No matter what the government might try to do to break the housing-economy cycle, the deleveraging process will still be painful and take some time. But that’s not an argument against action; just because a headache can still hurt some even if you take aspirin doesn’t mean you should skip the aspirin. One thing the Obama administration could do now — probably with Republican support — would be to attack the oversupply of housing stock by allowing a tax write-off for investors who buy empty properties and rent them out.
To understand why this would help, consider that the problems in the residential real-estate sector have two dimensions. First, we have an excess supply of owner- occupied housing, which puts downward pressure on prices. Second, millions of American households now have negative equity in their homes. Dealing with excess inventory by shifting vacant properties into the rental market would help to stabilize prices and thereby mitigate, to some degree, the negative-equity issue — although additional action would also be warranted to attack such “underwater” situations. (A future column will discuss possible responses.)
It’s normal to have some vacant homes for sale as part of the market process that matches buyers with sellers. On average during the 1990s, for example, the home vacancy rate was about 1.5 percent, according to the Census Bureau. By 2008, the figure had risen to 2.9 percent. And by the second quarter of this year, the vacancy rate had come down only slightly, to about 2.5 percent. With this much supply still available, it’s no wonder that prices are still depressed.