11 Percent

It is difficult to get accurate data on the number of empty housing units in the United States. Recent estimates suggest that approximately 18 million, or almost 11%, of homes in the United States are unoccupied[1. This is a full time statistic and does not include vacation/part time homes that may be vacant some of the time, due to the way they are used.]. Unsurprisingly, home ownership, that holy grail of economic stability and wellbeing, is in decline at the moment. The true size of the ‘shadow inventory’ of homes simply held off the market, not actively in foreclosure, up for rent, or available for sale, is hard to guess. In New York state alone, lenders have a foreclosure backlog of 62 years. Florida and California, also hit very hard by the recession, presumably have comparable backlogs.

11%. That’s a lot of empty housing units. Where are all of the people who were presumably in those housing units at some point going, exactly? Some of them are certainly going into the streets, others are doubling up with friends and family, drifting between hotels and shelters, or simply leaving the country altogether, in the case of some immigrants who entered the US in the hopes of building a better life and left it after seeing that nothing was available.

Much of the conversation about economic recovery centres around the housing market, for obvious and understandable reasons. We’re in this mess because of a poorly regulated housing market, and it has stayed consistently depressed, rather than perking up, as was once so confidently predicted. It may not necessarily have hit bottom, either; it’s hard to tell, given that unemployment is still trending, more people are against the wall with their mortgage payments, and some markets are clearly still at least somewhat inflated. The dust may have already settled, or we could still be in the thick of it.

Housing starts are being closely followed by many financial publications covering the recession and recovery, and I have to admit, I am somewhat baffled by this. It seems to me that with millions of empty housing units, the last thing we need is more housing units, and the concentration should be on unloading existing inventory, rather than on promoting more construction. Construction would, yes, create jobs, as contractors and architects and their associated ilk need to eat (and for that matter pay mortgages) too, but I don’t really see the social benefit in creating more empty houses. Or, worse, more partially-completed developments in former natural areas, where the ghosts of foundations will linger until finally scrubbed away by the weather and passing animals.

And I do not necessarily believe that unloading existing inventory would deprive contractors and other people in the building trades of work. Many of these empty housing units need work, a lot of it. People buying them might do that work themselves, but others need to call on construction professionals, creating jobs refurbishing housing units. There’s also a great opportunity, while remodeling homes, to think about accessibility and universal design, to consult people like architects on the most appropriate approach to take to a remodel, on how to make a remodel add more value in the long term in addition to allowing people to age in place.

Sluggish housing starts do not have to equal a depression in the building trades, and shouldn’t. Until we address the existing inventory of empty, neglected homes, it is ludicrous to talk about building even more. We need hard numbers on what is unoccupied and why, and how to get homes occupied. The longer homes sit vacant, the more glaring their problems can become. Mold and mildew set in, weathering damages cladding, leaks go unchecked, equipment rusts and becomes obsolete. These homes are simply eyesores waiting to happen in communities across the US.

If we build more housing, doesn’t this mean we will create blighted communities, particularly in low-income urban areas where the recession had a very palpable cost? Is this really what we want to do, and the kind of policy we want to be promoting? It doesn’t seem sensible or advisable to me when the alternative could be the promotion of community redevelopment, rehabilitation of homes on the margin of usability. Some of these structures are, inevitably, teardowns, but that doesn’t mean they all have to be, and it doesn’t mean that we need to promote block after block of moldering homes, with the occasional occupied outlier struggling like a weed through the cracks in the sidewalk.

If the focus is on long term benefits to communities, these empty units need to be addressed to avoid creating future crises and ongoing problems. Simply building more doesn’t address some of the fundamental issues here; yes, creating more jobs is good, but how does shifting development to outlying areas where there’s room for more housing units benefit the community? How does the cultivation of blight benefit communities? How does creating more sprawl benefit the environment, let alone the residents who have to contend with it? This is like opening the fridge, seeing a perfectly good block of cheese, and then throwing it out and going to buy another block.

There is absolutely no reason that 11% of homes in the United States should be unoccupied full time. Not when we have a growing homeless population, not when people are living in crowded, cramped, and stressful conditions, not when rents are too high in many areas for people to afford. Throwing away perfectly good housing units to preferentially build even more units that may well sit empty should be a crime.