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Real Estate Research provided analysis of topical research and current issues in the fields of housing and real estate economics. Authors for the blog included the Atlanta Fed's Jessica Dill, Kristopher Gerardi, Carl Hudson, and analysts, as well as the Boston Fed's Christopher Foote and Paul Willen.

In December 2020, content from Real Estate Research became part of Policy Hub. Future articles will be released in Policy Hub: Macroblog.

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July 13, 2020

What's Being Done to Help Renters during the Pandemic?

As we pointed out in our most recent post, the principal policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. mortgage market has been forbearance. Support for renters, on the other hand, has been much less widespread. Now that states and cities have received CARES Act funds, allocation strategies are starting to surface (for example, hereOff-site link and hereOff-site link). A common element among these strategies is the formation of emergency assistance funds for renters.

While household income most certainly will be considered in qualifying renter households for aid, other factors—like household cost burden and property type—may serve not only to channel funds to those feeling the economic effect of COVID-19, but also to help municipalities preserve their limited stock of affordable housing units. In this post, we attempt to provide greater insight on the types of affected households with the goal of helping policymakers design a relief program that reaches households most in need.

Vulnerable households
New York University's Furman Center looked at New York City householdsOff-site link and identified those that were likely to have members in occupations vulnerable to job layoffs. We applied the Furman Center methodology to national 2018 American Community Survey data and found that 37.8 percent of all U.S. households may be vulnerable to COVID-19-related income loss (we'll refer to these as vulnerable households). As chart 1 shows, the 34.3 million households vulnerable to COVID-related job loss span the income spectrum.

chart 01 of 02: All households vulnerable to COVID-19-related job loss

The majority of vulnerable households are owner occupied (58.4 percent, or 20 million). Moreover, these vulnerable owner-occupied households tend to have incomes greater than $50,000 per year, live in single-family homes, and are less likely to have been cost-burdened1 going into the COVID-19 downturn. As we noted above, the vast majority of these owner-occupied vulnerable households have access to relief via widespread mortgage forbearance.

Honing in on the estimated 14.3 million vulnerable renter-occupied households, we see a more concerning picture emerge (see chart 2). Renter-occupied households vulnerable to COVID-related job loss also span the income distribution. Strikingly, though not surprisingly, the share of renter-occupied households that cost-burdened and vulnerable is disproportionately concentrated at the bottom of the income distribution. Put differently, 86 percent of the cost-burdened and vulnerable renter-occupied households (that is, the dark blue shaded portion of chart 2) earn less than $50,000. In other words, going into the COVID-19 downturn, the lower-income renter-occupied households who were employed in occupations most likely to suffer wage disruptions were already stretched thin and spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs.

chart 02 of 02: Renter households vulnerable to COVID-19-related job loss

In contrast to the picture for all vulnerable households, cost-burdened and vulnerable renter households are more likely to reside in properties with fewer than 50 units.

Small and medium multifamily housing units and affordability
Rent shortfalls in single-family rental properties and rental properties with 2–49 units are particularly worrisome because these properties are more likely to be owned by "mom-and-pop" investors and not institutional investors, according to a May 26 Joint Center for Housing Studies postOff-site link. Mom-and-pop investors may not have the financial cushion necessary to weather the shortfall and cover ongoing costs, in turn making these properties more likely to become distressed and be sold.

Importantly, a paper by An et al.Off-site link has established that, controlling for important differences, properties with 2–49 units often sell at a discount compared to single-family properties and properties with 50 or more units, thus making them a source of unsubsidized affordable housing.2 For this reason, it seems clear that directing rental assistance to these vulnerable households below the $50,000 income threshold living in properties with 2–49 units would target those most in need of assistance. Moreover, such targeting could preserve the already-insufficient supply of affordable units and prevent a greater deficit. It seems clear that directing rental assistance to these vulnerable households below the $50,000 income threshold living in properties with 2–49 units would target those most in need of assistance. Moreover, such targeting could preserve the already-insufficient supply of affordable units and prevent a greater deficit.

States and municipalities across the U.S. are still in the process of trying to understand (1) how many households are suffering from lost wages due to COVID-19, (2) how much financial support is needed to help these households weather the storm, and (3) what is an equitable way to design the relief program so that it reaches households most in need? Much of the research we've cited in this post can provide insight into the number of households and the required degree of financial support.

While evidence suggests that the one-time stimulus checks and expanded unemployment insurance benefits under the CARES Act have helped households meet their obligations (see this June 17 reportOff-site link from the Urban Institute and this May 27 macroblog for more in-depth discussion), there are concerns about the balance sheets of households and impending housing market distress when these benefits expire. Of particular concern are renter households with members who are in occupations vulnerable to job layoffs—especially given that many areas are slowing or reversing the pace of reopening. The emergency rental assistance funds that cities are designing will likely serve as an important backstop for many rental households. Because the number of renter households in need of support will undoubtedly exceed the amount of funds that have been earmarked to support them, a strategic response may very well be one that directs the funds to households demonstrating the greatest need, and doing so would also work to preserve a limited stock of affordable units.

