A view of new residential buildings under construction in the Hudson Yards development, August 16, 2016, in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Perhaps nothing thrills mayors and urban boosters like the notion of endless towers rising above their city centers. And to be sure, new high-rise residential construction has been among the hottest areas for real estate investors, particularly those from abroad, with high-end products accounting for 8o% of all new construction.
Yet this is not an entirely high-end country, and these products, particularly the luxury high-rises in cities, largely depend on a small segment of the population that can afford such digs.
No surprise, then, that we see reports of declining prices in areas as attractive as New York, Miami, and San Francisco, where a weakening tech market is beginning to erode prices, much as occurred in the 2000 tech bust, John Burns Real Estate Consulting notes. There have been big jumps in the number of expired and withdrawn condo listings, particularly at the high end; last year, San Francisco saw a 128% spike in the number of withdrawn or expired listings for condos over $1.5 million.
Several factors suggest the high-rise residential boom is over, including a growing recognition that these structures do little to relieve the housing affordability crisis facing middle-class residents, the inevitable aging of millennials and their shift to suburbs and less expensive cities, and the impending withdrawal of some major foreign investors who have come to dominate the market in many cities.
Cost And Affordability
One common refrain among housing advocates and politicians is that high-rise construction is a solution to the problem of housing affordability. The causes of the problem, however, are principally prohibitions on urban fringe development of starter homes. Critics also note that high-rises in urban neighborhoods often replace older buildings, which are generally more affordable.
One big problem: High-density housing is far more expensive to build. Gerard Mildner, the academic director of the Center for Real Estate at Portland State University, notes that development of a building of more than five stories requires rents approximately two and a half times those from the development of garden apartments. Even higher construction costs are reported in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the cost of townhouse development per square foot can double that of detached houses (excluding land costs) and units in high-rise condominium buildings can cost up to seven and a half times as much.
Almost without exception, then, the most expensive areas are precisely those that have the most high-rise buildings: New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Miami. More to the point, these buildings don’t tend to be occupied by middle-class, much less working-class, families. And in many cases, these units are not people’s actual homes; in New York, as many as 60% of new luxury units are not primary residences, leaving many unoccupied at any given time.
Even worse, a high-density strategy tends to raise the price of surrounding real estate. As Tim Redmond, a veteran San Francisco journalist, points out, luxury apartments often tend to be built in areas with older, more affordable buildings. The notion that simply building more of an expensive product helps keep prices down elsewhere misses the distinction between markets; the high-rises in Washington, DC, are not the affordable units that the vast majority of city residents need.
Other cities favored by luxury developers – like Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle and San Francisco – have also seen deteriorating affordability and, in some cases, a mass exodus of middle- and working-class residents, particularly minorities. San Francisco’s black population, for example, is roughly half of what it was in 1970. In the nation’s whitest major city, Portland, African-Americans are being driven out of the urban core by high-density gentrification, partly supported by city funding. Similar phenomena can be seen in Seattle and Boston, where long-existing black communities are gradually disappearing.
The New Demography Works Against This Trend
It is common in retro-urbanist circles to maintain that more Americans, particularly younger ones, will opt to remain customers for ever-greater density, a preference that could sustain an ever-growing market for high-rises. Yet that notion may be past its sell-by date, with demographic evidence suggesting that most Americans, including younger ones, are looking less for an apartment in the sky than for a house with a little backyard.
Suburbs, consigned to the dustbin of history by many urban boosters, are back. Demographer Jed Kolko, analyzing the most recent Census Bureau numbers, suggests that population growth in most big cities now lags that of their suburbs, which have accounted for more than 80% of metropolitan growth since 2011. Even where the urban core renaissance has been most prominent, there are ominous signs. The population growth rate for Brooklyn and Manhattan fell nearly 90% from 2010-11 to 2015-16.
The real trend in migration is to sprawling, heavily suburbanized areas, particularly in the Sun Belt. To be sure, there are high-rises in most of these markets – quite a gusher of them in Austin, for instance – but the growth in all these regions is overwhelmingly suburban.
The most critical factor over time may be the aging of millennials. Among those under 35 who do buy homes, four-fifths choose single-family detached houses, a form found most often in suburbs. Surveys consistently find that most millennials see suburbs as the ideal place to live in the long run. According to a recent National Homebuilders Association report, more than 66%, including those living in cities, would actually prefer a house in the suburbs.
The largely anecdotal media accounts of millennial lifestyles conflict with reality, Kolko notes. Although younger Millennials have tended toward core cities more than previous generations, the website FiveThirtyEight notes that those ages 30-44 are actually moving to suburban locales more than in the past.
The China Syndrome
Given the limits of the domestic market, the luxury high-rise sector depends heavily on foreign investors. Already, harder times for some traditional investors – Russians and Brazilians, for example – have hurt the Miami market, long attractive to overseas buyers. There is now three years’ worth of inventory of luxury high-rises there, with areas such as Edgewater, Midtown and the A&E District suffering an incredibly high inventory of seven and a half years. Miami Beach is faring a bit better but is still a buyer’s market at a little over two years of inventory.
