexity of scientific information on indoor air and environmental quality. Cutting-edge research – including such topics such as indoor microbiomes and chemical interactions with moisture and UV light – is truly fascinating. However, it is not actionable for the average consumer.

Moreover, as interesting as research on emerging issues is, it is important that we not lose sight of older yet persistent healthy housing concerns that have affected our housing stock for generations. In fact, the Lumber Liquidators disaster of 2015 was due to high levels of formaldehyde, one of the first three major indoor air pollutants that were identified back in the 1970s, along with radon and combustion pollution from heating and cooking. These are still serious healthy housing issues, as is lead paint. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has been a leader in indoor air quality research since the 1970s and offers a wealth of resources (designed for the public) on these issues.

Both our survey and the American Housing Survey show that numerous Americans still face basic structural integrity/safety problems in their homes, including insufficient insulation/weatherization, inadequate heating/cooling, electrical and plumbing problems, and pests. More attention to solving basic problems like these would go a long way toward making our housing stock healthier (for example, by helping to reduce the infiltration of outdoor air pollution, particularly in neighborhoods located near highways, airports, or industries.) While increased attention to chemicals and emerging issues is a positive development, we don’t want to neglect these critical basic issues.

Notes: Sample size is 414. Households that expressed some basic intention to act on specific healthy housing projects were asked, “Among the following healthy home actions your household has taken, plans to undertake or would like to undertake, please indicate how the related health issue(s) and/or risks(s) came to your household’s attention.”
Source: JCHS tabulations of Healthy Home Owner Survey, The Farnsworth Group.

3. Educate and Train Professionals on Solutions

Ever since the oil crisis of the 1970s, demand for energy-efficient homes has grown and building professionals have responded accordingly. Now, the construction/homebuilding/remodeling industry should do the same for healthy home concerns. As discussed in Point #1 above, consumers want their homes to contain fewer toxic materials and have good indoor environmental quality overall, but they need trustworthy expertise, services and information from the industry. Because energy efficiency and indoor environmental/air quality are so intertwined, this creates a natural opportunity for knowledgeable contractors to help their clients integrate both energy and IAQ concerns into upgrade/remodeling projects.

Building professionals who have relevant expertise – which includes knowledge of healthier/non-toxic materials and practices – will have a distinct competitive advantage both with individual homeowners and owners of multifamily buildings. Our paper shows that renters want healthier options, just as they want “green” units.

Fortunately, there is a growing number of initiatives that work to help building professionals develop this expertise, such as Healthy Housing Solutions, which offers training courses, as well as the National Center for Healthy Housing, the Healthy Building Network, the Perkins and Will Transparency project , and the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s strategy for action is another valuable resource.

Going forward, we hope that a focus on these three areas might go a long way towards improving the nation’s housing stock and the experience of the housing consumer, while also improving the nation’s overall health.

Read the full paper at Challenges and Opportunities in Creating Healthy Homes: Helping Consumers Make Informed Decisions by Mariel Wolfson and Elizabeth La Jeunesse

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Great Recession Increased Fragmentation in Remodeling Industry

Abbe Will
Research Analyst
During the last industry downturn, home remodeling contractors experienced increased fragmentation due to especially large growth in small and self-employed remodelers. Additionally, concentration gains that were achieved by larger-scale firms in the industry upturn were reversed somewhat—all according to recently acquired tabulations of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 Economic Census and Nonemployer Statistics. Conducted once every five years, the Economic Census measures payroll business activity at the industry level, while the Nonemployer Statistics capture similar data for businesses with no paid employees. Special tabulations of the Economic Census and Nonemployer Statistics done for the Joint Center’s Remodeling Futures Program specifically isolate residential construction businesses—either general (i.e. full-service and design/build) or special trade (e.g. HVAC/plumbing, electrical, painting, and roofing)—who have more than half of receipts from remodeling and repair activity.