Though we provide a national-level snapshot in this post, this analysis can easily be tailored to finer levels of geography. In future posts, we will take a closer look at several of the largest cities in the Atlanta Fed's Sixth District to provide estimates for the number of vulnerable households while spotlighting similarities and differences in the distributions of the affected population.

1 [back] A household is considered cost-burdened if it spends more than 30 percent of its monthly income on housing costs (including utilities).

2 [back] B. Y. An, R. W. Bostic, A. Jakabovics, A. Orlando, and S. Rodnyansky, "Why Are Small and Medium Multifamily Properties So Inexpensive?Off-site link" Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics (2019).

March 2, 2018

Tax Reform's Effect on Low-Income Housing

The recently enacted Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 substantially reduced corporate taxes, from 35 percent to 21 percent. Some commentators and practitioners have voiced concerns about how the new tax law will affect demand for Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), America's primary mechanism for producing new or refurbished affordable housing units. According to Dawn Luke, chief operating officer with Invest Atlanta, the lowering of the corporate tax rate continues to present challenges to the market in terms of LIHTC pricing, with credit prices being lowered by as much as 16 cents on the dollar for projects in the near-term pipeline. Luke says this means that several affordable housing projects could become bottlenecked as developers scramble to find subsidy to fill this gap. In addition, this firm expects that declining demand for LIHTCs will generate 20,000 fewer low-income housing units a year, a roughly 15 percent decline.

It's worth taking a few moments to review how the LIHTC actually works. The LIHTC program, created as part of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, allows developers to receive tax credits in exchange for committing to rent their units for 30 years to households earning less than 50 to 60 percent of the area's median income. Private developers apply to receive an LIHTC subsidy through their state housing authorities, and are allocated a subsidy equal to a percentage of construction and eligible soft costs. Developers awarded an allocation receive a 10-year annuity of nonrefundable tax credits that they can use to offset positive future federal income tax liability. For example, through the program, the developer of a $10 million apartment building could receive up to $1.17 million a year for 10 years. (This assumes that, to receive a basis boost, the developer would receive a 9 percent allocation and the project would be located in either a sufficiently low-income neighborhood or a high-rent metro area.)

Due to the rental restrictions, it is virtually impossible for LIHTC properties themselves to generate enough tax liability to claim the full value of allocated tax credits, so developers need to have either sufficient other federal income tax to offset or the income tax of a limited partner. These outside investors, usually organized through a partnership called syndication, would contribute a fixed dollar amount to the developer upon completion of the subsidized property in exchange for 99.9 percent of the equity, including allocated tax credits, of the project.

The allocated tax credits themselves offer a dollar-for-dollar reduction in future tax liability, so changing the corporate tax rate does not directly reduce their statutory value. So why might the after-market value of the credits fall with the new tax law?

First, the recent tax cuts reduce the pool of firms with sufficient tax liability. If a business has less tax liability than it has tax credits, that business would effectively leave money on the table. The business would have to at least wait until it had enough tax liability to claim the subsidy. Several past investors in LIHTC properties, including Fannie Mae, learned firsthand how illiquid their LIHTC investment actually was after the 2008 financial crisis. With the lower corporate rate and other favorable provisions that are coming out of the new tax law, some firms that previously may have found the investment profitable may well reconsider.

Even firms that expect to have large profits may now have greater uncertainty about their future taxes as they work through the 1,100-page bill. The increased risk could cause firms to value less any future reductions in their tax liability.

The owner of an LIHTC project, like owners of all residential buildings, gets to deduct the building’s depreciation over a 27.5-year schedule. These depreciation allowances, coupled with LIHTC rental restrictions and relatively high operation costs due to compliance with those restrictions, often result in large expected tax losses that go beyond the allocated tax credits. For example, the $10 million apartment building mentioned above would be expected to generate more than $290,000 in depreciation allowances a year that outside investors not limited by passive-loss restrictions (such as C corporations) could use to offset other taxable income. The reduction in the corporate rate from 35 percent to 21 percent would lead to about a $626,000 decrease in outside investors’ willingness to pay developers for those deductions under reasonable assumptions. (A potential headache is that depreciaton allowances are subject to recapture if the project is eventually sold for more than tax basis. This provision rarely needs to be enforced.) This represents a 5.9 percent reduction in the overall valuation of the investment, which could require additional debt on the property and perhaps make some projects no longer feasible.

