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Is Tampa Bay headed for another housing bubble? Not this time around

Housing and home building is doing well again. But overall, it does not apear as if a bubble is forming like the one that contributed to the Great Recession more than a decade ago. (New York Times files)
Housing and home building is doing well again. But overall, it does not apear as if a bubble is forming like the one that contributed to the Great Recession more than a decade ago. (New York Times files)
Published Oct. 15, 2018

Home prices keep climbing. Houses sprout in long dormant parts of Pasco and Hillsborough counties. Condo towers rise in our downtowns.

It's no wonder I'm often asked whether we are creating another housing bubble like the one that plunged the economy into a tailspin a decade ago.

The short answer: No, not this time around.

"For housing, things point to a general slow down," said Robert Dietz, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders. "No big crash or a popping of a bubble because there really isn't a housing bubble out there."

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While local home prices are up, they only recently topped their 2006 peak, and that doesn't account for 12 years of inflation. Plus banks aren't doling out the crazy no money down, no documentation, interest-only loans common during the go-go years between 2003-06.

Perhaps more to the point: We aren't building nearly as much.

Through Aug. 31 this year, about 65,000 permits were issued in Florida for new single-family homes, according to Census Bureau data. That's less than half the number for the same period in 2005.

This year, nearly 900 new buildings with five or more housing units received permits. Back then, it was 2,535.

The value of all those 2005 projects still far exceeds today's crop, even without adjusting for inflation. Then: $30.8 billion. Now: $20.7 billion.

In the Tampa Bay area, the theme is the same: Less than half the number of single-family home permits compared to 2005 and an even bigger drop in multi-family projects.

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Before the recession, builders couldn't put up houses fast enough, confident that eager buyers would snatch them up. Developers transformed aging apartment blocks into condos to sell. Speculators gobbled up homes hoping to flip them for big profits.

For a few years, they all made money.

But that frenzied home building outpaced the formation of new households. Long term, that's sustainable only if there's a dramatic increase in the number of people who need — and can afford — second or third homes.

Today, demographics drive much of the building, not speculation or creative mortgage lending. Florida's population keeps growing, fueled by retirees who need homes. Also, millennials are shifting from renting to owning as more of them move closer to their early 30s, the typical age of first-time home buyers. Listless wage growth hampers that trend, but it's still happening.

"Florida is in pretty good shape when it comes to the fundamental drivers of housing demand," Dietz said. "It's really outpacing the country as a whole."

If anything, many areas with growing populations remain under built due in part to rising construction costs. Builders have had to deal with a spike in lumber costs, a lack of buildable lots and fewer lenders willing to help them buy available land and cover other costs.

In addition, a shortage of skilled labor has reached crisis stage, with 273,000 construction-sector jobs nationwide going unfilled in July, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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Tony Polito, regional director of Metrostudy, a research firm that tracks the housing market, said Tampa Bay's recent job creation should translate into an annual demand for about 5,400 new apartments and 12,600 homes, townhomes and condos.

"We are building less than that, as it is hard to build affordable product, so there is some pent-up demand there," he said.

Interest rates are another leveling influence. They've already ticked up in the past year and are expected to rise further, which increases the cost of owning a home for anyone who needs a mortgage. Higher interest rates, combined with rising prices, can scare off potential buyers or convince them to look at less expensive homes.

In fact, housing affordability is close to a 10-year low. That should slow the rise in home prices and cool off the market before it can get too frothy.

Dietz predicted continued growth in single-family home building over the next year or so, but at a slower pace. Multi-family construction will likely level off, he said.

"This is more of a traditional cycle, a normal market that adjusts according to fundamentals," Dietz said. "That wasn't really the case the last time."

A recession looms somewhere in our not-so-distant future. It could come in 2020, maybe later. But it doesn't seem like a massive housing bubble will play the starring role it did a decade ago.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.