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Homeownership drops to historic low as renters abound

Tampa Bay homeownership, once so popular, continues to lose its appeal. The share of people here who own a home plunged last year to its lowest point since the U.S. Census Bureau started counting in 1986.

Since peaking at 73 percent during the housing boom, homeownership here, or the rate of lived-in housing units that are owner-occupied, has fallen six straight years to 65 percent, lower than the Florida average.

That's largely because more people these days are more apt to rent. The occupancy rate of Tampa Bay rentals rose last year, to one of its highest points since the '90s, census data show.

It's a trend that's increasingly widespread: Homeownership across Florida has fallen to its lowest point (66 percent) since 1992, and nationwide to its lowest point (65 percent) since 1995. But it's especially surprising in Tampa Bay, a stronghold of suburbs and homeowner-heavy neighborhoods.

It's easy to see why homeownership soared during the housing bubble, when banks practically threw away cash to over-their-head homebuyers.

It also makes sense that renting would rise during the bust, as foreclosed families denied new mortgages had no other choice but to rent.

But even years after the recession's end, rental housing has continued "a decade of unprecedented growth," a recent report by Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies found.

So why are so few rushing to the bank for a shot at the American dream?

Rising prices are eating away at housing affordability. Bad credit is blocking out buyers from loans. Many others who once would have seen homes as sources of stability have, in the shadow of the housing bust, changed their minds.

That homeownership here has fallen to levels not seen since before the Oprah Winfrey Show premiered is no surprise to big investors, who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars here amassing a network of rental homes.

"Since World War II, homeownership has been a proxy for wealth creation," said Colony American Homes CEO Justin Chang, whose home-rental giant had by last year bought more than 1,000 Tampa Bay homes. "In the last five or six years, that has been turned on its head."

Hopeful home buyers, too, say that the housing market remains rife with annoyances, including still-slim inventories of homes for sale and tightfisted banks hesitant to hand out loans.

Some say selling isn't all it's cracked up to be, either. Many potential sellers are adopting big investors' business model, leasing their homes at high rent rates now while hoping home prices continue to climb.

Nearly 4 out of 10 nationwide homeowners looking to move said they planned to rent out their home instead of sell, a study from online brokerage Redfin found last month.

Renters come in all shapes and sizes, including married couples with children, who have contributed a growing share of rental growth over the last five years. But adding to the dipping homeownership rate are young adults, who moved back in with their parents but are now increasingly moving back out.

At home, they weren't counted as their own households. Now, as they venture out on their own, they're most often beginning their journey in an apartment or rental home.

Their exodus, analysts said, could represent a sizable new market. In a report last month, the Demand Institute called new household growth "the main driver of housing demand in the next five years."

In Hillsborough County alone, the number of single-family rental homes grew 40 percent between 2012 and 2013, data from property manager Home Encounter show. A building boom in "luxury" apartments in Tampa and St. Petersburg's downtowns will also help feed the demand.

But as renter crowds swell and rental vacancy rates shrink, Tampa Bay's extremely low-income households could end up being hurt most.

For the more than 80,000 households here earning less than 30 percent of the median income — about $17,000, for a family of four — there are fewer than 15,000 available rental units they can afford, Urban Institute data show.

That means, for every 100 extremely low-income renter households here, there are only 18 affordable, available places to rent. Those left out end up living in substandard housing or spending a risky amount of their income on rent.

Some economists believe homeownership's 27-year low could soon level off as formerly foreclosed buyers "boomerang" back to the market and banks ease up on lending.

About 13 percent of Tampa Bay renters indicated they want to buy a home in the next year, beating the national average, analysts at online housing database Zillow said in a report this week.

"There are more things going right for the housing market today than there have been since the recession," Wells Fargo senior economist Mark Vitner said. "But we've still got a long way to go before things get back to normal."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8252.

Homeownership drops to historic low as renters abound 03/14/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 14, 2014 10:22pm]

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