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Below we compare the for-rent and for-sale housing markets since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 – a period marked by massive price growth and dwindling affordability. Rent growth is measured using the Apartment List National and Metro Rent Estimates, while price changes in the for-sale market are measured using the Case-Shiller National and Metro Area Indices.
In year one of the pandemic, rapid shifts in household formation led home prices to soar while rents were largely stagnant. Over 2 million households, mostly renters living alone or with roommates, disappeared and then re-formed in 12 months as people settled into new working and living arrangements. The rental market saw a brief spike in vacancies and a brief dip in rents, but by the end of year one, rents were essentially back to pre-pandemic levels.1 Meanwhile, many renters looked at this year as an opportunity to buy a home, with mortgage rates at historic lows and many equipped with the flexibility to work anywhere. These forces put a lot of pressure on an already-tight housing market, and while nationwide rents moved little year-over-year, home prices jumped 13.5 percent.
In year two, a surge in household formation caused a shortage of vacant homes in both sectors of the housing market. The apartment vacancy rate fell below 4 percent, and active for-sale listings fell to less than half of pre-pandemic inventory. With demand greatly outpacing supply, and inflation sweeping across all sectors of the economy, by March 2022 rent prices were 16.3 percent higher than they had been in March 2020, while home prices were up 33.5 percent over the same period.
The tides finally turned in year three. In its fight against inflation, the Federal Reserve hiked interest rates, significantly ramping up mortgage rates and the cost of purchasing a home. This turned away potential buyers who were on the fence, and encouraged some sellers to drop list prices. Home price appreciation since March 2020 peaked at a staggering 43.3 percent in June 2022, but a dip in the second half of the year – a once-common seasonal trend that became non-existent during the pandemic – sank prices 5 percent to close out the year.
However, macro conditions did not produce the inventory boom required to sustain this price drop. High interest rates had pulled back demand but also negatively impacted supply. Investment in new single-family home construction stalled, while many existing homeowners – most of whom are locked into low mortgage rates – see little incentive to move, even as their current homes swell in value. A rebound over the past four months has brought home prices back to their peak and year-over-year growth to 0 percent.
Thanks to supply expansion, the rental market experienced a slightly different trajectory during year three of the pandemic. While single-family construction stalled, multi-family construction has remained strong even in the face of high interest rates. Rents peaked in 2022 at around the same time as home prices, and while the following dip was not as sharp as in the for-sale market, it has proven stickier. Rents fell 3.6 percent off their peak, and have yet to fully rebound. Today, year-over-year rent growth stands at -1.2 percent, and after experiencing its first monthly rent drop in August, the coming winter is shaping up to be another slow one for the rental market.
A quick glance at the national data shows that even though rents are down year-over-year, an affordability windfall is not reaching the suburbs. In fact, the urban-suburban gap has widened steadily for the past eight months because rent drops have been slower in the suburbs than in core cities.
The data here span 33 metropolitan areas: 33 core cities and 387 suburbs in total. Today, year-over-year rent declines have reached -1.7 percent in core cities and -1.2 percent in suburban ones. This means that over the course of the pandemic, suburban rent growth has outpaced core city rent growth by nearly 8 percentage points, the highest it has ever been. Most of the gap emerged within the first 12 months of the pandemic, but has widened steadily since then.
In some metropolitan areas, the urban-suburban gap is more than twice the national average. This includes a handful of dense, coastal metros like Seattle WA; Los Angeles, CA; and Washington, DC; where core cities experienced deep rent cuts early in the pandemic are just now returning to pre-pandemic prices.
New York City metro notably breaks this trend, and is one of just five metropolitan areas where the gap is reversed. There, pandemic rent growth is actually higher in the urban core than in the surrounding suburbs. Outside New York, this trend is most common in large but lower-density metros like Tampa, FL and San Jose, CA.
As housing affordability rapidly worsened over the course of the 2010s, workers in many of the nation’s hottest markets gradually began to move further and further from the urban core in search of more affordable housing. This led to a rapid surge in the population of “super commuters” – workers who travel 90 minutes or more each way to work. But as the remote work revolution has taken hold, many of these long-distance commuters are now staying home, and the number of super commuters has plummeted, erasing a full decade of expansion. The underlying affordability crisis has not gone away, but changes in the ways we work are significantly altering the role of job location in housing choice. In this report, we dive into the latest data to better understand the rapid evolution in super commuting trends.
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