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

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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.

Conclusion
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).

July 2, 2020

An Update on Forbearance Trends

So far, the principal policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. mortgage market has been forbearance. On March 18, 2020, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) directed the government-sponsored enterprises (GSE) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to suspend foreclosures on single-family mortgages and start offering forbearance and modification plans to distressed borrowers.1

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law on March 27, codified the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac forbearance programs, and included the government housing agency Ginnie Mae. The act directed the agencies to grant borrower requests for forbearance "with no additional documentation required other than the borrower's attestation to a financial hardship caused by the COVID-19 emergency..." In general, servicers of loans not covered by the law have set up similar forbearance programs.

What is mortgage forbearance?
Mortgage forbearance means a mortgage lender (that is, the holder of credit risk) allows a borrower to stop making mortgage payments for a fixed period of time. During that time, the lender does not charge late fees nor initiate foreclosure proceedings but does consider the borrower delinquent on the loan. Under normal circumstances, the lender would report the delinquency and the forbearance plan to credit bureaus. Under not-so-normal circumstances, including natural disasters, lenders often do not report loan status to credit bureaus. The CARES Act explicitly stipulates that forbearance resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic cannot negatively affect a borrower's credit score, so lenders cannot report borrowers in forbearance as being delinquent.

Once the forbearance period expires, the borrower has to make up the missed payments. For example, if the lender implements a six-month forbearance policy, then borrowers would be allowed to defer all payments for up to six months. After the forbearance period ends, the borrower and lender would typically negotiate a repayment plan that makes the lender whole in the long run but does not send the borrower back into distress. During this COVID-19 forbearance episode, Fannie, Freddie, and Ginnie Mae must provide borrowers affordable repayment options, such as converting the arrears into a partial claim, which is a non-interest-bearing second lien due at termination of the loan.

Forbearance is meant to provide short-term relief to financially distressed borrowers without inducing moral hazard by borrowers who do not need assistance. Since no debt is forgiven, the policy, in theory, should not appeal to borrowers who are not liquidity-constrained. Nevertheless, some empirical evidence Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link indicates that some borrowers may be willing to engage in this "strategic forbearance."

While an acceptable exit strategy exists for borrowers, it is contingent on employment and income being restored before the forbearance period ends. For mortgage servicers, the magnitude of forbearance take-up is crucial to their liquidity—especially for nonbank servicers.

A liquidity squeeze arises because mortgage servicers must advance scheduled principal and interest payments to investors regardless of whether the borrower is paying. In addition, servicers must also pay tax and insurance payments.2 Either the borrower or guarantor will eventually reimburse the servicer, but in the short run, servicers must have sufficient liquidity to be able to bridge this gap. Such a squeeze is especially acute for nonbank servicers who not only are relatively thinly capitalized but also do not qualify for liquidity support programs that have been set up for banks. While this was a concern early in the pandemic, the GSEs and Ginne Mae have implemented polices that have helped to alleviate liquidity concerns of nonbank servicers.3

Forbearance take-up rate
In March, estimates of the fraction of households that would use forbearance in the coming months varied widely. On the one hand, optimists believed forbearance take-up would be fairly low because the CARES Act called for a generous increase in unemployment insurance benefits, which should provide many unemployed households with enough income to continue making payments. For example, FHFA director Mark Calabria estimated that only about 2 million GSE borrowers—a take-up rate of less than 5 percent—would seek forbearance.4

On the other hand, pessimists believed the numbers would be significantly higher. Laurie Goodman of the Urban Institute predicted that close to 12 percent, or 5.75 million borrowers, would request forbearance, and Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics predicted that around 15 million households, or roughly 30 percent of mortgage borrowers, would miss payments.

To gauge the extent of forbearance, the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) recently initiated a weekly Forbearance and Call Volume Survey of its members. The survey provides a lagged picture of forbearance rates. The latest survey covers more than three quarters of first-lien mortgages, so we believe it is representative of the overall market.

