Monday, July 2, 2018

Little Houses On The Prairie

“People who own property feel a sense of ownership in their future and their society. They study, save, work, strive and vote. And people trapped in a culture of tenancy do not.” – Henry Louis Gates

Recent data published by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the ratio of median new home sale prices to median household income reached an all-time high value of 5.45 this year, which is to say that the typical new home sold in the U.S. cost nearly 5 and a half times the annual income earned by a typical American household. And of course, with new home prices going ever upward, used home prices follow. Rental prices also go up as demand increases and the cost to build new apartments goes up, up, up. Land, materials, taxes and labor are all contributing to the cost pressure. Tariffs and restrictions on immigrant labor will only put more pressure on the cost to build.

It has been estimated that over 40% of American households actually cannot afford to live where they are currently living. Whether it’s a house payment or rent, they are paying way more than 30% of their household income to put a roof over their heads. 30% has been the standard for a number of years. I’m old enough to remember when it was 25%, but that was given up long ago. Now many American families are paying 40% or even 50% of their income for housing.

This issue is complicated. There are a lot of factors which have put us in this place. As already noted, the cost to build is going up. Especially in growing urban areas where the jobs are. I live over 70 miles from Dallas but only 35 miles from the heart of Collin County (McKinney, Frisco, Plano). Land values here are going up rapidly. Houses are being built. Relatively affordable houses. But it’s taking twice as long to build due to labor shortages. Land, labor and time to build all add to the cost. And there will be those who move up here failing to appreciate how much it will cost to commute to the city, not just gas, but wear and tear on their car and themselves.

Often overlooked in the housing affordability discussion is how much housing has changed over the past 50 years. I don’t think we are ready to return to the 1950’s, but let’s be clear…there is no comparison between housing then and today. Houses back then might have been better built (perhaps), but there is no argument that the houses we have today are bigger and have more features.

I grew up in a small working class neighborhood in northwest Tarrant County, Texas (Fort Worth). Our house was average, if not a bit nicer. Just under 1000 sf, 2 BR, 1 Bath with a detached 1 car garage. No central heat and air. No built-in appliances, no fence, no sprinkler system, no security system, no place for a washer and dryer (but a screened in porch on the back for a “ringer” washer and clothes lines out back for a dryer.) It was a well-built frame house on a pier and beam foundation that still stands today, has a had a few upgrades and remains a home for some family, most likely much further down on the economic ladder than we were (and we weren’t up there very far.)

The first home I owned was a small (1100 sf) brick house. 2 BR, 1 bath, 1 car (attached) garage. A little space between the garage and the kitchen for a washer and dryer. Central heat and air. It was a major upgrade for me.

Over the years my houses have gotten bigger and nicer with more built-ins, more and better comfort systems, irrigation and security. Bigger garages, bigger utility rooms, more and bigger bathrooms, nicer kitchens, a fireplace (or two) of course. Starter homes today are larger and have more features than the first new “custom” home I purchased.

These days to find a house in a decent neighborhood with good schools usually means buying at least a 3 bedroom, 2 bath, 2 car garage with all the extras. That’s a minimum. More than likely you’ll end up in a 4 bedroom, 3 ½ bath, 3 car garage and in these parts, you must have a pool to be really happy. And the differences in neighborhood, build quality and features can account for a $50-100 per square foot price differential on top of the base cost to build.

Housing in North Texas is considered “affordable”. And up here where I live in small town Sherman-Denison one can still get a good house in a decent neighborhood for $125,000. But for the houses most people want these days, you jump quickly over $200,000. Go further south toward DFW and the price per square foot seems to go up at the rate of about $1 per mile.

If your annual household income is under $75,000 you’ll be hard-pressed to buy a house that you’d want to live in. Here in Grayson County, the median household income is $51,000. Just to the south, in Collin County (one of the wealthiest in the state) that number is just over $90,000. But drop down to Dallas and Tarrant counties and the numbers are $54,000 and $61,000 respectively. Bottom-line, a lot of people can’t afford to own or even rent the size and quality of living space we have grown to expect. And as interest rates creep up, affordability becomes an even bigger problem.

There are no easy solutions and there are certainly no quick solutions. The market is making some adjustments. After years of bigger is better, the houses are getting smaller (as are families, which will lead to other problems down the road). Smaller houses on less land cost less money. More young couples and families are living in apartments for longer periods of time. Nice apartments aren’t cheap, but usually more affordable than that “dream home”. And the trend is very noticeable around DFW. More and more high-end apartment complexes are being built in the suburbs with the better schools (and being built earlier in the development of the area before established home owners can push back on apartment-dwellers invading their villages.)

In North Texas, where there is still plenty of cheap land, we’re just spreading out. And that’s a viable option IF we can find ways to transport people and products more affordably. When one considers what a long-distance commuter’s life is like in DFW, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles or Atlanta; it becomes quickly evident that this model of affordable housing is not the ultimate solution. This only becomes manageable with better, faster mass transit service and for some reason we here in America just won’t give up our cars. The freedom and independence of the automobile is considerably diminished when one considers the gridlock our urban freeways have become. We need high-speed commuter trains and we needed them yesterday but will settle for them as soon as possible.

The other options are “stack and pack” or “strip down”. “Stack and pack” means more apartments and condos. More people living in urban areas, close to their work. It’s the trend in many parts of the world and we’re starting to see it here in some major urban areas. Texas not so much yet, but it’s coming.

The “strip down” has been around these parts for years and here it’s called the “mobile home”. It comes with a stigma and I don’t see it as the ultimate solution, but it’s one answer for some people in some places where there is still space. The other “strip down” is the tiny house phenomenon. This feels like a millennial cry for help and/or attention and I don’t see it as the answer either. But I guess it will serve its purpose for a few for awhile.

The ultimate “strip down” is going back to the basics. Plain vanilla housing. Probably not wood frame, but some sort of affordable, recycled composite material. Built in a factory and assembled on sight. Fewer built-ins, smaller kitchens and bathrooms. Different ways of heating and cooling that cost less to install and operate (there are options, especially in smaller, energy efficient houses). No garages or at best smaller ones. Lawns and landscaping that need minimal water and maintenance. If this somehow becomes “a thing” and is considered cool and “green” it might actually work.

In the mean time, a lot of people are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place when it comes to housing. And that has far reaching consequences. Put the American Dream out of reach for enough people and they won’t be inclined to put much effort toward making a America great again. They will decide it’s just not worth it and try something else. What that looks like, and who decides, are at the core of our political debate. One way or the other, change is coming.

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