At the same time, lower taxes should expand the supply of market-rate housing. Only a small fraction of low-income households occupies newly built, rent-capped homes produced under the LIHTC. Most of these households use their own earnings or HUD vouchers to pay the market rents for older, existing apartments. A recent study by Stuart Rosenthal in the American Economic Review showed that while newly constructed units are often unaffordable for most households, they eventually supply the majority of future low-income affordable housing. This "filtering down" occurs as a result of physical depreciation or shifts in style or location preferences. If lower taxes generate new market-rate construction—and thus increase the aggregate supply of housing—these lower taxes should lower rents throughout the market or increase landlord participation in HUD voucher programs.

Eriksen and Lang suggest two changes to the LIHTC program that would increase the supply of affordable housing produced under the program without increasing tax expenditures. The first, and most immediate, would be simply to make the allocated tax credits through the LIHTC program refundable, because uncertainty about future tax liabilities reduces both the pool of otherwise eligible investors and the market value of allocated tax credits. Making this change would also give some developers at least the option of claiming the credit themselves rather being forced to partner with outside investors. The second change would allow developers to claim an actuarially equivalent subsidy over a shorter time period than the currently required 10 years. Developers and LIHTC investors are thought to have a much higher cost of capital than the federal government. In the extreme, allowing developers to claim the full value of refundable tax credits when projects are completed would give them the greatest flexibility in financing their projects.

Increasing the supply of housing affordable to low-income families could be achieved using other policies that focus on reducing other barriers to increasing housing production, like state and local zoning laws that limit the location and density of multifamily housing. A bill working its way through the California legislature would appear to be in this spirit.

Cunninghamc Chris Cunningham is a research economist and associate policy adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta; Mike Eriksen is associate professor of real estate in the Linder College of Business at the University of Cincinnati.

The views expressed here represent those of the authors and not the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta or the Federal Reserve System.

November 23, 2016

Commercial Construction Update: Third-Quarter 2016

The Atlanta Fed's Center for Real Estate Analytics conducts a quarterly commercial construction poll to keep a finger on the pulse of the industry as it relates to the performance of the economy. In this post, we will discuss a few of the more interesting results from our third-quarter poll. To view all of the results, please visit the Construction and Real Estate Survey web page.

Pace of multifamily construction appears to be slowing
After several years with most incoming reports indicating that the pace of multifamily construction activity had increased from the year-earlier level, it seemed noteworthy that indications from contacts were much more mixed in the third-quarter report. Half of respondents noted that activity had increased from the year-ago level, but the rest indicated that activity was flat to down.

These reports seem to align with the incoming Census Bureau data on multifamily starts through November 17, which, when aggregated to a quarterly frequency, reveal a slight decline (-6.2 percent) from the year-earlier level.

Available finance perceived to be sufficient to meet demand
Since about the second quarter of 2013, the majority of our commercial construction contacts have indicated that the amount of available commercial construction finance has been sufficient to meet demand. Interestingly, the share reporting that credit was insufficient to meet demand spiked in the first quarter of 2016 and remained high into the second quarter. The reports from our commercial construction contacts seemed to align closely with the results of the April and July Federal Reserve Board's Senior Loan Officer Opinion Survey (SLOOS) on the lending environment in the first and second quarters. The survey suggested that banks had tightened their standards for commercial real estate loans.

Interestingly, the most recent survey results deviated from the SLOOS. The share of contacts in our commercial construction poll that indicated credit was insufficient to meet demand continued to drop in the third quarter despite the fact that results from the October 2016 SLOOS indicated that banks continued to tighten their standards for commercial real estate loans. Granted, our commercial construction poll and the SLOOS pose slightly different questions to different types of respondents, but the divergence in results that have typically trended in a similar fashion seems notable nonetheless.

More hiring on the horizon?
Each quarter, we poll our contacts about their hiring plans. The majority (74 percent) in the third quarter indicated that their fourth-quarter hiring plans entail increasing head count by a modest to significant amount. This increase is more or less consistent with the entire history of responses; most respondents have always indicated their hiring plans were flat to up.

The last time such a large fraction of respondents indicated they had plans to increase their head count was more than two years ago, back in the second quarter of 2014. Since a large share of respondents answered the same way, can this be taken as a signal that hiring will indeed increase in the coming quarter? To investigate, we charted quarterly figures for construction new hires using the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey to get a sense for what happened the last time contacts overwhelmingly indicated they had plans to increase hiring and used markers to call attention to second- and third-quarter figures of 2014.

It appears the number of construction hires did in fact increase between the second and third quarters that year, so perhaps this most recent result will serve as a leading indicator. We will keep an eye on this series to see if there is an increase in the number of construction hires in the fourth quarter of 2016.