The Rent Bubble: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

Among the lesser-reported impacts of the Great Recession, during which time millions of Americans lost their homes to foreclosure, is the continuing surge in rental housing demand. Demand has inflated rental rates in already costly markets throughout the country. But rental price inflation is not just a problem hitting high cost of living regions in California and New York — it has hit 90 cities nationwide with no end in sight. Rental costs between 2011 and 2012, alone, increased 4 percent nationally, whereas rents in some markets during a broader period — between 2000 and 2012 — have inflated nearly 25 percent, a study by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University reports.

High demand and short supply means one thing: higher prices. But housing isn’t merely a luxury people can forgo. Increased demand for rental housing post recession does not merely reflect the fact that mortgage lending standards are more stringent, but the reality that many Americans are still attempting to rebound from a downwardly mobile spiral. Just because rents are rising doesn’t mean renters are in a position to absorb the price hikes. To the extent rental property demand is an outgrowth of the economic meltdown and stagnant wages — in spite of job growth in more recent years — it would appear housing reform is a topic seriously overdue for national attention.

The Shape of Crisis to Come

Today’s landlord isn’t simply a kindly gray-haired lady looking to rent out a room or an apartment. Housing inflation is driven more so by investors who hold millions of dollars of assets within a given community, if not nationwide. If large-scale property owners could be compelled by state or federal legislation to peg year-to-year rent increases to some combination of inflation and the prevailing median annual incomes of community members occupying similar housing, it might be possible to boost economic gains in other segments of the economy.

Nationally, support for raising minimum wage has gathered momentum. But what if we’re having the wrong conversation? Raising the minimum wage, when inflation is purportedly stable and interest rates remain at record lows, is nonsensical — unless one considers a leading reason why minimum wage earners are sorely in need of a pay increase in the first place: to keep a roof over their heads. Talk of increasing minimum wage is controversial, in part, because critics fear increased labor costs may slow job growth or push consumer prices higher, nullifying any initial advantage raising the minimum wage may impart.

Slapping a bandage on a hemorrhage begs the question: Why not tackle the problem at its core — housing inflation? In the wake of the housing bubble bust, the Harvard study released in June 2014 finds that an unprecedented number of renters in major markets from Miami to Los Angeles are allocating in excess of 30 percent of their monthly pay toward rent, with rents at a 30-year high a Zillow report concludes. And it’s not just young adults who comprise the ranks of the rental class, either. Increasingly, renters consist of families and middle-aged adults, too. Devoting increasing amounts of one’s pay to the cost of housing is likely to continue as rents, much like health care, continue to outpace and out-inflate the broader economy. But it’s the ripple effects of housing inflation that ought to have Republicans and Democrats alike worried.

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

The elephant in the living room that few journalists, economists and politicians are talking about is the emergence of price gouging in major rental markets. If nothing is done to reform high-risk housing markets, it is likely that other parts of the country, where costs of living are significantly lower, will follow in the steps of overpriced markets in Seattle, San Francisco and elsewhere. Ignoring this economically-destabilizing trend is not an option. As renters, not unlike the sub-prime home buyers who preceded them, place higher percentages of their incomes toward rent, fewer households can be expected to save for a rainy day and more Americans will underfund their retirements. This is a disaster of grave future proportions because families that do not have adequate savings are at greater risk of filing for bankruptcy, and may become dependents of — or proponents of — prolonged unemployment benefits, taxpayer-funded welfare programs and the like.

During the Great Recession, demand for social safety nets grew to such an extent that beltway Republicans advocated cutting benefits to reign in costs. (To cite an example popularized during the recession, one in seven American families were said to be eligible for food stamp benefits.) And yet cutting entitlements, just when they are needed most, is a cruel if not superficial fix. Instead, legislators at the state and federal level should look at the underlying reason why so many Americans are living paycheck to paycheck in the first place. One can, of course, cite the usual suspects — decades worth of outsourcing jobs alongside losses brought about by automation — but second only to health care, housing is a segment of consumer spending that poorly reflects income growth or inflation at large. If we want to put the economy back on solid footing, reconciling the disconnect between the rate of inflation, wage growth and housing costs must become a national priority — before the next economic downturn.

