Housing Vacancy Survey data for the fourth quarter of 2011, released by the U.S. Census Bureau January 31, indicate that the economic crisis continues to impede the market’s ability to work off its inventory of vacant for-rent and for-sale homes. The survey shows a continuing, steady decline in homeownership and sustained vacancy rates in both the rental and owner markets.
Approximately 86.1% of the housing units in the U.S. in the fourth quarter 2011 were occupied, leaving 13.9% of units vacant. The survey finds that the official for-sale and for-rent vacancy rates remained relatively unchanged since the fourth quarter of 2010 at 2.3% and 9.4%, respectively. The homeowner vacancy rate fell 0.1 percentage points from the previous quarter and 0.4 percentage points from the fourth quarter 2010. The rental vacancy rate remained unchanged from this time a year ago and dropped 0.4% from the previous quarter.
These official vacancy rates do not tell the full story, however, because there are many vacant units that are not currently offered for sale or rent, and not included in the official for-sale and for-rent vacancy rates. The number of these “other units held off market” decreased from 7.3 million units in the fourth quarter of 2010 to 7.2 million in the fourth quarter of 2011, constituting 5.4% of all housing units. This category likely captures foreclosed homes and those where owners have ceased to market them, accounting in part for the decrease in the overall vacancy rate from 14.4% to 13.9% over the past year. While the number of vacant homes that are neither being offered for sale or for rent is shrinking somewhat, it is still of considerable concern for housing policy.
A more significant indication of the shifting housing market may be the downward trending homeownership rate. The country’s homeownership rate fell to 66%, a 0.5 percentage point decrease from this time a year ago and a 0.3 percentage point decrease from the previous quarter. The homeownership rate has not been so low since the second quarter of 1998.
Regionally, homeownership rates were highest in the Midwest (70.0%) and lowest in the West (60.1%). Over the past year, the greatest decrease (0.9 percentage points) in homeownership rates was experienced in the West. This is likely due to the concentration of foreclosures in the region.
Homeownership and renter rates also greatly vary by race and ethnicity of households. White households continue to have a homeownership rate (73.7%) significantly above the national average, while blacks (45.1%) and Hispanics (46.6%) continue to have rates significantly below the national average. However, no group has escaped the housing crisis; all racial groups have experienced declining homeownership rates since the second quarter of 2009.
Data from the most recent and past Housing Vacancy Surveys, a component of the Current Population Survey, can be found at: www.census.gov/hhes/www/housing/hvs/hvs.html