The earliest data from the survey indicate that as of March 8, 2020, the forbearance rate on all loans was below 1 percent, with both Ginnie Mae and Fannie/Freddie loans having forbearance rates of less than one quarter of 1 percent. Forbearance rates rose in the month of April, according to the survey (see the chart). On April 26, overall forbearance rates were at 7.55 percent, up by more than 480 basis points since the beginning of April. The rate of increase slowed in May, and the most recent survey (June 21) shows that the overall take-up percentage fell from the previous two weeks, going from 8.55 percent to 8.47 percent and marking the first decrease in the survey.

chart 01 of 01: Forbearance take-up rates

The data also indicate that there is significant heterogeneity across market segments. The rate for Ginnie Mae loans, 11.83 percent, has been flat for four weeks, while the rate for Fannie and Freddie loans, 6.26 percent, has fallen over the past three weeks. The rate for other loans—including those in private label securitizations (not government guaranteed) and held on portfolio—is 10.07 percent, which is essentially flat for the month of June. For Ginnie loans, this means an increase of more than 1,000 basis point since March 8.

Overall, the actual take-up rates are squarely between the optimistic and pessimistic forecasts.

Looking ahead
The forbearance take-up rates remain elevated, but recently, they have been flat or have fallen. This pattern is consistent with what we've seen in the labor markets—the rate of new unemployment claims has been fallen while the number of unemployed continues to be elevated. The generous increase in unemployment insurance benefits in the CARES Act certainly has helped take-up rates to be lower than the pessimistic forecasts. But the threat that forbearance will transition to foreclosure has regained power because the number of COVID-19 infections is increasing and the CARES Act unemployment insurance benefits will expire at the end of July.

In future posts, we will discuss what we can and cannot learn from past forbearance programs that were related to natural disasters, along with the resolution options available to borrowers who opted into forbearance. For now, we remain cautiously optimistic that the pandemic will subside and the labor market will improve before forbearance and unemployment insurance programs end.

1 [go back] You can find the official press release on the FHFA websiteOff-site link. On the same day, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in consultation with the federal government, implemented a 60-day moratorium on foreclosures and evictions for single-family homeowners with FHA-insured mortgages. In addition, HUD encouraged FHA mortgage servicersOff-site link to offer various loss-mitigation options to distressed borrowers. The options include short- and long-term forbearance options and mortgage modifications.

2 [go back] Servicers of agency loans are required to maintain first-lien status for the GSEs. This implies ensuring that the borrower has paid all property taxes, whether an escrow account exists or not, and that, in certain states, the borrower has met homeowner association commitments.

3 [go back] On April 10, Ginnie Mae set up a lending facility Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link that allows servicers experiencing liquidity issues to borrow funds to make forbearance-related principal-and interest advances. On April 21, the FHFA announcedOff-site link that it would limit the requirements for servicers of Fannie and Freddie loans to forward principal-and-interest payments to investors to four months of forbearance.

4 [go back] Calabria provided this estimate in an April 1, 2020, interview with CNBC video fileOff-site link. In the same interview, he noted that about 300,000 GSE borrowers had already inquired about forbearance.

May 15, 2020

Examining the Effects of COVID-19 on the Southeast Housing Market

To continue to monitor how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting housing in the Atlanta Fed's district, we conducted a Southeast Housing Market Poll from April 24 to May 1. Respondents included homebuilders and residential sales agents (referred to here as brokers).

What are builders and brokers seeing?
The majority of Southeast brokers and builders indicated that home sales came in below their plan for the period, down from both the month-ago and the year-ago levels.

