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On Common Ground — Winter 2003

Low Income Buyers
The Importance of America's Housing Sector to the Economy

by David Lereah

Is there a housing crisis in America? Or are we simply in need of tweaking a system tha already works? The answers to these questions are vital, especially for those in the real estate industry, including homebuyers and sellers, real estate practitioners, home builders, multifamily property developers and community planners.

After all, if there are not enough homes, and ones that American households can afford, where will people live?How will local communities build their tax revenue? If people stop buying homes because of lack of supply, what happens to the U.S. economy?

The housing sector is one of the largest and most important sectors of the U.S. economy.

In addition to providing shelter, housing provides millions of Americans with jobs and generates hundreds of billions of dollars of economic output each year. The value of residential structures totals over $12 trillion, while the housing sector directly and indirectly accounts for about 15 to 20 percent of our nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) every year. Moreover, most studies indicate that households spend about 30 to 40 percent of their disposable income on housing-related expenses. Those expenditures help to support other sectors of the economy.

Last year was a prime example. Economic growth in 2001 was anemic — GDP increased a mere 0.48 percent from the fourth quarter of 2000 to the fourth quarter of 2001.

During that same period, the housing sector contributed more than half to the economic growth, with total single-family sales posting an all-time high of 6.2 million units. Housing is also an important source of wealth for many households. In 2001, existing home prices appreciated at a rate of 6.3 percent, the strongest increase in over a decade. Recent studies suggest that a rise in the value of home equity has a large impact on consumer spending decisions. The Federal Reserve estimates that for each one-dollar change in stock market equity, consumer spending increases by 3 to 7 cents. In another study, Case, Quigley, and Shiller (2001) argue that each extra dollar of housing wealth has five times the impact of an extra dollar of stock market wealth.

Healthy home price appreciation, in combination with robust sales, provides a strong tax base for local governments. Almost 70 percent of all tax revenues raised by local governments in the United States comes from property taxes. Homeowners contribute about 43 percent of property taxes, while commercial property taxes account for the remaining 57 percent. Because home prices historically have outpaced the rate of inflation by a couple of percentage points, the local tax base and tax revenue also keep pace with, if not exceed, the rate of inflation.

One of the ways housing contributes to economic growth is via the so-called multiplier effect. Homebuying spurs additional expenditures such as new furniture, new appliances and moving costs, all of which contribute to economic activity.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimates that the multiplier effects from a single home sale amounts to about 0.28 percent of GDP. That translates into $5,100 for each home sale. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) places the estimate at $7,800 to $8,900 in the first year of a move.

The multiplier effect is particularly important to local economies. Home sales and the construction of new homes provide jobs and tax revenues for local, state and federal governments. The National Association of Home Builders estimates that the construction of 1,000 single-family homes generates 2,448 full-time jobs in construction and construction related industries, $79.4 million in wages and $42.5 million in combined federal, state and local revenues and fees. Furthermore, NAHB estimates that roughly 30 percent of the new home occupant’s income is spent on items produced by local businesses, such as medical care, daycare and services of dry cleaners and auto repair shops.

Homeownership and Housing Opportunity

Throughout most, if not all of the past decade, employment and wage gains were strong and interest rates hovered near historic lows, creating favorable affordability conditions for all households. The result: record-level homeownership rates. The national homeownership rate rose markedly throughout the past decade, rising to 67.8 percent in 2001 from 64 percent in 1994. However, despite the greatest economic expansion in our country’s history — slowed only by the shallow and short-lived 2001 recession — not all households benefited from such favorable economic conditions. Affordable housing problems continue to plague our nation. While the national homeownership rate — and that for white households — rose almost continuously throughout the great economic expansion of the 1990s, homeownership rates for minorities and low to low-middle income households lagged behind and continue to differ by wide margins.

For example, in 2001, white, non-Hispanic households had a 74.3 percent homeownership rate, compared to 47.7 percent for African-Americans, 47.3 percent for Hispanics and 55.4 percent for Asian households. The gap in homeownership rates among income levels is also wide. Based on 1999 data (this is the most recent data), the homeownership rate for lowincome (defined as less than 80 percent of median income) households was 51.8 percent, while moderate (80 percent to 120 percent of median income) and high (greater than 120 percent of median income) income households registered a 63.6 percent and 82.6 percent homeownership rate, respectively.

Homeownership rates also vary widely among household types. For example, in 2000, the marriedcouple household homeownership rate was 82.4 percent, while the homeownership rates for male-heads and female heads of family households were 57.5 percent and 49.1 percent respectively. Finally, access to homeownership continues to be a challenge for our nation’s immigrant population as well. Of the over 30 million immigrants now in the U.S., most arrived since 1980. According to surveys conducted by The Fannie Mae Foundation, immigrants are three times as likely as all households to rank buying a home as their number one priority, but immigrant homeownership rates continue to lag behind those of the native-born.

Unquestionably, today’s homeownership challenges are the result of many barriers, both cultural and economic. Language and cultural differences among some citizens inhibit them from participating in the homebuying process. Innovative consumer education and counseling programs are steps in the right direction. New approaches to assist households in establishing credit and credit-worthiness are needed as well as the continued creation of loan products targeted to specific needs of different household groups. Programs designed to assist borrowers with established credit to overcome downpayment obstacles, which continues to be the number one barrier to purchasing a home, should also be a top priority. Finally, a critical evaluation of current affordable housing programs — both government and government/private partnership sponsored — can provide needed insight into the development of new and more effective housing opportunity programs.

It’s also important to remember that homeownership is not generated just by demand.The supply and availability of affordable housing remains a deep problem in America. In fact, a recent Fannie Mae survey indicates that Americans view affordable housing as big a challenge for the nation as is affordable health care. All segments of the housing market — rental properties and owner-occupied properties need to be jump-started in the context of housing availability and accessibility.

So, we’re back to our original question: Is there a crisis in housing America or are we in need of tweaking a system that already works? The answer probably lies somewhere in between. What we do know is that the value of homeownership is something our nation cherishes. Homeownership is part of our nation’s social fabric. It is well documented that achieving the “American Dream” has a positive, rippling effect on crime, neighborhood stability wealth creation as well as improving overall economic growth and prosperity.

David Lereah is Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.

Table of Contents for Winter 2003 issue


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