No longer do rental price trends lie in the hands of small-time landlords. Demand isn’t the sole explanation, either. If, however, there are 10,000 rental units in a given city that are owned by the same firm, and that firm should push the limits of what the market can bear, Mom ‘n Pop property owners are likely to follow suit if only because heavyweight competitors have set the tone. In much the same way the bank bailouts paradoxically generated even bigger too-big-to-fail banks, the Great Recession set the stage for investors to scoop up real estate assets throughout the U.S. at fire sale prices. And that scarcely bodes well for price diversity in the years to come.

Affordable Housing, a National Security Issue?

Rather than advocate for rent control in the traditional sense — that is, cost-control provisions aimed at low-income tenants — lawmakers should reign in the market-inflating practices of housing price trendsetters across the board — and, in particular, limit the ability of foreign real estate investors to heavily influence domestic real estate markets. This might be accomplished by pegging year-to-year rental rate increases to a combination of local inflation and median incomes in a given area for like housing. This is not to say that reform ought to be so draconian as to mandate outright rental rate caps. Large-scale private equity groups may continue to increase rental rates to reflect supply and demand — but in so doing perhaps those who routinely test the upper limits of the non-luxury rental market ought to incur a residency requirement, forgo tax incentives and/or pay a penalty that can be used by state and federal authorities to shore up the safety nets savings-poor Americans are apt to turn to in the event of crisis or an unplanned retirement.

Affordable housing is the missing ingredient in the health and stability of the broader economy. Assuming it were possible to craft effective reform, households would be in a better position to fund their own savings, lessening the likelihood that illness, recession or job loss will propel families into bankruptcy or thrust them into the unenviable ranks of taxpayer dependents. If a housing reform bill were to incentivize large-scale property management owners to reconcile rental prices to inflation and local income levels, we might see an end to nonsensical situations in which demand for rental units reaches all-time highs precisely when the economy hits all-time lows. Moreover, if such legislation were to target large-scale investment groups — and foreign residential property investors in particular — it might also compel them to scale back their holdings and thus diversify real estate markets in ways that will contribute to improved market competition.

Media coverage on the state of the housing in California and other “harbinger markets” throughout the country warn of more price hikes to come, with double-digit percentile gains slamming rental markets from Las Vegas, Nevada to Southern California’s outlying Inland Empire — well into 2016. The fact that home ownership is the lowest it has been since 1995 — even as renters in some markets are now spending 40 to 50 percent of their monthly pay on housing — speaks for itself: This is an unsustainable trend, with unsavory social and demographic ramifications. As rents increase relative to lackluster wage growth, nontraditional living arrangements, recession or no recession, will become commonplace. Census Bureau reports in the years to come, for example, may find more midlife adults pairing up with roommates not unlike their college-age counterparts a generation ago. Homeownership, increasingly, may become the domain of the wealthy and multigenerational cohabitants. All the while, fewer “marrying age” Americans may tie the knot and take the homeownership leap, for the same economic reasons that came to light during the recession. Taken together, these trends may transform the U.S. into a “rentership society” in which putting down fewer roots — a far cry from the American Dream — becomes the new normal.

Some readers may recall when non-matinee movie tickets could be had for substantially less than $10-$14. But when New York City residents began ponying up nearly double the national average a number of years ago, ticket prices nationwide began to follow suit. Rental price trends, similarly, vary by region and demand. And yet the more rent payers are willing to bear, the more it is likely to push up the cost of renting — and living — far outside the likes of New York and California. If we don’t like the shape of things to come, now is the time to place a national spotlight on housing reform. The bottom line? If we want to stabilize the economy, increasing minimum wage and loosening mortgage lending standards are far from the only answers. It’s time to stabilize rental markets, too. And not just for the benefit of low-income tenants, either. Housing is an inescapable expense. And we’re all on the hook.

