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Volume 12, Issue 1, 2012   Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas

Patterns and Trends of Housing Affordability in Texas

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, it is critical to reexamine the definition of what is affordable to a homebuyer and how the measures of housing affordability play out for average households in Texas and the United States.

“Affordable housing” has a variety of meanings depending on the source and the purpose of analysis. Some measures focus on overall market affordability, while others derive from individuals’ ability to meet housing expenses. Here, we use the phrase to describe the ability of households with median incomes to qualify for and reasonably afford owner-occupied housing in their communities.

According to the widely used U.S. Housing and Urban Development and Census Bureau definitions, housing is affordable if the unit’s costs do not exceed 30 percent of a household’s income. Included in expense calculations are mortgage payments, taxes, insurance and utilities. If housing expenses represent 50 percent or more of a household’s annual income, that household is said to have a severe housing cost burden. The origin of these thresholds is rooted in national housing legislation dating back to the National Housing Act of 1937.[1] Figure 1 is a snapshot of the percentage of U.S. and Texas metropolitan-area homeowners with housing cost burdens as defined by the Census Bureau. On average, Texas has a lower percentage of homeowners who are housing-cost burdened.

Taking a closer look, we compare the maximum house price for which a median-income household qualifies with the actual median house price in a given area. Figure 2 shows these data for four Texas metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in 2010. Austin–Round Rock has the largest gap between how much house the median area income can afford and the median house price available.

The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Opportunity Index (HOI), another measure of affordability, represents the share of homes affordable to those with median incomes in a given region. The cost calculations are derived from records of regional monthly home sales prices, estimated property taxes, property insurance and interest rates, assuming a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage with a 10 percent down payment. This measure uses a standard of 28 percent of a household’s gross income to estimate affordability. Figure 3 shows the HOI for the nation as well as for some Texas MSAs. Generally, homes across the U.S. have become more affordable over the past seven years; the most notable exception is El Paso, which experienced more volatility.

Recent developments in affordable housing research have highlighted the need for a more realistic and inclusive definition that goes beyond the costs of shelter. In addition to the housing cost burden, the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing + Technology Affordability Index (H+T Index) incorporates transportation costs, typically the second-largest living expenditure. Methodology for calculating transportation costs includes public transit accessibility and expense, automobile costs and ownership rates, and employment access indexes.[2] The combination of housing and transportation expenses must be less than 45 percent of a household’s income to be considered affordable. To illustrate the effect of adding transportation to the affordability measures, Figures 4A and 4B indicate the affordable areas in the Dallas–Fort Worth MSA in yellow. Figure 4A shows that a large portion of the region is affordable when only housing costs are included, while Figure 4B shows a majority of the region is unaffordable when both housing and transportation costs are considered.

Clearly, alternative definitions and measures produce different representations of affordable living. Additionally, affordability is just one piece of the housing market picture. Declines in house prices may not be positive for some homeowners or for the overall economy but may benefit prospective homebuyers.

—Emily Ryder


Notes

  1. “Who Can Afford to Live in a Home? A Look at Data from the 2006 American Community Survey,” by Mary Schwartz and Ellen Wilson, U.S. Census Bureau, 2008.
  2. For more information, see “About the Index” at www.htaindex.cnt.org/about.php.

e-Perspectives, Volume 12, Issue 1, 2012

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