You, that's who.
Cycles past gave for-sale home builders and developers a kind of free pass. The challenge--and not an insignificant one--was to be around to collect it. Reserve enough to subsist for a few lean years, and then it was, hang onto your hat for what often enough was a V-shaped boom. But, four or so years into housing's current recovery, here's an assessment of where housing is today from Urban Institute contributors Alanna McCargo and Bhargavi Ganesh.
While the single-family and multifamily markets are performing at different levels and face different obstacles, earlier research from the Housing Finance Policy Center shows that both markets are still leaving us with far fewer total housing units than we need, particularly at affordable levels.
The operative term in the passage above? "Need." This is not, "need" in the sense of, "we need a new car," or "I need a vacation." Both of those statements may be true. But this need is different. People need homes. America's economy needs housing.
Fact is, there's reason to be full of hope and rightfully optimistic.
Calculated Risk host Bill McBride asserts with evidence-based confidence here that "the future is still bright," looking at housing starts, government employment, budget deficit levels, household debt deleveraging and cash flows, and a spate of demographic benchmarks, the most significant being a return to an expanding "prime working age population." This makes things grow, McBride explains:
There was a huge surge in the prime working age population in the '70s, '80s and '90s. The prime working age population peaked in 2007, and bottomed at the end of 2012, and is almost back to the previous peak (this has nothing to do with the recession - just demographics).
The good news is the prime working age group has started to grow again, and should be growing solidly by 2020 - and this should boost economic activity in the years ahead.
So, where do we stand with this notion that we "need" more homes--for-sale and for rent--that are more affordable for people, and we "need" housing to be healthy for the economy to be healthy?
New York Times columnist David Brooks takes this extraordinary, and in no small way, troubling insight out of the circus that is our national presidential electoral stage, and it's relevant to this conversation:
Over the past few years, economic and social anxiety has metastasized into something spiritual and existential.
Americans are no longer confident in their national project. They no longer trust their institutions or have faith in their common destiny. This is a crisis of national purpose. It’s about personal identity and the basic health of communal life. Americans’ anger and pessimism are more fundamental than anything that can be explained by G.D.P. statistics.
In his way, Brooks' "crisis of national purpose" comes back to this notion of "need." It has always, at the end of the day, made ultimate, basic sense, for Americans to believe differently from one another but to work together. Economically, culturally, socially, however you look at it, we "need" more housing--relatively affordable for more households.
Housing is the skin, the bones, the coursing blood, and the flashing neurons, not just of individual well-being but our "common destiny." The future's bright for housing, and it's not because policy makers will make the right or wrong or indifferent decisions and taxpayer-funded investments in its support. It's bright because, literally, we need more housing. And people in residential development and home and community building have become good at responding to that need in a way that's both purposeful and profitable. Without a free pass.
What's cool is that what drives many of them--through upcycles and downcycles--is this. They want to make the world [and this country] a better place to live. Our "common destiny" is their entrepreneurial fuel and fire.