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RESOURCES

The Coming Nightmare of Wall Street-Controlled Rental Markets | Alternet

There’s Only One Way Rents Will Go: Sky High | The Fiscal Times

Wall Street’s Hot New Financial Instrument: Your Rent Check | Mother Jones

There Will be No Real Recovery Without the Middle Class | Forbes

In Many Cities Rent is Rising Out of Reach of Middle Class | New York Times

The Rent Bubble is Going to Blow Up Across the Country | The Daily Beast

Rents are Rising but People aren’t Making any more Money | ThinkProgress

Wall Street’s Rental Home Gamble: How worried should we be? | Al Jazeera American

The Five Biggest Benefits of Owning Real Estate | The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University

Rethinking Globalism: Why We Need a Cell-Based Economy

When you listen to the pundits and economic experts, you come away with a mixed bag of blame for the economic woes the United States, and by turn the global economy, presently faces.

At first blush, it’s middle class “Annie” with her subprime mortgage, too ignorant or materialistic to admit that she can’t afford the McMansion she lives in.

At second glance, it is the greedy, not-my-problem mortgage broker who knows banks routinely sell off homeowners’ loans to Wall Street investors who will be left holding the bag when homeowners default.

Looking at it from another perspective, deregulation of the telecommunications, energy and financial markets — under the premise that free markets are self-policing and never irrational —  has been blamed for everything from the collapse of WorldCom and Enron, to the subprime mortgage crisis that has spiraled into the credit crunch we see today. And the chief instigator, critics point out, is none other than Sen. Phil Gramm, Sen. John McCain’s economic adviser. Is it possible that an adviser who perceives no harm in unchecked deregulation may be at a loss for words, leaving McCain’s presidential campaign with little choice but to run distraction — personal attacks — at a time when the rest of the nation is galvanized around the economic harm striking ever closer to home?

Flashing back to September 11, 2001, a few may trace the problem to President Bush’s not so subtle suggestion to grow the economy in support of the War on Terror. The President admonished consumers to go on spending, and thanks to what amounted to an eight-year Wall Street “stimulus” consisting of interest rate cuts and easy credit presided over by presidential appointee and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Wall Street enjoyed what some economists have described as a once-in-a-generation bull market. The bear had to make his appearance eventually.

Tracing the issue back a step further, another camp of blame-gamers pinpoints the Clinton Administration, which in 1999 “openly urged the Federal National Mortgage Association (aka “Fannie Mae”) to reduce down payment and credit requirements for ‘at risk’ borrowers in an attempt to increase home ownership rates among minorities and low-income consumers,” the Visalia-Times Delta reports.

To watch “IOUSA“, a recent documentary film following former Comptroller General David Walker, who in 2005 launched a “Fiscal Wake-Up Tour“, our present problems are tied not so much to who occupies office — for both parties suffer from what Walker calls a “leadership deficit” — but to a financial system that is leveraged as much as 30 to 1. Simply put, that means that for every dollar a bank has in reserve, it can borrow 30 more. Artificial money props up an artificial bubble. And to these Perfect Economic Storm clouds, we add Walker’s dire warning that the U.S. is headed toward bankruptcy. Unfunded liabilities for Medicare and Social Security, not to mention a deficit approaching $11 trillion, threaten to sink our Ship of State as it is.

Will the recently passed $700 billion bailout help?

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was already on its way to an 80-year low on September 29 when the original bailout package failed. All the while, the media elite insisted that without a bailout the hurt would hit Main Street. Yet when Friday, October 3rd’s second bailout passed the House, NASDAQ and the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell yet again even as bank-to-bank lending rates hit new highs. Why would Wall Street react as if the bail out were bad news when virtually everything we’ve heard in the mainstream media holds otherwise?

For one, $700+ billion — which if dollar bills were laid end-to-end would reach the moon and back 138 times over — simply isn’t enough. Speculative figures run as a high as $1 trillion. For another, it came too late. The subprime crisis started over a year ago, yet only in recent weeks has President Bush acknowledged that Wall Street is grappling with a “house of cards“. Unemployment rates, meanwhile, have surged to 6.1 percent nationally. Make no mistake, however: The hurt at home doesn’t mean taxpayers won’t be called upon to write Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson yet another blank check. Worse, the bailout plan might just make the problem worse, critics allege, by heaping inflation on an already shaky financial services sector.

In the midst of all the madness, perhaps there is a greater lesson here that we risk missing. That picture begins to emerge when we contemplate the notion “too big to fail”.

What does that have to do with the human body, you ask?

Everything.

Call it nature or God, but every living creature is a multiple-cell organism. In fact, we have billions of tiny cells, each working in tandem to make our bodies function.