Still, the greatest threat to the luxury high-rise market may come from the Far East, the region of the world with the most surplus capital and, given the rapidly aging society, often the fewest profitable places to put it. Korea and Japan have lots of money sitting around looking for a home. Japan and its companies, according to World Bank data, are hoarding more than $2 trillion in unused liquid assets.
But as in all things East Asian, China stands apart. Last year, the country had a record of $725 billion in capital outflows, according to the Institute of International Finance. China is now the largest foreign investor in US real estate.
But now the Chinese government has placed strong controls on these investments, which could leave some places vulnerable. In Downtown Los Angeles, according to local brokers, many of the new high-rise towers are marketed primarily in China. (LA claims to have the second-highest number of cranes, behind only Seattle.)
These expensive units are far out of reach for the younger people who tend to inhabit the neighborhood, instead of serving as what one executive called “vertical safe deposit boxes” for people trying to get their money out of China. If the new crackdown on such investments is strongly enforced, this could leave a lot of expensive units without buyers. Prices have already softened, and with several new luxury buildings coming up, Downtown is likely to experience a glut.
Even in Manhattan, another market long dependent on foreign investment, projects are now stalled, including some once-hot properties in Midtown that are delaying their sales launches. Overall sales of condos over $4 million dropped 18% last year from the high levels of the previous three years. The ultra-premium market for condos over $10 million saw a 5% sales decrease in 2016.
The current slowdown, and perhaps longer-term stabilization, could lead to lower rates of migration out of the expensive cores. Yet this trend is not likely to reverse the movement of younger people to less dense areas. Luxury high-rise units were not built for families, and they are often located in areas with poor schools and limited open space. They may simply become high-priced rentals, attractive no doubt to childless professionals but not to middle- and working-class families.
In the end, the real need is not for more luxury towers. What is needed, particularly in America’s cities, from the urban core to the urban fringe, is the kind of housing middle- and working-class families can afford.
Some of the markets that had gone down significantly have registered great price improvements, especially between Q1 2012 to Q3 2013. Phoenix led the pack followed closely by Las Vegas and many California cities. Florida has provided steady appreciation but did not go crazy (most likely due to the slow judicial foreclosure process which modulates home supply into the market and helps avoid spikes).
We are excited! ICG Real Estate Investments (International Capital Group) are going up to Seattle to put on a mini-version of our quarterly Real Estate 1-Day Expo that is usually held near SFO in South San Francisco. As most of you know, we have been doing these expos for 20 years and there is always so much information. I personally return home more knowledgeable every time, as everything in real estate and real estate investing changes weekly, if not daily it seems. I am putting information about his event in a blog, as I want to share it with many new people as possible, and I know I will be connecting with many new folks on LinkedIn as well.
I have not spoken in the area for about six years, and it is going to be great to re-connect with so many that I used to connect with on a continual basis. Building relationships is what we are about and the excitement is mounting! It will be like a family reunion. (Hopefully, that is a pleasant thought to most of you!) Based on demand we are looking forward to two evenings, which will allow folks to attend twice or pick a day that works best for their schedule.
These two evenings will not be easily forgotten, and we are available to talk before or after and even during the events, as well as meeting over the phone, well after the event. The Mini Real Estate Expo (s) is a great way to start out the new year with hard-hitting information you can use to be a better investor. This action-packed event will be held from 6-9:30 pm on two nights, Wednesday, February 5th and Thursday, February 6th. This way, busy Seattleites have two options to work the event into their schedule. Many of you requested that I have the event in two different locations for added convenience, so we have provided that. You can also come to both nights if you desire!
Patricia Wangsness and Adiel Gorel will be the expert presenters, and you will hear from expert loan sources and learn from market teams across the country that will be flying in to tell you about the hottest markets and the proven methods to use for success. Here is a taste of what you can expect:
- How to identify the best markets for investments
- How to invest when you are “too busy to invest” (step-by-step)
- Learn how your properties can be rented and managed well from afar
- Pay for your children’s college education using real estate (or for your own education)
- Secure a powerful retirement using real estate
- How to benefit from recession prices in 2014, and where to do it
- Learn how to acquire loans you did not know you could get
- How to benefit from special market situations few people know about and how to use it to your advantage
- There are ways to successfully own multiple properties and manage them–we will show you how
There will be extensive Q & A time. There will also be teams there in person to meet with you one-on-one; they will also be speaking about the hottest markets in the U.S.
This will be one of the premier networking events in 2014 so far!
