Posted by: Josh Lehner | April 12, 2017

Causes of the Great Housing Shortage

The housing recovery is still incomplete. Even in the nation’s fast-growing metro areas, new construction is not keeping pace with demand. The lack of supply has created a housing shortage and is well known at this point. What is less discussed are the reasons why we have under-built housing. Given high rents and home prices, why haven’t we seen a stronger supply response to chase those profits? Our office has dug into 5 of the most commonly cited reasons. Our summary is below. A major H/T and thank you to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) economic team for their work on many of these issues.

Supply Constraint #1: Confidence

Anecdotal reports and conversations suggest spec development is down. It is possible that builders and developers have lost some of their appetite for risk. If they wait to build until a contract is signed, or close to it, supply will continue to lag demand. However, as Mark said at City Club of Portland, a successful developer by their nature is optimistic. The NAHB Wells Fargo home builder sentiment index is all the way back to previous peaks. As such, it is unlikely that the lack of builder confidence is what is really holding back the market. That said, spec development remains lower based on anecdotal reports.

Supply Constraint #2: Labor

For years now, a common refrain has been that it is hard to find construction workers and that wages are really high. NAHB reports there is a shortage for a number of occupations. I remember hearing about these shortages back in 2013 and 2014, which, at the time, was a bit hard to believe. Not that it wasn’t true, just that there was clearly slack, and available workers in the economy. Now? I certainly believe it is hard to find workers, for any industry. The labor market is tight. Now, fewer young adults are entering into the trades, although I suspect much of that is a demand side issue (lack of jobs), with supply side issues (lack of interest) playing a smaller role. That said, average wages in the construction industry are well within their historical range, when compared with other Oregon workers. Again, this does not mean there are not labor issues in the construction industry, and there can certainly be skill-specific shortages. But in general, what the industry is experiencing is felt across a wide range of sectors. If there truly were a construction worker shortage, wages would be rising much faster than in the typical industry.

Even so, we are hearing that labor costs and bids are really high today. So if it is not showing up in workers’ paychecks, that means it might be showing up as firm profits. Some of this increase could be due to market power and industry consolidation after the crash. Furthermore, we are reminded by our advisors, that even as firm profits are rising again, this is cyclical. These are the same companies that lost their shirts during the crash, and will likely do so again next cycle.

Supply Constraint #3: Land Use

In our office’s presentations around the state, the first reason or theory everyone cites is our state’s unique land use laws. Specifically the urban growth boundary restricts buildable land, thus raising prices and eroding affordability. Our office’s view is that policy matters. When comparing, say, Portland home prices to other large metros, we stand out as being more expensive than most, particularly compared with those of similar incomes. Some of this is likely the long-run effect of our policies. This, of course, leaves to the side any discussion of the reasons why such policies are there in the first place.

That said, our land use laws are not the likely driver behind the low supply and eroding affordability in the past 8 years. The vacancy rate in the Boise MSA is right there with Portland’s and among the lowest in the nation. I have never heard anyone talk about Idaho’s land use laws. Given that the underbuilding of housing is not an Oregon-specific issue, using Oregon-specific explanations does not get you very far. UPDATE: Just to clarify. I do think land use laws impact overall prices here in Oregon. I just do not think they are a primary contributor to what has taken place in the past 8 years. Again, the fundamental housing problem is not Oregon-specific, it is nationwide.

Supply Constraint #4: Lots

The lack of shovel-ready, or buildable lots is clearly a constraint on the housing market today. Builders nationwide are reporting shortages at an increasing rate. The issue is worse in the West, and in prime locations — so-called A lots — but is still a major and growing concern throughout. Locally, the issue is largely the same, although Oregon’s land use laws can come into play. It is not necessarily the total amount of zoned land — there is supposed to be a 20 year land supply within the UGB. In conversations, what builders really care about is the effective land supply — or the amount you can actually build on in relatively short order. Reasonable people can and do disagree about the assumptions in the former, but clearly the latter is a problem here in Oregon, and across the country.

