Study: Support for single family home builders comes at expense of other types of housing

Washingtonians — and Americans — are in the midst of a migration to urban areas and rental living, and one of the country’s largest anti-sprawl groups has begun suggesting that federal real estate policies ought to better reflect that shift.

After analyzing 50 government real estate programs — including direct spending, tax incentives, loans and other commitments — researchers at Smart Growth America say the federal government spends $450 million on real estate annually. That does not count spending and incentives from the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

What does the government and taxpayers get for their money? From the advocacy group’s perspective, the answer is too much support for single family home builders and home buyers at the expense of multifamily developers and renters.

Geoff Anderson, president and chief executive of Smart Growth America, said the findings revealed a web of dated federal policies better suited to benefit middle class families in post World War II America than those today. For instance from 2007 to 2011, the Federal Housing Administration issued $1.14 trillion in its single-family loan program and only $112 brillion in its multifamily loan program.

“It just seems very much to be a reflection of past policies rather than current or future markets,” Anderson said of the government’s policies. “You’ve got most of the development industry looking at multifamily. You’ve got an increasing mix of households that are single occupants or households that do not have children — they not surprisingly want a mix of product types.”

“You’ve got a market that was recently oversupplied in that kind of housing,” he continued. “At some point you’ve got to think the government doesn’t need to keep subsidizing these things.”

For all Anderson’s claims about housing choices and how demographics have changed, detached, single family homes remain the dominant mode of housing in the country and the housing of choice for most Americans. Even if one only considers the top 51 largest metropolitan areas of the country, detached single family homes attracted 79.2 percent of new households in 2010, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Nearly 58 percent of occupied homes in those areas were detached single family homes. In the Washington metropolitan area, about 48 percent of households occupy detached single family homes while 31.7 percent live in multifamily buildings and 19.6 percent live in attached homes.

Additionally, the housing recovery seems to be rekindling interest in owning single family homes, with many of the country’s largest home builders have begun to regain some of the value their companies lost in the housing bust during the past year.

Anderson argued those choices are being driven by federal incentives both for the building and purchase of single family homes at the expense of renters and multifamily dwellers. The report cited the fact that homeowners are allowed to deduct mortgage interest from taxes for both first and second homes. Thus nearly 30 percent of households that claimed the deduction claimed it for two homes, potentially driving up the cost of home ownership for others and making it more difficult for other families to buy their first home.

Anderson said there was no reason for the federal government to encourage everyone to buy a “three-bedroom house with two baths rather than something that fits their needs and lifestyle.” He said the group planned to issue specific recommendations for changes in coming months.

“I think you have to look at the market,” he said. “The market does not necessarily say that that’s what all Americans want. And I think we oftentimes get in trouble when we say this is what all Americans want.”

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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