When the 1970s began I wrote a piece about the housing industry "coming of age in a decade of shortages." I suggested that the new decade was filled with expectations. However, the first year of that decade saw only 1.4 million new housing starts.
My feeling was that the 1970s were being represented as a panacea, the "golden coming-home age" of the United States. Yet that decade produced only 18 million housing starts in the private market.
However, the government had called for some 26 million new housing units, which can also be the goal for the 1980s. Without that achievement, more sections of the country will be in a crisis position in terms of both rental and for-sale units.
The difference between the two decades is that we faced the 1970s with rising expectations and we face the 1980s with those expectations diminished. But marketing people are taught to calculate statistics based upon need and demand rather than the psychology of fickleness and changing consumer drives.
The shortages to which I referred arrived during the past decade and they are still here. Affordable mortgage money, usable land, skilled workers, energy, disposable income, consistent governmental policy--they provide the outline within which the story of these next 10 years will unfold.
The most severe change inhibiting the great need for housing supply is money. While there is great equity around, both domestic and especially foreign, lenders find themselves in a growing state of "puzzlement."
While lenders are regarded as being conservative, they seldom really are. Lenders are aggressive entrepreneurs who nurture housing like a suckling baby. lThe very health of housing depends upon its mother, the thrift institutions' ability to allow it to provide leverage to buyers. Most buyers of housing put down only a small fraction of the home's price. They borrow the rest from a lender, thereby gaining leverage over a product which they could otherwise not afford.
The 22 to 24 million housing starts that must occur durng the 1980s cannot happen unless new sources and dependable quantities of money are there to grease the way. Unless the pension funds come into housing with mortgages and guarantees for primary and secondary financing, the ups and downs of the money markets will drive housing into the public sector. There just will not be staying power for the most of the builders in the private sector to continue to make housing happen.
Much of the rental, condo and non-residential financing sources in the future are likely to come from stock market type offerings. Without an industry's ability to go into the public market for money, all other products in this country would also be in crisis. Procter and Gamble, General Motors, Texaco, Sears all depend upon dependable flows of borrowings when they need it.
Otherwise unemployment would be at depression levels perpetually. Yet this ridiculous situation exists in housing. Money is as fickle as politics and polls.
We will also see an acceleration in the evolution of housing producers and what they are producing. The small builder will be joint venturing with some giant or perish. Staying power has always been the money-making force in real estate and housing requires no less. Builders will concentrate on small dwellings because of the reality of sizing and pricing. Inflation may be harassed in the general economy but real estate is based upon the assumption of inflation for investment returns.
Housing has become investment, not just shelter. Therefore, high median pricing can be expected to climb higher in this decade. Creative financing will have to assist buyers with long payout periods, leased land and smaller down payments.
The ever increasing preoccupation with the single-family home, born again in 1975, exacted a toll on land use and utilitites. Cities refused to allow suburbia to grow from wing tip to wing tip. Megalopolis was treated as a threat and not an inevitability. "In fill" became recognized by the Urban Land Institute's latest task force studying housing's broadening needs.The quality of housing supply for all levels of the population can no longer be electioneering rhetoric. It must happen soon.
The housing industry stands at a crossroad between becoming an industry, finally, or becoming a subsidy of Uncle Sam. The decision is far from made. fThe dangers facing both the consumer and the producer are real though not totally perceived.
The 1980s will produce better housing configurations and creativity. It is hoped that land will be used well. European solutions being more accepted. "Attached" will will not mean compromise. The inherent efficiencies coming from both standardized product and good land use, along with factory production of components and complete modules, may be able to supply the poor and the middle class with shelter and opportunity.
The fabric of neighborhood, region, economy and society will depend upon the ability of the private and the public sectors to understand each other and to get about producing what a growing and varied population must have -- new housing.
The writer is a nationally known housing and real estate analyst based in southern California.