Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Different Housing Crisis

Here is a hint of a different dimension of the crisis -- not a main cause, but something that could be significant.

When we would drive through West Virginia back in the late 50s & early 60s, I was struck by the unemployed coal miners sitting on their porches. Their houses were quite nice, but nobody wanted to buy them because the economy was dead.

Later, my brother moved to Youngstown, Ohio after then steel mills had shut down. I remember when he called me bemoaning that a tornado missed his home by only a few hundred yards. At the time, arson was the most important industry in the town.

Theoretically, we might expect that many people would respond to unemployment by searching for better opportunities. But the steelworkers in Youngstown and the coal miners in West Virginia would take such a large capital loss in selling their homes if they chose to relocate.

Later, I read an article that seemed to validate my intuition.

Andrew Oswald's proposed that home ownership was the most reasonable explanation for differences in unemployment rates between countries. The scatter graph has a very impressive fit.

Oswald, Andrew J. 1999. "The Housing Market and Europe's Unemployment: A Non-Technical Paper."

A new census report found that the rate at which people change their residences has declined. Perhaps someone will investigate the interaction between the downturn in mobility and the effect on the pace of recovery.

Here is the New York Times' take on the subject.

Roberts, Sam. 2009. "Slump Creates Lack of Mobility for Americans." New York Times (23 April): p. A 1.

"Stranded by the nationwide slump in housing and jobs, fewer Americans are moving, the Census Bureau said Wednesday. The bureau found that the number of people who changed residences declined to 35.2 million from March 2007 to March 2008, the lowest number since 1962, when the nation had 120 million fewer people."

"Experts said the lack of mobility was of concern on two fronts. It suggests that Americans were unable or unwilling to follow any job opportunities that may have existed around the country, as they have in the past. And the lack of movement itself, they said, could have an impact on the economy, reducing the economic activity generated by moves."

"Joseph S. Tracy, research director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said the lack of mobility meant less income for movers and the people they employ and less spending on renovation and on durable goods like appliances. But, Dr. Tracy said, the most troubling prospect is that people were no longer able to relocate for work. "The thing that would be of deeper concern is if job-related moves are getting suppressed and workers are not getting re-sorted to the jobs that best use their skills," he said. "As the labor market started to improve, if mobility stays low, you can worry about the allocation of workers"."

"The American Moving and Storage Association said the number of people changing residences had been dropping for four years and fell 17.7 percent from 2007 to 2008. The first quarter of 2009 is likely to be even worse, the trade group said. "We saw a standstill in new home construction, so there was no domino effect from people moving," John Bisney, a spokesman, said. "People are a little nervous about getting a mortgage. And the recession is so broad-based it's not as if you can pull up stakes and move to a part of the country that's growing." Jed Smith, a research director for the National Association of Realtors, said that on average it took a homeowner 10.5 months to sell a house in 2008 compared with 8.9 months in 2007."

"In its report Wednesday, the Census Bureau said that Americans' mobility rate, which has been declining for decades, fell to 11.9 percent in 2008, down from 13.2 percent the year before and setting a post-World War II record low. Moves between states dropped the most, to half the rate recorded at the beginning of this decade."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Desperation plays a big part here.

Some people are just waling away from homes in areas where they see no opportunity. . .

And this is entirely anecdotal, but I remember being told that labor mobility was also slowed in european countries with strong support unemployment benefits. If the coal miner in sweden (do they have coal in sweden?) may not have any desire to move even if they rent, if they are collecting 90% of their pay in unemployment.