Rathke: If there isn’t a housing crisis, why does it feel like one?

New Orleans       Not only have I believed there is a housing crisis, but I’ve said so repeatedly and at every opportunity I’ve been given.  I’ve also argued that rents and evictions are rising at record levels.  I haven’t been making any of this up.  I’ve quoted respected sources from well-known magazines and newspapers, not weird websites and conspiracy cons.  I’ve named names.

At the same time, when contrary evidence comes to me, I can’t just ignore it.  I can’t remember where I saw the reference.  It was happenstance.  Some passing note that the affordable housing crisis was really limited to the Bay Area, Seattle, New York, and a couple of other high-priced outliers, while the rest of the country was doing fine, thank you, no problem.  I put it in the back of my mind, but it was nagging, so I couldn’t ignore it forever. The source led back to a piece Kevin Drum had written for Mother Jones in July entitled “Washington Can’t Solve a Housing Crisis that Doesn’t Exist.”  Yes, I know, not that they were trying to anyway unless it involved Dr. Ben Carson doing heart surgery on a HUD conference table converted into an operating room.

Drum makes a very convincing case on many of these claims, and he does so on the numbers, most of them from the Census Bureau.  Using the data and starkly clear graphs, here are his, “just-the-facts-ma’am” rebuttals to what he refers to as the “underground factory” of screaming headline production.

  • Rent has risen only slightly more than income since 2001, and has risen more slowly than income since 2010.
  • The claim that “median home price in some 200 cities is $1 million,” is based from his research on a tilted scale since, a “full quarter of them are just subdivisions of a single metro area: San Francisco and Santa Clara. Most of us would call that one place, not 46.”
  • As for housing inventory and rental vacancy rates, “As of 2018, there were a total of 138 million housing units for 128 million households. That’s 9% more housing units than households, the same as in 2001. The number of rental units per household has gone up. And the rental vacancy rate is right at its long-term average.”
  • “Has the nation “lost” 4 million low-rent apartments. What that probably means (though there’s no telling, really) is that 4 million apartments have crossed some arbitrary threshold defined as low-rent. But if you adjust for inflation, probably nothing much has happened at all. Those apartments are still around and still cost about the same as ever.”So, says, Drum.
  • Americans paying more than 30% of their income for rent? I’ll spare you here, but Drum makes a very convincing argument that, all told, it’s probably closer to 25% nationally, though lower income tenants are paying more than a one-third. He joins our chorus in bemoaning the difficulty of getting good numbers on low-incomes and low-income rentals.
  • Mortgages, relatively speaking are also about the same, and he had a chart culled from Census Bureau numbers to prove that too.

So, what’s up with all of this?

Talk to people in our neighborhoods around the country and they are experiencing a rental and eviction crisis.  Mortgages may be around the same, but even Drum would agree that new credit standards make it harder for low-and-moderate income families to get them, so it feels and is an affordability crisis for them.  Furthermore, many of them live in some of these high-priced markets that Drum argues are outliers, but are making them outlaws.  Meanwhile, indisputably, incomes have not been rising at the rate of anything else, so that’s a crisis for families everywhere.

Nonetheless, Drum makes a strong case.  It wouldn’t be the first time that homebuilders, landlords, and construction companies managed to pull some fast ones on us.  Even on the numbers Drum is clear, the section 8 waiting list alone proves there is a need for more affordable rental units for the poor, and, frankly, that is something that Washington could and should do a lot to solve.