In bygone days, economies were less like machines and more akin to living organisms. Geographically rooted, they grew their own food, lent money to their own community members, put out their own fires and built their own homes with supplies they sourced within the region.

Planes, trains and automobiles have changed all that.

Today we have multinational corporations, increasingly, whose failures threaten to resonate throughout the global economy not like a handful of harmless 3.0 earthquakes on the Richter scale, but more akin to a life-altering 10.0 “Big One”.

When globetrotting Gulliver begins to teeter as the ground beneath him sways, the little people won’t pillage him, they’ll be called upon to prop him up.

That’s the New World Economy for you. This bailout isn’t the first and it will hardly be the last.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Globalism produces unprecedented potential for gain, but it also puts us at proportional risk. Socialist or Capitalist, the role governments undeniably play is this: underwriters of corporate risk. We need to stop right there and think long and hard about whether this is the road we want to go down.

One of the core problems, which is so taken for granted that it hasn’t even received a second look in the mainstream media, is that an efficient market rests upon a surprisingly delicate underpinning. Sure there are trillions of dollars trading hands, and when all goes well it is a sight to behold. But what happens when the economic body gets sick? Can 10,000 or so massive cells do the work of millions that preceded them?

Probably not.

If our bodies were designed or evolved in the manner modern economies are structured, a simple cold, let alone heart disease or cancer, could take us out. A couple of sick cells would be sufficient to bring the entire body to its knees, a far cry from a massive, systemic infection attacking billions of cellular citizens.

The problem with conventional global economic thinking is that it operates on the assumption that the Titanic is impossible to sink. But what if we reverse that assumption and ask ourselves what we can do to protect ourselves should the unthinkable take place?

To borrow a phrase from so-called tree huggers, what we need is sustainability. Only this time, we’re not talking ecosystems. We’re talking financial systems.

There’s a lot of buzz about “going Green”. But greening our economy isn’t just about clean energy. It’s about local control. Self sufficiency. The type of accountability no regulatory system can substitute for: neighbors, coworkers, bankers and business owners who know each other by name, who rely on each other and help keep one another honest. When you see the consequences of your actions played out not on some abstract global financial stage but in your own backyard, that’s what economists call an incentive: an incentive not to play poker with your neighbor’s hard-earned money.

You might call this concept a CELL-BASED ECONOMY. It’s modeled after the only sustainable concept evolution has taught us: A cosmos filled not with a few thousand Jupiter-sized bodies with a disproportionate gravitational pull, but blanketed as far into the depths of space as an astrophysicist can see. The human and animal organism, likewise, populated not by the few and irreplaceable but the many and regenerative, whose power lies in numbers, not reach. Until economies restore a sense of “place” within the larger economic body, markets will again and again prove in need of oversight (regulation) to reign in the masterminds of greed who exploit nameless victims, which the current globalized modus operandi all but encourages.

We’ll know we’ve become active stake holders in this Cell-Based Economy the day we refer to economic participants as people, not too-big-to-fail multinational “entities” that can make or break economies in a few short months or years. Under this scenario, loan originators would not abdicate responsibility. For only when risk is no longer another investor’s problem, will much of the temptation to approve hasty, house-of-cards loans fall by the wayside.

Going back to a Main Street economy might just save us from ourselves. Why? Because the more impenetrable the global economy grows, the more difficult it becomes for would-be entrepreneurs to elbow their way in to the feeding trough otherwise known as the American Dream. President Woodrow Wilson, as far back as 1913 in a book titled “The New Freedom”, bemoaned the fact that we have a “system of credit” that all but precludes the little guy. We pay more taxes yet become, essentially, debtors, producing very little. Indeed, that is what the United States has become: Not the proud productivity-based economy of yesteryear, but a middle class-squeezing, downwardly mobile “consumer economy” whose very survival is dependent on the goodwill of global benefactors (investors). So when former Comptroller General David Walker talks about an $800 billion annual trade deficit with China in the chilling financial exposé “IOUSA”, this is the kind of leverage we’re giving away. Equally disturbing, it all but hog ties us where foreign policy is concerned. We can ill afford to anger nations who prop us up financially by opposing the actions of their Axis of Evil allies — i.e. it saber-rattling nationalists in Iran or Russia.