Overall, the lack of buildable lots results in higher prices and fewer units. However, as Dave Crowe, NAHB’s former chief economist, wrote in 2014 and in 2015, the lack of land is due to tight financing. This means that lot supply, while a major constraint, is still more a symptom than a cause of the eroding affordability and meager supply.

Supply Constraint #5: Financing

The housing bubble and Great Recession was a traumatic experience. In its wake, banks tightened their lending standards — both to developers and home buyers. Some of this was clearly needed and welcomed. However, how tight is too tight?

Earlier this decade, banks loosened standards and increased loans for multifamily projects. The result has been a surge in apartments. This increase in supply is now impacting rents. Concerns of overbuilding apartments and with the economy at or near Peak Renter, banks are tightening multifamily standards again.

However, the Fed’s Senior Loan Officer Survey also shows banks tightening standards for construction and land development loans. Given the lack of buildable lots, this is a big concern. Now is not the time to be pulling back on land development. Luckily, this may not be happening across the board. It certainly is happening for multifamily land development, but NAHB has their own survey of their members’ finances. It is an industry publication with a smaller sample size, so the results should be taken with a grain of salt. That said, NAHB members are reporting that banks are still loosening standards in recent years.

At some point, the proof is in the pudding. Loan volumes to builders are growing again, however remain considerably lower than last decade. Below is my replication of a chart current NAHB chief economist Robert Dietz has been using for years. As he notes, these are stocks and not flows. As such we cannot get a perfect look at the increasing flow of credit, but can see it is clearly happening.

Finance and credit availability is a macro lever that can better explain national patterns than any localized issue can. When it comes to housing market confidence, particularly after the bust, it makes some sense that banks and their regulators are more likely to be once bitten, twice shy. In conversation, banks and credit unions are citing some restrictions on their lending activity and issues with making sure their loan portfolios are balanced. I do not know nearly enough about the inner workings of Dodd-Frank to render judgement, but these topics are part of the discussions we have.

Overall credit availability is a good news – bad news story. The bad news is that builder lending volume is considerably smaller today. It takes a lot of time, effort and money to take a piece of dirt, get entitlements, put in roads, utilities, and the like. The dearth of this activity during the bust, for some understandable reasons, has put a wrench in the development process of bringing new supply to the market.

The good news is that the volume of lending has been increasing at near-double digit rates for the past four years. The flow of credit is returning. Our office’s main housing advisor has been saying that we can expect to have a single family building cycle, that is has just been delayed a long time. He has been two steps ahead at every point in the housing market and appears to be right about this too.

Overall, I am now more of an optimist than in recent years. The apartment surge is beginning to hold down rents and single family construction continues to increase. We are at or near the housing inflection point. Due to stronger household income gains, affordability has largely stopped getting worse. A larger share of households can afford these higher rents and home prices in an improving economy. Between now and the next recession, affordability is likely to get better. Even so, as our work on the Housing Trilemma shows, regions face trade-offs between affordability, economic strength and quality of life. That said, stronger supply does help with broad regional affordability. The key is continuing to build enough housing to keep up with demand.

Note: The charts in this post were updated as of June 2018. The slides below are not updated and are from the original post.


  1. Josh, I am presenting to the Bay Area Chamber today … on the construction industry and the local housing crisis. Wish you could be here! My Coos housing crisis article was posted on QualityInfo yesterday; no feedback, yet. Annette

  2. […] Source: Causes of the Great Housing Shortage | Oregon Office of Economic Analysis […]

  3. Good article. While some metropolitan markets may be close to their “inflection point” rural markets that lack wage growth are far from their inflection point. I have been lending to home builders all through the recession & beyond and (for many) raising costs of new construction are out stripping wage growth.

    • Thanks Mike; appreciate the insights. That makes sense. New construction is always expensive, but that gap/premium is a bit larger today than in the past. In the urban areas, the combination of stronger job and wage growth combined with strong migration flows means there are a lot more people/households that can afford these really high prices. As you point that, clearly not the case everywhere. Rural affordability challenges are very real, and do have a larger economic/wage component than maybe some of the urban areas.