Chart 01: April 2020 SE Home Sales versus Year Ago

Most builders and brokers also reported that buyer traffic was down relative to the month-earlier and the year-earlier levels. As the results of the special questions continue to emphasize (see below), buyer traffic appears to be the dimension of business that COVID-19 has most adversely affected through April.

chart 02: April 2020 SE Buyer Traffic versus Year Ago

Most brokers and builders indicated that inventory levels remained flat compared to the previous month's levels. Compared to the year-ago level, builders said inventory had increased while brokers noted it was down. Most brokers and builders continued to report that home prices either held steady or were up slightly in April.

Many southeastern builders indicated that construction activity was flat to slightly down in April relative to both the month-ago and the year-ago levels.

chart 03: April 2020 SE Construction Activity versus Year Ago

Most builders said material prices were flat relative to a month ago. More than half of builders reported increases in material prices from a year earlier. The rest were split evenly between reporting that material prices were flat and reporting they were down. While the majority of Southeast builders reported upward pressure on labor costs, a growing share of respondents indicated labor costs were flat or down from the year-ago level.

Chart 4: April 2020 Labor Cost Changes versus Year Earlier

The majority of brokers and builders indicated that the amount of available mortgage credit was sufficient to meet demand, though there did appear to be an uptick in the number of respondents indicating a lack of credit (consistent with a slight uptick on the ability to secure financing noted in the special questions; see below). Most builders said construction and development finance was insufficient to meet demand.

Chart 05: April 2020 Credit Availability versus Year Ago

What's ahead?
With regard to the outlook, the majority of Southeast broker and builder respondents anticipate a decline in home sales activity over the next three months relative to one year ago. The majority of builders continue to expect declines in construction activity over the next three months relative to the year-ago level.

Chart 06: April 2020 SE Outlook versus Year Earlier

Results from special questions on COVID-19
Last month, the poll's special questions homed in on aspects of business that were adversely affected. This month, we borrowed a few additional special questions from the Atlanta Fed's Business Inflation Expectations Survey to help round out the insights.

First, we asked business contacts to assess the overall level of disruption to construction and sales activity. Results indicate moderate disruption to construction activity (the median builder response was 3 on a scale of 5) and a more significant level of disruption to sales activity (the median broker response was 4 on a scale of 5).

Chart 07: How Would You Assess the Level of Disruption After the COVID Outbreak

We revisited the special questions from last month on actual and expected adverse impacts. The profile of responses was relatively unchanged from March to April, with many contacts continuing to indicate a major adverse impact on buyer traffic and the number of offers. There was a slight uptick in the share of contacts who reported an adverse impact on delivery time for building materials and the amount buyers were willing to pay.

Chart 08: To date, has COVID 19 had a noticeable, adverse impact on the business aspects

Lastly, a big question that seems to be on everyone's mind is, "When will things return to normal?" Recognizing that this question is tough to answer with any degree of certainty, we asked builders and brokers to provide their best guess of the number of months until activity returns to "normal."" We also asked builders to indicate how many months they could sustain their business operations until they would have to seek out new sources of funding. Many contacts responded with ranges. The results below reflect the most optimistic responses in the range.

  • The median broker respondent guessed that normal sales activity would resume in five-and-a-half months.
  • The median builder respondent guessed that normal construction activity would resume in four months.
  • The median builder respondent said they could operate for the next six months before they would need to seek out new funding sources (for example, credit lines, emergency loans, debt markets).
table 01: Median builder response to when they would need to seek out new funding source

We'll continue to keep an eye on the housing situation as it unfolds and report back periodically with updates. In the meantime, feel free to share observations from your local market or questions you'd like to have answered in the comments section below.

This poll was conducted April 24 to May 1, 2020, and reflects activity in April 2020. Thirty-three business contacts across the Sixth District participated in the poll: 15 homebuilders and 18 residential brokers.

April 17, 2020

Southeast Housing Market and COVID-19

Considering the devastating effects the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the economic landscape, we can think of no better time to revive our Real Estate Research blog. Atlanta Fed staff, often in partnership with researchers at other Reserve Banks, are continually working to track and assess COVID-19-related developments as they unfold in the housing and mortgage markets.

