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Assessing the Wellbeing of American Communities Through the Lens of Housing
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Assessing the Wellbeing of American Communities Through the Lens of Housing

As a major engine of the U.S. economy, the housing market is steadily watched and analyzed as a barometer for the general wellbeing of the country. That’s not surprising, as U.S. consumers spend approximately $2 trillion on their housing needs every year. Housing, however, isn’t just about economics—or even shelter. It’s a window into the lives of American consumers, and it provides insights that go well beyond home buying and price trends.

Our homes—from studio apartments to sprawling estates—are where we eat, sleep, watch TV, surf the Net, do homework, pursue hobbies and spend time with those we’re closest to. They’re part of the local communities in which we live, and there’s no better way to look at the health of consumers than by using an approach that integrates economic analysis with consumer research. The result is a more human view of the country’s many distinct communities.

Amid the array of metrics for assessing community health and welfare, few are more telling than those that relate to the strength of the local housing market. And that has been the focus of recent research conducted by The Demand Institute, a non-advocacy, non-profit think tank jointly operated by The Conference Board and Nielsen.  The research is grounded in an analysis of 2,200 cities and towns in America coupled with in-depth interviews with 10,000 U.S. consumers.

Identifying Vibrancy, Challenge and Opportunity

According to The Demand Institute’s new report, “A Tale of 2000 Cities: How the Sharp Contrast Between Successful and Struggling Communities is Reshaping America,” the top 10 percent of cities and towns (ranked by aggregate value) hold 52 percent ($4.4 trillion) of the total housing wealth. The bottom 40 percent held just 8 percent ($700 billion).

The 2,200 cities and towns were examined across over 500 measures and metrics, including housing at the core but also including the local labor market and a wide range of demographic measures. The team classified the 2,200 cites and towns into nine distinct types of U.S. communities.

These communities range from “Affluent Metro Burbs” to “Endangered Communities,” with prosperity and vibrancy at one end and depressed local economies at the other. The seven others fall in between the polar opposites, and each provides specific opportunities and challenges for public and private sector leaders.

One startling finding from the work is that 50 percent of the 2,200 cities and towns are struggling to find their way forward after the Great Recession. The Deflated-Bubble, Challenged and Endangered Communities, in particular, are facing multiple economic pressures.

The report is also noteworthy for demonstrating the sharp geographic clustering of communities, with distinct polarization between affluent and impoverished cities and towns. While this variation has always existed within communities, the report demonstrates a much sharper contrast across American communities.

Taking a Closer, Local Look at Housing

In aggregate, the big picture is encouraging. At the national level, the research forecasts a steady housing market recovery, with the median home price for an existing single-family home expected to increase by just over 2 percent between 2015 and 2018. By 2018, the median price of a single-family home in the U.S., unadjusted for inflation, will be close to the peak reached in 2006 before the market collapsed.

Looking at the market from a national level, however, fails to capture wide local discrepancies, as some markets will charge ahead while others will remain very distressed. For example, prices in the top five metro areas (ranked by expected price increases) will grow an average of 32 percent between 2012 and 2018, while prices in the bottom five will rise only 11 percent.

At the state level, The Demand Institute predicts home prices will grow the most in New Mexico, with 33 percent growth between 2015 and 2018. In contrast, the District of Columbia is at the bottom of the list, with forecasted home price growth of just 6 percent during the same period. At the metropolitan level, Memphis, Tampa and Jacksonville will lead the way, with each expected to see home price growth of more than 30 percent between 2015 and 2018. Comparatively, Washington, D.C., Oklahoma City, Denver, Minneapolis and Phoenix will see the least price appreciation, with growth ranging from 7 to 13 percent.

The U.S. housing market has struggled to regain its footing after the bubble popped, and prices have remained significantly depressed, casting a lasting pall that has pressured communities, families and finances across the country. And even with the forecasted rises between 2015 and 2018, prices in many states will be well below their pre-bubble peaks in 2018. Prices in other markets, however, appear poised to surpass their previous highs. For example, prices in Nevada will likely be 45 percent below their 2006 peak in 2018. Other previously overheated markets will be in a similar boat, such as Arizona, Florida and California, although the price differentials will range between 19 and 29 percent below their pre-crisis peaks.

States that didn’t overheat in the mid-2000s, however, are facing a much different future. A single-family home in North Dakota, for example, is on track to cost 42 percent more than it did in 2007. Prices in Texas, South Dakota and Nebraska are also on an upward tear, with single-family homes expected to be 27 to 29 percent higher in 2018 than they were back in 2007. In all markets, however, single-family home construction and completions will remain depressed, while multi-family home completions will continue to rise in many states.

Opportunities for Government and Business Leaders

It’s in everybody’s interests that America’s communities become stronger. The authors of the “A Tale of 2000 Cities” report assert that the first step in addressing a challenge is identifying it, which the core of this report does by describing the way America’s cities and towns fall into nine segments, and by describing each of them. Both private and public bodies should understand that, even in communities that are struggling, the American dream is alive and well, and every effort to help people fulfill that dream in constrained circumstances will help strengthen individual communities and society in general. Housing is a natural focal point for these efforts, because it sits at the heart of the American dream as well as at the heart of every American community.

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