  4. Nice summary. Another factor to consider may be the price of infrastructure. Back in the days when housing was relatively plentiful and affordable, new homes were essentially subsidized by taxes and fees spread across the general population. Now, localities conduct detailed infrastructure financing plans and enact fees to pay for infrastructure, the costs of which are also escalating. While this may be fair, systems development charges that can sometimes exceed $50,000 for a new single family home decreases the profits of builders, affecting supply, and/or increases the costs to buyers, affecting demand.

    • Thanks Charles. You’re right. Development fees are higher today. How you balance the upfront costs of new development vs ongoing maintenance vs individual buyers vs the overall population is a tricky topic. The National Association of Home Builders say average development fees are up around 30% in the past 5 years. Those costs go straight into the sales price, or as much as the market will bare. Given the lack of supply, it’s all in the sales price today since it is a seller’s market. To your larger point, it can be hard at times to distinguish between things that are more affordability-related items and those that are more purely supply constraints. They’re interconnected, but there is some distinction. I struggled with that in trying to compile some of these issues.

  5. […] Overall these trends seen in the data are not unique to Oregon. The national data show the same issues. That is both encouraging and discouraging at the same time. On the positive side, it means that local problems are not the main driver behind the housing market issues today. On the bad side, it means there is something impacting the entire national housing market that is driving these results which makes it harder to fix locally. Our office has dug into a number of the supply side constraints in recent months and will summarize that work in the near future. Update: Here is our summary of the main supply constraints. […]

  6. […] The Oregon Office of Economic Analysis has crunched the data and produced an interesting report on some of the primary causes of the current statewide housing shortage…and the answer may surprise you. […]

  7. […] quite reached this stage of the housing market yet is what has many economists worried. Lack of supply and the reasons why, are the fundamental drivers of the tight housing market today. That said, there is a case to be […]

  8. […] Bottom Line: Despite some rhetoric out there, migration to Oregon is not just for the rich. In fact, migration by itself lowers Oregon incomes in the short-run given migrants tend to be younger and less likely to be employed. Over the long-run, the ability for our regional economy to attract and retain young, working-age households is vital for our growth prospects. Specifically regarding housing affordability, yes, migration does add to demand, but the biggest issue in recent years has been the lack of supply and the reasons why. […]

  9. […] long-run economic growth, the fact that affordability truly is a statewide challenge, the main housing supply constraints holding back construction in recent years, and the importance of household income gains for […]

  10. […] long-run economic growth, the fact that affordability truly is a statewide challenge, the main housing supply constraints holding back construction in recent years, and the importance of household income gains for […]

  11. […] While these problems are more pronounced here in Oregon, unfortunately, they are not entirely unique. The lack of housing supply in Oregon’s urban areas, and in the other popular and fast-growing metropolitan regions of the country has eroded affordability everywhere. The lack of credit for single family developers and for land acquisition and development loans in particular appears to be a root issue impacting the supply. For more on the causes of the housing shortage, see our office’s previous report. […]

  12. […] and explaining away our shortage more as a function of extremely high demand, and less about the supply issues. As such, I think it may be helpful to take a graphical trip down memory lane. The bottom line is […]

  13. […] and explaining away our shortage more as a function of extremely high demand, and less about the supply issues. As such, I think it may be helpful to take a graphical trip down memory lane. The bottom line is […]

  14. […] and explaining away our shortage more as a function of extremely high demand, and less about the supply issues. As such, I think it may be helpful to take a graphical trip down memory lane. The bottom line is […]

  15. […] supply response one would expect given the high prices and low vacancies? A little over a year ago our office dug into some of the commonly cited reasons for the lack of supply. That post continues to be a great reference and something we regularly direct inquiries to along […]

  16. […] Director of Up For Growth. Combined, the two of us covered the low levels of new construction, housing supply constraints, affordability being a statewide problem, and one reason our office cares so much is the risk that […]

  17. […] Director of Up For Growth. Combined, the two of us covered the low levels of new construction, housing supply constraints, affordability being a statewide problem, and one reason our office cares so much is the risk that […]

  18. […] been a few years, but our office previously dug into some of the commonly cited reasons for the low levels of new construction. I don’t believe […]

  19. […] As Tim Duy and I wrote a few years back, expensive cities don’t built much housing, for a variety of macro reasons in addition to local […]

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