Home prices in many markets have fallen to levels not seen since 2002 and 2003, but that’s still too costly for many working families, according to the National Housing Conference’s annual "Paycheck to Paycheck" study.

Released Thursday, May 7, the report throws a bucket of cold water on the premise that falling home prices have erased the problem of housing affordability. “Contrary to popular belief, the recent decline in home prices has not resolved the nation’s housing affordability problems,” said Jeffrey Lubell, executive director of the Center for Housing Policy in a statement. “Working families–including most of the workers who will be hired as a result of federal spending in the stimulus package–still cannot afford to buy a home in most markets, and many also struggle to afford their rents.”

The Paycheck to Paycheck study usually looks at what many consider essential occupations in a community—teachers, police officers, nurses—but in a twist this year, researchers also looked at the occupations most likely to benefit from the stimulus package and its associated infrastructure projects.

The news was not good. According to the study, “carpenters are priced out of owning a home in 157 of the 208 metro markets studied, equipment operators are priced out of 173, long-haul truck drivers 174, and construction laborers cannot afford to purchase a home in 196 of the 208 markets studied.” The sole “winner”? Construction managers, who make roughly $100,000 annually and could therefore buy a home in nearly all—199—of the selected markets. 

Renting was only slightly easier, but not in Florida, where monthly rents have climbed even as housing prices have (perhaps) bottomed. Each of the 18 Florida markets covered became less affordable between 2007 and 2008, perhaps due to growing pressure on the rental market because of rising foreclosures.  As a result, renting a two-bedroom apartment in Fort Lauderdale, the most expensive city in Florida in terms of rent, cost $1,313 a month, making it also the 13th most expensive rental market in the country.

Such findings indicate just how difficult an issue affordable housing is to resolve, even without the dueling factors of the economy and the housing market itself. “It is striking to me how many of the markets in California, Arizona, and Nevada are places where home prices have dropped, and yet for many professions, homes in these areas are still unaffordable for many families,” Keith Wardrip, senior research associate at the NHC, told BUILDER last week. “It goes to show that the cost of buying homes in some areas was so far out of line with what people are making that prices can drop 30 percent to 40 percent and still be unaffordable.”

For example, a median-priced home in Riverside, Calif., which has been overwhelmed by foreclosures, has plummeted from a value of $355,000 in 2007 to $200,000 today. But it’s still one of the more costly markets in the country, ranking 61 of 208 metros studied by the NHC. In Nevada, the median price for a Reno home has dropped from $290,000 in 2007 to $216,000 now, but it still remains ranked at 50 of 208 markets in terms of the most costly places to buy a home.

How does one begin to address a problem that is equally thorny in good times and bad? Wardrip recommends state and local agencies look at all the tools available at their disposal, from home buyer programs to affordable rental and for-sale housing production programs. “The cost of housing in general needs to be lowered for low- and moderate-income families,” which could include building additional affordable housing near mass transit to help such workers reduce their transportation costs, he said. “Housing is just one part of a bundle of goods—healthcare, food, childcare, energy—that a household needs to purchase to provide for itself on monthly basis.”

Alison Rice is senior editor, online, at BUILDER magazine.

10 Most Expensive Cities to Buy a Home
1. San Francisco, Calif. (median home price in 2008: $575,000)
2. New York, N.Y. (median home price in 2008: $455,000)
3. San Jose, Calif. (median home price in 2008: $410,000)
4. (tie) Honolulu, Hawaii (median home price in 2008: $400,000)
4. Santa Cruz, Calif. (median home price in 2008: $400,000)
6. Suffolk-Nassau, N.Y. (median home price in 2008: $391,000)
7. Santa Ana, Calif. (median home price in 2008: $388,000)
8. Ocean City, N.J. (median home price in 2008: $379,000)
9. San Luis Obispo, Calif. (median home price in 2008: $376,000)
10. Bridgeport, Conn. (median home price in 2008: $370,000)

10 Least Costly Cities to Buy a Home
199. (tie) Canton, Ohio (median home price in 2008: $82,000)
199. Flint, Mich. (median home price in 2008: $82,000)
201. South Bend, Ind. (median home price in 2008: $81,000)
202. Bay City, Mich. (median home price in 2008: $78,000)
203. (tie) Battle Creek, Mich. (median home price in 2008: $77,000)
203. Springfield, Ohio (median home price in 2008: $77,000)
205. (tie) Lima, Ohio (median home price in 2008: $75,000)
205. Wheeling, W.Va. (median home price in 2008: $75,000)
207. (tie) Saginaw, Mich. (median home price in 2008: $73,000)
207. Youngstown, Ohio (median home price in 2008: $73,000)

Source: National Housing Conference

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA, New York, NY, San Jose, CA, Los Angeles, CA, San Luis Obispo, CA, Santa Cruz, CA, Canton, OH.