Home Affordability: 10 Counties in 10 Charts

To paraphrase Tolstoy, all affordable cities are alike; each unaffordable city is unaffordable in its own way.

For a family earning 80% of the area median income, these are the ten counties with the lowest rate of affordable homes to buy:

10. San Francisco, CA 4.88%
9. Guaynabo, PR 4.82%
8. Honolulu, HI 4.68%
7. Bristol, RI 4.59%
6. Kauai, HI 4.51%
5. Wasatch, UT 4.5%
4. Bayamón, PR 4.07%
3. Nantucket, MA 3.35%
2. Falls Church City, VA 2.75%
1. Dukes, MA 1.87%

It’s an eclectic group: one major city, two northeastern suburbs, two Hawaiian counties, two Massachusetts resort islands (Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard), two Puerto Rican municipios, and an intermountain exurb.

We’re used to seeing patterns repeat themselves through different indicators, so we were surprised to see how much these counties differ from one another. Though the affordable housing shortage in this country extends far beyond these most egregious cases, their variety provides a good look at a few reasons for shortages in home ownership opportunities for lower income families. Let’s take a closer look at why such a varied group of communities made this list.

Two quick technical notes: Three of these (Guaynabo Municipio, Bayamón Municipio, and Falls Church City) are not technically counties, but treated as county-equivalents by the Census Bureau for statistical purposes. Puerto Rico, though not a state, is within the territorial extent of the United States.

Except for the affordability data, which we calculated using data from ACS and HUD, all the indicators below come from 2012-1016 ACS data.

1. Low Affordability

Here are the ten counties, from west to east:

This data is calculated from ACS income and housing data, using HUD affordability calculations. In every county listed, less than 5% of homes are affordable to purchase for a family earning 80% of the area median income (which is based on income in the metropolitan statistical area). This data isn’t referring explicitly to regulated affordable housing (such as affordable housing provided through subsidies or local regulations), but looking at all available units affordable to the income group.

To give you an idea of what we’re talking about, San Francisco, notorious for its sky-high housing costs, is the most affordable county on this list.

2. Expensive Homes

Perhaps unsurprisingly, five of the twelve most expensive counties in the country for home values are represented here: San Francisco (4th most expensive), Honolulu (12th), Nantucket (1st), Falls Church (7th), and Dukes (9th). Other counties with high home values, but (at least some) more affordable housing include New York, NY, Marin, CA, San Mateo, CA, Santa Clara, CA, Teton, WY, and Arlington, VA.

Also striking is how low home values in Puerto Rico’s municipios are relative to the rest of the counties here. It’s worth pointing out that while they’re lower than the others here, Guaynabo’s median home value ($199,100) is still above the national median home value ($184,700).

3. High Seasonal Vacancy

Perhaps the easiest of these counties to explain are the resorts, where most of the people purchasing expensive properties live and work elsewhere: Dukes County (which is mostly the island of Martha’s Vineyard), Nantucket, Wasatch, and Kauai. These are easy to identify as resorts by looking at ACS data on seasonal vacancies (as in, summer/winter homes).

Dukes and Nantucket are clearly in their own category, with more than half of homes being seasonally vacant.

Curiously, though Wasatch is adjacent to a number of major ski areas, the neighboring counties where the ski areas are located don’t have the same degree of affordability issues. Wasatch isn’t dominated by vacation homes to the extent Nantucket and Dukes are.

4. High Median Family Incomes

Falls Church City, Virginia, has the highest median family income county in the country. Though the area lacks affordable housing, that may not indicate a need for affordable home ownership opportunities by the people who currently live there (though a high median family income doesn’t mean there are no lower-income families). This would also mean that families with lower incomes may be effectively barred from moving in to this community.

Bayamón Municipio, Puerto Rico, has among the lowest income levels in the country.

5. Lots of Renters

We’re looking at counties where homeownership is unaffordable. But how prevalent is homeownership? This chart shows that though homeownership may be out of reach for San Franciscans, a majority of them are renters. In the rest of the counties here, renters make up a minority.

6. Free and Clear Ownership

7. Housing Stability/Turnover

The two Puerto Rico municipios present a quandary: How can two places with relatively low median incomes and comparatively low home values have so few affordable homes?

The first thing to keep in mind is that with income levels as low as they are in these areas, 80% of median income represents a very low level of earnings. Furthermore, both areas have higher median incomes than the San Juan MSA, which they’re both part of, so these are families with significantly lower incomes than the municipio median. With incomes low, few homes affordable, and a low rate of people renting, what’s going on?

These charts help answer this question. They show that these municipios have relatively high levels of free-and-clear ownership, and low levels of housing turnover. This indicates a significant amount of homeownership that goes back generations. In other words, many families here own homes they wouldn’t be able to afford to buy today.

8. Population Increase

9. Housing Increase

Wasatch County has grown by 83% since 2000. The amount of housing hasn’t quite kept up, growing by 78%. In some instances, lack of affordable housing is due to displacement of lower earners when higher earners buy up existing housing. In cases like Wasatch, it might just be supply not meeting demand.

10. Change in Lower-Income Population

Is a lack of affordable homes causing displacement of lower income households? Here we see that the number of households earning less than $75,000 has fallen in San Francisco, which matches what we often read about the city. We see a similar situation in Honolulu.

Perhaps surprising is to see positive values here: Counties where, despite their lack of affordability, there’s an influx of (relatively) low income households. Dukes and Nantucket had seen a major decrease in lower-income population since 2000, so the increase over the last five years reverses that trend. The increase in Wasatch is likely due to a dramatic overall population increase there. Even though there’s a low proportion of affordable housing there, there are still a lot of people of all income levels moving there.

One more thing

We haven’t spoken at all about the county of Bristol, Rhode Island. Its presence on the “top ten unaffordable counties” list isn’t as easily explained as the others. Though it’s located on the Narragansett Bay, home values aren’t particularly high compared to the other counties here. It may be that our statistic on affordability looks at area median income, not just the income of the county. Bristol’s median family income is $97,362, but the area median income, which takes into account the whole Providence-Warwick Metropolitan Statistical Area, is only $75,910. So we’re looking at homes that affordable to a family earning $60,728, which is 80% of the median income in the greater Providence area, but just 62% of the median income in Bristol.

It’s a problem when people can’t afford to live in the cities they work in. Different causes of affordable housing shortages call for different solutions. Identifying the shortage is an important first step, but by looking at the underlying causes of the shortage, cities and counties can work more effectively to create more housing options.