Date and location of the mini expos:
- Wednesday, February 5, 2014 – Redmond Marriott Town Center – 7401 164th Ave. NE, Redmond
Phone: (425) 498-4000
- Thursday, February 6, 2014 – Verity Credit Union in Northgate – 11027 Meridian Ave. N Suite 102
Seattle, Phone: (206) 440-9000
Any additional questions about the venues or if you have trouble on the day of the event, please call our public relations pro, Lynette Hoy on her cell (415) 694-3004 or at her office in the Seattle area (206) 455-9366. Lynette will be at both events, so please call her cell phone between 4-9: 30 pm on those nights if you need assistance.
Look forward to seeing you there. I can’t wait!
Mr. Timiraos says:
Prices have risen largely because of shortages of homes for sale. While there is growing evidence that inventories hit bottom last year and that some markets are moving back in favor of buyers, the number of homes for sale remains relatively tight still. Foreclosure-related listings have plunged, and traditional buyers haven’t flocked to list homes—at least not yet. New construction, meanwhile, won’t be back to normal historical levels for years. The consensus view is that price growth continues at a somewhat slower pace, but that consensus view could be wrong—for the third year in a row—if there aren’t more homes for sale.
2. WHERE IS THE HOME-CONSTRUCTION RECOVERY?
While home prices have recovered strongly, new construction activity hasn’t. Part of this may have to do with the fact that home prices are still too low to justify construction, particularly given land, labor, and materials costs. For smaller builders, credit may also be harder to come by. Some economists say new-home demand could remain muted because many move-up buyers don’t have enough equity to “trade up” to that new home. Key issues to watch here: What happens to household formation, and do builders begin to throttle back price gains in favor of selling more homes in 2014?
3. WHAT HAPPENS TO MORTGAGE CREDIT?
Lenders could begin to ease certain “overlays”—or additional credit and documentation checks—that have been imposed over the past few years. Mortgage insurance companies are getting more comfortable insuring loans with down payments of just 5%. So don’t be surprised if, at the margins, it gets a little easier to get a mortgage—especially if you have lots of money in the bank.
Even if it gets easier to get a loan—by no means a given—borrowing costs and fees could rise. Banks also face new mortgage regulations that could keep most of them cautious. Borrowers with more volatile or harder-to-document incomes, including the self-employed or those who make a lot of money on commissions, bonuses, or tips, could continue to face tough sledding.
4. WHAT WILL INVESTORS DO WITH THEIR HOMES?
A handful of institutional investors have purchased tens of thousands of homes that are being rented out. These homes tend to be concentrated in a few of the regions that have been hardest-hit by foreclosures over the past five years. Investor purchases played key roles in stabilizing prices, especially because investors were wolfing up homes at a time when supplies were already dwindling. A key question now is what happens after the initial rush to invest subsides. More lenders and investors are extending debt financing to some of these property owners, which should help boost returns. Can owners perfect the expense management associated with maintaining and leasing tens of thousands of individual homes?
Can owners perfect the expense management associated with maintaining and leasing tens of thousands of individual homes?
5. WHEN DOES HOUSING HIT A TIPPING POINT ON AFFORDABILITY?
Rising home prices are a double-edged sword, especially in pricier coastal markets such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. On the one hand, rising prices are giving many homeowners equity in their homes again—an extremely positive development to the extent it means these borrowers are less at risk of foreclosure.
But price inflation is making housing less affordable. This will be a bigger problem if cash buyers retreat from the market in 2014 and/or if interest rates rise in a meaningful way. Consider: In Los Angeles, prices have jumped by nearly 30% in the past two years, to a median of $448,900 in the third quarter. Assuming a 20% down payment, the monthly payment of principal and interest on the median-priced home has jumped from $1,255 in the third quarter of 2011 to $1,823 in 2013—a 45% increase.
In a recent article written by Kenneth Harney in the Los Angeles Times, we learn that four million homeowners are no longer “underwater” on their loans. As many of us know, a good number of these homes may be investor-owned. Obviously, this is good news for the economy at large.
It is also good news for real estate investors — if someone is in the process of foreclosure, rising prices lower the deficiency exposure for the individual (this is true for homeowners as well as investors, of course). In addition, investors with clean credit can use the rising equity to refinance and get the great rates that can be obtained today, and in many cases improve their cash flow (possibly) quite significantly.
4 million homeowners climb out of negative equity
WASHINGTON — The economy may be growing at a frustratingly slow pace, but one piece of it is booming: American homeowners’ equity holdings — the market value of their houses minus their mortgage debts — soared by nearly $2.1 trillion last year to $10 trillion.
Big numbers, you say, and hard to grasp. But look at it this way: Thanks to rising prices and equity levels, about 4 million owners around the country last year were able to climb out of the financial tar pit of the housing bust — negative equity.
So when 4 million owners manage to transition out of negative equity into positive territory, that’s significant news not just for them personally, but for the economy overall.
The second study, from real estate analytics firm CoreLogic, focused on the flip side — the impressive shrinkage of negative equity. According to researchers, nearly 43 million owners with mortgage debt have positive equity. Roughly 6.5 million owners are still in negative equity positions, however, down from more than 10 million a year ago and 12 million in 2009.