Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Affordable housing is not likely to emerge as a priority in the toughest markets.
There are no real surprises in the third-annual home listing report from Coldwell Banker Real Estate. Unless you consider inequality in the housing market a new turn. Then you're in for a shock.
For the second time in three years, Los Altos, California, ranks as the most expensive housing market in the U.S. How expensive? If you're thinking about buying a family home there in Silicon Valley, you may want to keep looking: A four-bedroom, two bathroom home in Los Altos is going to set you back nearly $2 million. For that money, you could buy 30 homes that size in Cleveland. Or, as the report notes, 25 homes plus Cavs tickets for 50 neighbors for nine years.
The firm has been conducting a similar housing report since the mid-1980s, says Coldwell CEO Budge Huskey. The survey examines some 2,000 different housing markets in the U.S. with an eye toward a particular kind of buyer: the family of four from Idaho, so to speak, or from Cleveland or Los Altos or wherever else. Instead of sorting by the standard median-home-price metric—which doesn't account for the difference in the mix of homes, Huskey says—this one compares four-bedroom, two-bath homes. (Only markets with a minimum of 10 such home listings between January and June 2014 made the cut.)
"It's attempting to provide an apples-to-apples comparison," Huskey says.
Apples cost much more in California, the report reveals. Of the markets where a home for a family of four bears an average listing price of more than $1 million—that's 14 different markets—all but two are located in California. And almost all of those California markets are centered around Silicon Valley.
That wasn't always the case. "One of the trends we’ve seen over the last few years is a shift," Huskey says. "You still have a high concentration of the least affordable markets within California, but historically they’ve been in Southern California. Now the majority are in Northern California."
Cleveland, the most affordable market in the nation (at a hair shy of $65,000 for a home for a family of four) is "absolutely moving in the right direction," Huskey says. The city is undergoing a revival, he adds. But what about the markets moving in what many might call the wrong direction—like San Mateo, California, where a $1.1 million four-bedroom home counts as modest for the area?
"We recognize that in some of the markets there simply isn’t the availability of land. Land prices are extremely expensive, or you’re doing a redevelopment, which is even more expensive," Huskey says. "Secondly, so many builders dropped out in the industry, the ones that remain, they’re going to concentrate their direction—as would any business—on the area that provides the highest margin."
Over the last few years, the Bay Area and Silicon Valley has seen a tremendous creation of additional wealth. Those with assets find themselves in the position to move even higher within the luxury realm that has dominated new construction. Builders in the Bay Area are largely working to satisfy this demand and maximize their return. But that's starting to change, not just in San Francisco but nationwide.
"You’re starting to see the top end, not just prices at the real luxury sector, even in that middle sector, prices and margins start to top out and trim off," Huskey says. "For builders to expand and grow in the future, they’re now going to have to start moving down into lower-priced product with reduced margins and have to go back to more of the volume in order to make the numbers."
That's good news for some of the more affordable housing markets. As institutional buyers and all-cash purchases ease up—something Huskey and others in the housing industry now predict—a return to a focus on volume may augur more first-time home purchases for renters who can afford mortgages but not purchases. Or that larger home purchase for an expanding family.
But volume is a problem in San Francisco: Even if the market could soon bear class-B housing construction, for example, existing homeowners, the incumbents in San Francisco's political debates over housing, are broadly rejecting any efforts to increase the city's housing stock. In this environment, there isn't a way to provide affordable housing for families without an active government at the local, state, and federal levels subsidizing the costs. That political will does not exist.
"At what point do you start to have some additional incentives that are focused on affordable housing?" Huskey says. "I'm not so sure, given our recent direction, that the chances of that occurring are increasing."