With the relaunch of this blog, we intend to regularly publish posts, like this one, with our commentary, observations on recent data releases and survey results, analysis of recently published academic research, findings from working papers we find relevant and interesting, and takeaways from conferences and guest speakers when those events become possible again. We aim to foster dialogue on topical research and current issues in the field with each post we publish and look forward to your active participation and feedback.

Taking the pulse of the housing market
To gauge the impact COVID-19 is having on housing in the Sixth District, we redeployed our Southeast Housing Market Poll from March 26 to April 2 to existing homebuilder and residential sales agent contacts. To get a reference point for comparison, the poll included a combination of routine questions we've posed in the past. It also included special questions to gather more detailed insights on the unfolding situation. This post highlights the results of the poll.

Two-thirds of Southeast builder respondents indicated that home sales came in below their plan for March 2020 and were down slightly from the year-ago level. The majority of broker respondents, on the other hand, said home sales were in line with their plan for the period and were, on balance, flat from the year-earlier level.

Real Estate Research blog - Chart 1: March 2020 Southeast Home Sales vs. Year Ago

Builders and brokers both reported declining buyer traffic relative to one year earlier. As the results of the special questions will emphasize (see below), buyer traffic appears to be the dimension of business that COVID-19 has most adversely affected through March.

Real Estate Research blog - Chart 2: March 2020 Southeast Buyer Traffic vs. Year Ago

The majority of builders reported that inventory levels remained flat from the year-ago level, while brokers said inventory levels were down. Most brokers and builders reported that home prices either held steady or were up slightly in March. Builders and brokers also indicated that the amount of available mortgage credit was sufficient to meet demand.

Just over half of southeastern builders indicated that construction activity during March 2020 fell short of their plan for the period, with the majority reporting that construction activity was flat to down slightly compared to the year-ago level.

Real Estate Research blog - Chart 3: March 2020 Southeast Construction Activity vs. Year Ago

Most builders said material prices had increased from one year earlier, but were flat relative to the month-earlier level. More than four-fifths reported some degree of upward pressure on labor costs, and half of pointed to modest increases in labor costs of just 1–3 percent from the year-ago level. The majority of builders indicated that the amount of construction and development finance available was sufficient to meet demand.

With regard to the outlook, all Southeast broker respondents said they expect home sales activity to decline over the next three months. Most builders expect construction activity over the next three months to slow considerably as well.

Real Estate Research blog - Chart 4: March 2020 Southeast Outlook vs. a Year Earlier

Results from special questions on COVID-19
Consistent with results from surveys fielded by the National Association of Realtors (like this one) and the National Association of Home Builders (like this one), many Sixth District brokers and builders reported that they had already felt the effects of COVID-19 on their business at the end of March 2020 (see the chart). Buyers' ability to secure financing was the aspect least affected across the Sixth District, followed by the amount buyers were willing to pay for the home. Buyer traffic appeared to be the most significant adverse impact thus far.

Real Estate Research blog - Chart 5: To date, has COVID-19 had a noticeable, adverse impact on the following aspects of your business?

We posed the same set of special questions to brokers and builders, but this time asked them to look three months ahead and anticipate the impact of COVID-19 along the same dimensions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of brokers and builders expect the adverse effects of COVID-19 to worsen over the next three months across all dimensions of their business, but especially as it relates to buyer traffic and the number of offers that come in.

Real Estate Research blog - Chart 6: In the next 3 months, do you expect for COVID-19 to have a noticeable, adverse impact on the following aspects of your business?

We'll continue to keep an eye on the housing situation as it unfolds and report back periodically with updates. In the meantime, feel free to share observations from your local market or resources you are using to the track the situation in the comments section below.

This poll was conducted March 26 to April 2, 2020, and reflects activity in March 2020. Thirty-seven business contacts across the Sixth District participated in the poll: 19 homebuilders and 18 residential brokers.