According to Joint Center estimates from these data sources, the number of residential remodeling contractors reached 716,000 by 2012, up from 652,000 at the peak of the market in 2007 (Figure 1). General remodelers increased their ranks over 12% to 263,000, and special trade remodelers increased 8.5% to 450,000. Overall, the total number of contractors serving the remodeling industry increased almost 10% from 2007. Most of this growth, however, was driven by increases in self-employed remodelers, who saw double digit growth between 2007 and 2012—about 11% for special trades and nearly 17% for general remodelers. The number of payroll contractors grew only 3.5% during this same period.

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Notes: Includes residential remodeling establishments with more than 50% of receipts from remodeling activity including maintenance and repair. Self-employed remodeling contractors include those with annual revenues of at least $25,000 assuming those with smaller receipts are most likely part-time, partially retired, or “hobby” contractors where remodeling is likely not their main source of income.
Sources: JCHS estimates using unpublished tabulations from US Census Bureau, Economic Censuses of Construction and Nonemployer Statistics.

The self-employed already made up a large share of home improvement businesses before the boom and bust—about 62% in 2002—and by 2012 their share increased to almost 70% of businesses operating in the remodeling industry. Of course, even though self-employed contractors are a growing share of remodeling businesses, they remain very small businesses: 44% had receipts less than $50,000 in 2012 and 29% had receipts between $50,000 and $99,999. Although the number of self-employed remodelers with less than $150,000 in annual receipts* increased 15% from 2007-2012, those with receipts of $150,000 or greater increased only 3%. Indeed, much of the increased fragmentation in remodeling contractors occurred at the smallest end of the revenue spectrum.

Even remodeling contractors with payrolls continue to be dominated by smaller-scale businesses: over half of payroll remodelers generated under $250,000 in revenue in 2012 (Figure 2). However these smaller-scale remodelers only accounted for 10% of total payroll receipts. Larger-scale firms with $1 million or more in revenues made up just 13% of all remodeling payroll businesses in 2012 but were responsible for generating 62% of total industry receipts and accounting for nearly half of industry payroll employees. Although these largest remodeling firms saw a decline in their shares of industry establishments, employment, and receipts from the peak of the market in 2007, they remained well above pre-boom shares of a decade ago in 2002. Even after suffering the worst market declines on record, larger-scale remodeling companies continue to play a dominant role in the market.

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Notes: Residential remodeling establishments are defined as general and special trade contracting establishments with more than 50% of receipts from remodeling activity including maintenance and repair. Receipt categories are not inflation-adjusted.
Source: JCHS tabulations of unpublished data from US Census Bureau’s Economic Censuses of Construction.

In fact, when considering the very largest general remodeling companies in terms of value of receipts over the 2002 to 2012 period, the largest 50 firms continued to increase their share of industry receipts. In 2002, the 50 largest remodelers accounted for 5% of all industry receipts generated by general remodelers with payrolls. This share jumped to 7.9% by 2007 as the market boomed, but even during the industry collapse, the top remodelers were still able to increase their market share to 8.5% of total receipts. The average value of residential remodeling receipts for the top 50 general remodelers with payrolls was over $85 million in 2012, which at first might sound unrealistically high given that the average general remodeling firm had under $650,000 in revenue that year, but could be explained with even just one significant outlier skewing the concentration figures.

Ultimately, these recent data releases provide important updates on the evolving structure of the remodeling contracting industry and a more complete understanding of the impact of the Great Recession. The remodeling industry experienced increased fragmentation during the market downturn, especially among smaller contractors. Larger-scale firms did lose some of their concentration gains of the boom years, but there is evidence that the remodeling industry continued to concentrate at the very top of the market. The top 50 largest companies increased their share of industry receipts even during the downturn, a considerable advantage of scale. Further analysis of the changing composition and organization of remodeling contracting firms over the past business cycle will be included in a research note to be published later this year.

*receipt categories not adjusted for inflation