There's no longer any room for debate.
Housing affordability has risen up the food chain of American kitchen table priorities. President Donald Trump, by executive order, declared on Tuesday that a newly-created White House council will "identify and remove obstacles that impede the development of new affordable housing."
For those who've worked long and tirelessly to elevate the conversation, to make it a real flesh-and-blood issue whose human toll is hard to calculate and whose economic impacts on related issues of healthcare, productivity, economic mobility, poverty, crime, etc., it's a moment of achievement in and of itself.
Still, although the matter has finally made it onto the Oval Office agenda, and is a top talk-track item among an increasing number of political heavyweights, all the hard work still lies ahead. Starting by taking action "to reduce Federal regulatory barriers to affordable housing development" may expose some opportunity area, but when it comes to those "barriers" this new council will work with State, local, and tribal leaders to eliminate, that's a tougher nut to crack.
Lest we need reminders of why all this matters so urgently, so profoundly, here are a couple from the deep pool of headlines--still only scratching at the sensationalist surfaces of the issue, rather than at the telling, heart-breaking depths of it--from within the past seven days:
- Here, ATTOM Data Solutions' second-quarter 2019 U.S. Home Affordability Report shows that median home prices during the time period were "not affordable" for average wage earners in 353 of 480 U.S. counties (74%).
- Here, Freddie Mac research highlights that nationally, the percentage of multifamily rental units that are affordable to households making 50% of area median income (AMI) fell from 55.7% in 2010 to 39.1% in 2017, and that the fastest-growing metros lost their affordable rental stock at a rate that was roughly twice as high as the national average.
- Here, a Wall Street Journal piece draws on Freddie research that observes that a shrinking universe of current renters sees a path to homeownership.
- Here, the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University notes that the entire stock of apartments that rent for $800 or less throughout the nation has shrunk by 4 million units since 2011.
- Here, JCHS analysis notes that nearly a third of U.S. households (38.1 million) paid more than 30% of their incomes for housing in 2016. More than half (20.8 million) are renters, and fully 80% of renters and 63% of owners making less than $30,000 are cost burdened..
- And, here, the White House's own position statement in the executive order notes that, per the Census, only seven homes were built for every 10 households formed during the six-year period from 2010 to 2016.
A key target of the Presidential initiative, regulation, writ large.
As we wrote here just this past Friday:
Builders and developers believe regulators and "vocal minorities" have hijacked the business. And it's really no wonder they believe that.
They publish data on how much regulation of all sorts adds to the price builders and developers need to charge and owners and renters need to pay--25 cents of every asking-price dollar for a new home, and 32 cents of every development and construction dollar for every new multifamily rental unit, passed along in monthly lease payments.
The math adds up. Twenty-five percent of the average $377,000 price on an annualized pace of 626,000 (June) of new home sales clocks in at a cool $60 billion in "regulatory burden" opportunity.
To the President and HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who's been named chair of the 8-agency council whose job is to identify and rid obstacles to housing affordability, that $75,000 to $94,000 regulatory "premium" on each new home is ripe for disruption.
“With the signing of today’s Executive Order, President Trump is prescribing a powerful treatment that correctly diagnoses the source of America’s affordable housing condition: this is a matter of supply and demand, and we have to increase the supply of affordable homes by changing the cost side of the equation,” said Carson. “Increasing the supply of housing by removing overly burdensome rules and regulations will reduce housing costs, boost economic growth, and provide more Americans with opportunities for economic mobility.”
The Presidential declaration could hardly come at a more opportune moment--albeit, it's far too long in coming.
Mid-2019, with an economy that's sound despite a growth trajectory that's 10-years-plus in age, with household formation growth that has gained some traction after languishing during the early recovery, with signs, albeit choppy, of household income growth, and with a mixed-signal reading on the conviction of housing's hard-earned, slow-paced recovery ahead, it's a perfect time to look at both regulatory burden and builder productivity as key opportunity areas. Most builders and developers figure they're fighting a losing battle when it comes to the onus regulations and rules place on their business, investment, and development plans, as localities become ever more protectionist and show-stopping obstacles get heaped higher and higher.
The White House Council will set about the task of identifying true opportunity areas--and some low hanging fruit--in the area of red tape cutting. To that end, we'll hope they avail of strong partnerships with key organizations, namely the National Association of Home Builders and the National Multifamily Housing Council, who have the domain expertise and strong relationships to both accelerate the discovery and sharpen the efficacy of the White House group.
Greg Ugalde, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and a home builder and developer from Torrington, Conn., attended today’s signing ceremony at the White House and issued the following statement after President Trump signed his executive order on housing affordability:
“NAHB applauds President Trump for making housing a top national priority. With housing affordability near a 10-year low, the president’s executive order on this critical issue underscores that the White House is ready to take a leading role to help resolve the nation’s affordability crisis.
"We must address the regulatory barriers and costs associated with creating housing that is affordable," said Doug Bibby, President of NMHC. "Dealing with this crisis will take a partnership between all levels of government and the private sector. Working together, we can make real progress towards reducing the housing burdens so many families face."
"The National Apartment Association welcomes the signing of the Executive Order, which recognizes the issues at the core of the housing affordability crisis in America. NAA recently expanded research on this topic with our Barriers to Apartment Construction Index. These barriers, such as density restrictions, onerous zoning and permitting processes, parking requirements and NIMBY opposition obstruct our industry’s ability to bolster the housing supply. We look forward to working with the Council, the Administration, and stakeholders at every level of government to help end the affordability crisis," said Robert Pinnegar, CAE, President and CEO of NAA.
While there may be a bit of low-hanging-fruit at the Federal level that the group could address with policy rescind-and-replace initiatives--perhaps even focusing on cohesive immigration reform with a sanctioned guest-worker program--the state, regional, and local level is where the Council will have its work cut out for it.
They're going to need voters, property owners, and communities as partners, not opponents.