The fact that so many Americans have poor credit, little or no rainy day savings, and are defaulting in such vast numbers paints an unsustainable economic picture. But it isn’t just the little guy who is struggling. If nothing more, this debacle has proven that Big Business is more vulnerable than we thought. Looking back a year or so ago when the first rumblings on Wall Street were shaping up, sovereign Mid East wealth funds came to the rescue. Yet NASDAQ Chief Executive Bob Greifeld praised the 20 percent stake Arabs stood to gain in the exchange as “a good transaction for the U.S. capital markets system … it will make sure that NASDAQ is a key player in the global consolidation.” If “global consolidation”, arguably a euphemism for economic contraction, is what market bellwethers foresee, what does that say about the long-term solvency of the U.S. economy?

“Last week, just by coincidence, our national debt exceeded the $10 trillion mark, and a lot of that money is owed to foreigners. The tide of money that washed away any sense of proportion or ethics on Wall Street also comes, in part, from overseas. When critics of the $700 billion bailout complain that it was passed just to keep foreign banks happy, there’s some truth to that. It’s a chilling sign of just how much national sovereignty we’ve signed away in return for overseas capital,” writes Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jay Bookman.

From a foreign investment standpoint, American assets may resemble a smorgasbord — fodder for a fire sale in the event the meltdown continues despite the bailout. In one possible scenario, financial assets may go the way the U.S. steel and auto industries did in the 1980s and ’90s — outsourcing investments the way manufacturers outsourced production. Do those of us who call Main Street USA home wish to owe Asia and the Mid East our mortgages and 401Ks? When the dust settles, will the U.S. financial services sector have an American face?

If you bring the issue out of the abstract and closer to home, the global business model has brought us to a point where critical vaccines and medications may be manufactured by a single source. A pandemic, economic, political or natural disaster threaten to precipitate mass shortages or an over-reliance upon risky, untested foreign sources. One day, what if those shortages included food? What if a severe economic crisis combined with even higher fuel prices means that truckers are temporarily, even, unable to receive a paycheck? Will every grocery chain and retail store from one end of the country to the other face the prospect of bare shelves because the handful of transportation companies to survive globalization’s push toward consolidation are idling down due to strike or disaster, manmade or otherwise?

In an efficient, mechanistic economic system there are fewer and fewer redundancies. This leaves fewer players in place to go on conducting “business as usual” in the event of a crisis. The result is that problems that formerly hit one community — not unlike the recent gasoline shortages in the Southeast following Hurricane Ike — may transform from regional problems, to national shortages, to global crisis.

There is something to be said for the idea that local communities should be self sustaining to whatever degree possible. This means that each region of the country should develop or retain capacity to produce food and energy using locally sourced suppliers, and to maintain manufacturing capacity. That community model may seem unrealistic for now, but it should be a long-term national security priority.

It was once believed with near religious devotion that the world was flat. And later, infamously, that the Titanic was too sophisticated to sink. If there’s one thing this economic crisis has taught us, it’s never say never.

It would be foolhardy to manufacture a rope with only one thread, for at best it could be described as a string. Yet with each multinational merger, each death of a competitor, each transformation of a local economy into a consumer economy, we’re taking a rope of many threads and reducing it, cut by cut, to just one cord. That sort of efficiency may reduce waste and redundancy, but it’s also the source of our global economy’s potential unraveling.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink basic assumptions.

The prospect of global recession is an inevitable byproduct of an economy that has become overly enmeshed. Like a pair of young lovers joined at the hip, this is a relationship that might look ideal at first glance, but is psychologically dysfunctional. None of this is to say that international business ought to become a thing of the past. National and international trade brings commodities that are overabundant in one region to areas of the world where they are in great demand. That form of commerce cannot and should not be stopped. Rather, it is a long-overdue reminder that global business should not come at the expense of local productiveness (sustainability).

Reviving an economic system that promotes multiple supply chains with emphasis on local distribution and long-term sustainability as a hedge against instability elsewhere in the world flies in the face of what started out as a giddy 20th Century globalization experiment.

But if and when the Titanic sinks, nobody will be laughing — except, perhaps, the World Federalists.

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SOURCES

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