Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Subsidized housing.

Over the last week, the subject of where prices for housing is going came up a lot. It was coupled with the increase in vacancies that I've seen in the rental market, both residential, and commercial.
Along with the conversations, I mentioned that the rental market is really competitive at the moment, and someone asked if I ever looked into subsidized housing, sometimes known as Section 8. I have looked into it, and decided not to get involved for several reasons. I'm going to tell you why.
Over the years, I had an opportunity to pick up some older duplexes in a low-income neighborhood. The units had few tenants, and some of the vacant units were emptied of the easily removable contents--doors, toilets, cabinet knobs, faucets, and compression plumbing under the sinks.
I started by renovating and renting the empty units. During this time, money was short, and I was working part-time and temp jobs during the day, and the units at night, and doing a variety of paperwork early in the morning. It wasn't unusual for me to be up at 5am and not in bed until somewhere between midnight and 2am. I would often get a nap at lunchtime, but I was doing a lot of 16 hour work days, 6 days a week, with a 'short' 8 to 12 hours on Sunday.
During this time I got a lot of people wandering by to ask when the unit would be ready. I had several ask me if I took Section 8. I was fairly new to the business, and told them I hadn't looked into it. When asked, I told them the rents were about $650 and nearly all of them told me that Section 8 would pay me $850 and that we could "split the difference" or something to that effect. That sort of dishonesty helped put me off. Well, I guess they were honest with me, but not with Section 8. I have an abiding antipathy to liars. However, I would give them an application if they wanted.
I  also was questioned as to why I was making the places 'so nice' by applicants. I replied, "If it looks like a sty, only pigs will want to live here." Those people never brought back the application I gave them. In the words of Dave Ramsey, broke is a condition, poor is an attitude.
Emotionally (I know I shouldn't get emotional about property--that's fodder for another article) I am a bit attached to these properties that I've spent so much time renovating. I've spent a lot of time and money, and literally blood, sweat and tears on these units. All of the landlords who do their own work that I've talked to, feel pretty much the same. All of them that have had Section 8 renters have had problems with damage to the units. The overall conclusion is that the extra money is eaten up in the repairs.
As it happens, the local paper had a trio of staff writers cover the subject. In my opinion, the comments section will give you better insight than the article itself.
Though Section 8 pays higher than average rates, there is a flipside with subsidized housing (brought up by one of the above commentators) in that it devalues real estate in the area. The people building subsidized housing  are able to charge rents that are lower than market rates (affordable). This brings down the rents of neighboring units, especially, or maybe because of, the added units cause a surplus of housing. This drives the rental housing prices down. So the government causes taxpayers to  subsidize a few large construction companies that are in competition with them.
The purpose of the subsidized low-income housing is to deflate housing prices. This unfortunately for investors, also deflates the value of their property. So it's likely, that in the near future, as bailout money gets used for subsidized housing, it will accelerate the decrease in your investment's value. Your property will become worth less faster. This is going to be especially true in larger cities.
If you drive around neighborhoods or down the freeway, you're likely to see a lot of commercial property vacancies. There are more coming. As rents go down, commercial properties are worth less. Unfortunately for small business owners, there is a lot of uncertainty as to what new taxes are in store for them and what existing taxes are going to be raised. That economic uncertainty is going to contribute to unemployment. So there are going to be less Americans compteting for housing in California.
All this makes me think housing hasn't bottomed out yet. This is especially true in outlying areas and suburbs. Though, prices are still at lows that I haven't seen since the 90's, and you can pick up housing for less than it costs to build, and less than it would cost to rent. It still might be good to buy, knowing that your purchase will lose value over the next few years, then increase after positive changes in the economy.

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