Friday, January 28, 2011


Lagging real estate market offers little relief

Though the recession knocked down home prices over the past few years, the price of keeping a roof over your head in this area is still not close to most people’s idea of cheap.

A regional planning agency found that in 15 communities south of Boston, more than 40 percent of households pay 30 percent or more of their income for housing. And across the state, there are nine communities, including Brockton, where more than half of the households pay at least 30 percent.

Richard Camiolo, a 54-year-old disabled veteran from the Vietnam era, said he could afford a house only because of a government program that knocked down the interest on his mortgage. He paid $250,000 in August for a Cape-style home on Little Sandy Bottom Pond in Pembroke.

“I never thought I could buy a place,’’ Camiolo said, but then his sister, a real estate agent, “found a special loan’’ from the US Department of Agriculture. After waiting for years to buy, and with prices down because of the recession, he said, “It was time to make a move.’’ His five-room, three-level house is 18 years old, and sits on a 5,000-square-foot lot.

The study conducted by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, based on US Census Bureau data from 2005 to 2009, looked at the percentage of households that spent 30 percent or more of their income on housing. For homeowners, the calculations included mortgage payments, insurance, taxes, and utilities, among other items. For renters, it included rent and utilities.

The 30 percent figure was used because, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, a household that pays that level or more of its income for housing is “cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation and medical care.’’

The MAPC report did not reflect the cost of housing so much as the financial impact on household finances in each community. For instance, some area communities with high housing prices had fewer households struggling to keep up, thanks to their higher incomes. In Hingham and Sharon, where the average assessed values for homes were approximately $660,000 and $430,000, respectively, only about one-third of the households paid 30 percent or more of their income for housing, the report found.

That contrasts with less wealthy communities, such as Brockton and Hull.

Average home values are under $200,000 in Brockton, but more than half of the households pay 30 percent or more of income to keep a roof over their heads. The percentage is nearly as high in Hull.

“Housing prices are lower, but people’s income is a lot lower, especially if you are unemployed or underemployed,’’ said Mark Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

“The housing burden remains very substantial. We shouldn’t think that because housing prices have cooled people are paying less for housing, because that is not the case,’’ he said.

The good news is that housing prices have stabilized, according to Normand Grenier, president of the Neighborhood Housing Services of the South Shore, a Quincy-based nonprofit organization that assists first-time homebuyers. The bad news is that those prices stabilized somewhere in the stratosphere.

“Your average person is making a considerable sacrifice to either buy or rent. Prices are still prohibitive,’’ he said.

A few years ago, people could buy cheaply in a poorer community like Brockton or head farther south for lower prices. Not anymore, Grenier said.

“There are no inexpensive places to flee to right now,’’ he said, with Brockton still somewhat of a bargain but with higher prices there too.

Luis Rosa and his wife, Maria, have been looking for a single-family home for three years. The 49-year-old Cape Verdean recently made an offer of $250,000 for a five-bedroom house in Brockton, but the deal fell through after he learned he couldn’t switch over to a natural gas heating system, and so they are still shopping for a house.

Even though they plan to make a big down payment, about half of the sales price, meeting the monthly payments will be a challenge, Rosa said. “It is very hard for the mortgage.’’

Janet Baxter, manager of the Brockton office of the Jack Conway & Co., agreed that prices have leveled off in her area. That’s a change from previous years, when prices were dropping 2 percent a month, she said. Prices dropped a little more after federal incentives ended last spring, which meant there were fewer buyers in the market. But mortgage interest rates have started to creep up, giving some buyers more urgency, she added.

Prices in Greater Boston remain sluggish, according to Standard & Poor’s Case-Shiller Home Price Indices. Values are down a fraction from a year ago. After peaking in September 2005, the area’s housing market had dropped 20 percent by March 2009. Sales in November dropped for the fifth straight month, largely because many buyers bought earlier in the year to take advantage of the federal homebuyers’ tax credit.

The 20 percent drop is far smaller than in many other sections of the country, likely because the local economy has fared relatively well, said Tom Gleason, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, a nonprofit agency that works with the state to increase the supply of affordable housing. And even though housing prices dropped, rents have remained high.

“There’s still a need for a affordable housing in the state,’’ said Gleason. Voters are for it, too, he said, noting the defeat of a referendum question that would have overturned the state’s affordable housing law, known as Chapter 40B, on the November ballot.

Matt Carroll Boston Globe January 16, 2011

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