We had thought that we had seen all of the symptoms of the state’s affordable housing crisis – from escalating rents to overflowing shelters. But we didn’t see this one coming.
Professionals who inspect homes for prospective buyers say business is drying up.
It’s not because there aren’t enough home sales – we are just coming off three years of a white-hot real estate market. The problem is that the market is so competitive that buyers are forgoing inspections, hoping to make their bid more attractive to sellers.
You could see this as a predictable dip in demand for businesses that are built to survive economic ups and downs. Or you could say that it’s only a problem for a few impatient buyers, who may soon find that that they are now the owner of an expensive problem in addition to a house.
But, it is also a clear illustration of how an artificially tight market distorts decision-making. Because housing is in such demand, people who can’t afford to bid more money are choosing to take more risk – perhaps more risk than they can afford.
It wasn’t so long ago that home foreclosures were the leading edge of a global financial crisis, causing a recession from which it took years to dig out.
The plight of the home inspectors is not the only sign that the state is facing a shortage of the right kind of housing in the right places.
The shortage is a major driver of what’s often described as a labor shortage, especially in coastal communities where high property values have made it nearly impossible to find service workers for nursing homes and hospitality businesses.
The lack of housing also shows up in the data compiled by researchers looking into the affordability of apartments and the price of houses.
Last week, Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies reported that almost half of Maine renters pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing, making them “rent-burdened.” Almost 1 in 5 Maine renters pays more than half of their income on housing, making them “severely rent-burdened,” according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
This is not just a problem for low-income families.
Another study by the center found that someone would need an income of $130,000 a year – more than twice the median income – to buy a home in the Portland area. A lack of inventory has driven up prices on existing housing, leaving middle-income workers unable to buy. That puts pressure on the rental market because people who might otherwise buy a house are still renting.
Housing prices have been high near Maine’s biggest city for some time, but they have also been climbing across the state, as remote workers and people willing to take on a long commute have been bidding up the prices.
There is no single answer to a problem this complex, but the first thing that needs to be done is building new homes and apartments, especially in multi-unit developments that are near schools, jobs and services, and which are affordable to people with a wide range of incomes. There is a role for federal, state and local governments, as well as for-profit and nonprofit developers.
When people are afraid that they will lose their chance to buy a house if they ask for an inspection, we should admit that we have a problem. And then we should commit to doing something about it.