The Philadelphia-area economy is reopening from our pandemic disaster, but one big door is remaining shut for a group who don’t deserve it: people of modest means who are looking, after the economic damage of the last year, for the financial stability of buying a first home.
The housing market is a mess. A frenzy of bidding wars is happening across price points, fueled by a profane undersupply of houses for sale. On the higher-income end, losers in the hunt include $800,000 bidders in multiple-offer throw-downs, and middle-class buyers hoping to upgrade from starter homes.
But it is would-be first-time buyers further below on the economic ladder who should have most of our attention. Policymakers must take heed and help.
They are the people who need houses to begin building wealth. People already disproportionately battered by the pandemic. They are being iced out even in starter suburbs where $150,000 rowhouses or twins historically had been accessible for years.
Homes in this range are selling for many thousands of dollars over asking. Bidding wars involve five, six, or more would-be buyers. The losers tend to be renters who, unlike existing homeowners, are more cash-strapped and require help from sellers to cover closing costs.
What is unfolding in this twisted housing market is a travesty after a hellish year of pandemic illness, death, and economic lockdown. People should not have to beg for a house in places like Yeadon, Glenolden, Colwyn, but that is what has been happening in these stepping-stone communities in Delaware County, whose dense, modest stock of homes is a staple of what also is the highest-poverty county of the four suburbs surrounding Philadelphia.
Opportunity is drying up in communities that long have been an engine of advancement for people not already swimming in wealth.
“It is unforgiving,” Realtor Al Perry said of buyers in the starter-home suburbs of Philadelphia. “You have to have the right stomach for this.”
Perry lives in Ridley Park. And while his Century 21 offices are in Philadelphia and suburbs farther away, he and his agents have seen the crush given that 40% of the houses they buy and sell are outside Philadelphia and many are in the $195,000 range. He works in Ridley, Glenolden, Prospect Park, Folsom, and Sharon Hill beyond Philadelphia along the Delaware River.
“In a normal year you used to be able to get a nice twin for $100,000 — definitely $125,000 would have been a handsome budget,” said the vice president with the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors.
But what is playing out nationally this year is a freakishly low supply of houses on the market. It’s been in the making for years but is now so severe that few can recall a precedent. Even after the global financial crash gave way to the Great Recession of 2007-09, the problem wasn’t with supply, it was with flimsy mortgages helping fuel a market crash through defaults that left many homeowners in financial tatters.
“Last year, and here’s an example from Montgomery County, we had 1,800 homes for sale in May 2020. This year it’s 612,” said Coldwell Banker Hearthside associate broker Vincent Range, an 18-year veteran who is chairman-elect of Tri-County Suburban Realtors in Malvern. “Everyone’s got upset buyers.”
Who are those losing out in Perry’s neck of the woods? He described them as a combination of white, Black, Asian, and either working-class or middle-class buyers.
They cannot even dabble in the market, it seems, without being in the $150,000 range — and they must have cash to maneuver well beyond asking prices that are soaring.
Usually, buyers in this range would be able to persuade sellers to carve a small percentage of the agreed-upon sale price as a give-back. A few thousand dollars earmarked to helping the buyers cover closing costs — what is known as a “seller’s assist.”
No one, however, is entertaining that at all this year because a $4,500 assist, for instance, means taking a slice off a sale price that someone else will be standing in line to pay with cash.
“The kiss of death,” as Perry described the assist this year.
Economist Mark Zandi with Moody’s Analytics in West Chester has sounded the alarm on this broadly. When he and I spoke, he explained how brutal the market is right now for lower-income Americans, and how that intersects with race and ethnicity.
Before the historic crash that caused a prolonged recession 14 years ago, the Black homeownership rate had reached about 50%. Today, many years later, it remains depressed at 42%. For Hispanic homeowners, that number is 50%. The white homeownership rate is 75%, according to Zandi.
Buying a house can make the difference between living paycheck-to-paycheck and finally being able to save some of what you earn. Renters nationwide, Zandi said, are able to save only an average of $500 a year.
“Homeownership is key to wealth-building,” he said. “It’s the primary asset for most households. Particularly lower-income households, and it’s really the only way to build wealth. If you can’t get into homeownership you can’t build wealth and you’ll be financially insecure. It goes to the racial equity issue.”
Forecasts are dim that the forbiddingly low supply will change much in the months ahead, or that prices may ease even as supply grows. Policymakers must intervene.
This is a five-alarm crisis.
Giving up on buying a starter home today may only make things worse for people not living on lavish incomes. Rents are soaring as more buyers are finding it impossible to secure an agreement of sale. And that could cost them dearly.
“They will be paying a rental premium because the rents are going up,” Range said. “And that will be taking money out their pockets, instead of saving it to buy a home.”