Single-family homes deficit needs to be addressed
WASHINGTON -- Annual single-family housing production in 2008 and 2009 fell about one million units short of the housing that would be needed in a normally functioning economy, suggesting that builders will have a lot of catching up to do as the economy improves and household formations return to trend levels, according to a special study by economists at the National Association of Home Builders.

The report, "Extent of Underbuilding in the Single-Family Housing Market," finds that there was an excessive amount of single-family building from 2003 through 2005, but overbuilding largely ended by 2006 and the subsequent downturn was severe enough to more than offset those annual surpluses. This year is likely to add to the growing deficit of single-family homes by another one million units, the report finds.

"The single-family housing market in the U.S. currently finds itself in a significantly underbuilt state," said NAHB Chairman Bob Jones, a home builder from Bloomfield Hills, Mich. "Pent-up demand for housing will at some point need to be worked off, pushing single-family production in a positive direction. In the meantime, the deficit continues to grow as builders remain cut off from the credit they need to begin developing and building new housing."

The analysis compares levels of single-family permits in recent years with the long-term trend that would be seen if housing, labor and credit markets were functioning normally and generating a normal rate of household formations.

Permits were used instead of housing starts because they are based on a much larger sample and provide more geographic detail, which enabled the study to be extended to the state level. (A building or zoning permit represents housing units that are authorized to be built. According to the Census Bureau, all but a small percentage of permits become starts. A start is when ground is first broken for the foundation of the building.)

Single-family permits plunged to a trough of 441,000 in 2009, their lowest level since World War II. The previous post-war low occurred in 1981, when 550,000 single-family permits were recorded. Adding to the magnitude of the recent downturn, multifamily starts and permits last year fell below 150,000 units, an historic low, compared to about 400,000 units annually during the early 1980s.

"Moreover, the population and stock of housing in the U.S. have continued to expand," the report says. "In 1980, there were roughly 226 million people and 88 million housing units in the country. By 2009, these numbers had increased to 307 million people and 130 million housing units, so in that year the U.S. added a record low number of new housing units to a population and housing base that was larger than it had ever been before."

From 1988 through 2003, the U.S. population was growing at a fairly steady average annual rate of 1.15 percent and varied only between 0.90 percent and 1.35 percent. During the recession, household formations slowed markedly below this pace, delaying two million household formations. The deficit in new single-family homes can continue as long as household formations remain depressed.

Over the 1988-2003 period -- which goes right up to the housing boom years of 2004 and 2005 and can be considered a fairly normal one for housing -- the number of single-family permits issued was increasing at an average of about 36,000 per year, consistent with a growing population that needs housing and an expanding inventory of older homes that need to be replaced.

Projecting that trend past 2003, single-family permits should have hit 1.4 million by 2005, 1.5 million by 2008 and around 1.56 million in 2009, the report finds. Instead, permits were well over 1.4 million in 2003 and pushed past 1.6 million in both 2004 and 2005, "a period of serious overbuilding."

Subsequently, however, permits dropped to under 1.4 million by 2006 -- already slightly below trend -- and continued to fall through last year.

Single-family surpluses occurred from 2002 to 2006 and they were well over 200,000 annually in 2004 and 2005. Deficits, which began to materialize after 2005, reached about a half a million units in 2007 and one million every year since then as single-family permits dropped below 500,000 -- more than a million units per year below trend.

Accumulating annual surpluses peaked at 493,000 single-family units in 2005, and that was worked off entirely by the end of 2007. Depressed levels of single-family housing production resulted in a cumulative deficit of 2.17 million units by 2009 and will likely grow to 3.28 million by the end of this year.

The study also found that there are now single-family housing deficits in most of the states. This includes the states that had the hottest markets during the boom: Arizona, with a deficit of 144,500; California, 49,500; Florida, 112,600; and Nevada, 75,600.

ABOUT NAHB: The National Association of Home Builders is a Washington-based trade association representing more than 175,000 members involved in home building, remodeling, multifamily construction, property management, subcontracting, design, housing finance, building product manufacturing and other aspects of residential and light commercial construction. NAHB is affiliated with 800 state and local home builders associations around the country. NAHB's builder members will construct about 80 percent of the new housing units projected for 2010.

SOURCE: National Assn. of Home Builders

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