July 30, 2008
posted by Jimmy Higgins
As of June 30, housing prices in the US are down 15.8% from one year earlier. This is being reported as the destruction of $3.25 trillion worth of value.*
Well, sort of. The capital the business press says has been destroyed has both a fictitious and a real character.
The fictitious aspect has come to the fore because the legendary “newer sucker” of capitalist theory has failed to show up. As long as you could actually sell your house to someone for more than you paid for it, everything was copacetic. You didn’t even have to sell. You could borrow against that increased value and have real money in your bank account (and, alas, owe the lender real money too, plus real interest). Once you can only unload that house at a fire sale rate, if at all, it becomes clear that a lot of that “value” wasn’t very real at all.
But the destruction of very real concrete physical capital is ramping up, though it’s nowhere near $3 trillion worth yet, That’s actual houses which are being abandoned, and will fall into ruin and never be occupied again.
Some of this is hard to weep salt tears over, of course, like the ghastly exurban developments so recently marketed under banners like “affordable luxury.” Now they are being dubbed “ghost towns with granite countertops,” as rising oil prices have helped highlight the downside of living a long, long drive from work or even shopping. Many of those finished or nearly completed in the last year or so will never be inhabited.
Most of it, though, is houses people need to live in. Buffalo, NY is a good example. The city is among the local governments that have initiated lawsuits against big banks like Citicorp and Wells Fargo and other lenders who have foreclosed on properties or where mortgage holders have walked away, unable to afford their payments.
Buffalo sued in February for $2 million to cover not upkeep which had been neglected but the actual cost of demolishing 57 abandoned properties. 21 had already been torn down. And these are far from the only foreclosed houses standing empty in Buffalo. "It’s our first strike in a wave that would obviously focus on more,” said Alisa A. Lukasiewicz, Buffalo’s corporation counsel.
Demolition is a “lagging indicator” of the housing crisis. Houses can stand abandoned and decaying for a long time before anyone gets around to dealing with them.(or even figuring out who owns them with so many mortgages parceled up into CDOs)
And a lot of what’s been foreclosed on in the hardest hit states—fast growth areas like Florida, California and Nevada—was built relatively recently. And that’s more bad news.
These developments aren’t exactly built to last. Even the ugly but pricey new McMansions you see occupying nine tenths of a lot in wealthier suburbs are crap—nice-looking flooring laid over cheap plywood, paper-thin wood veneer on those pre-made kitchen cabinets, foam-core or hollow doors, drywall keeping the place upright as much as or more than the flimsy 24” o.c. frames.
They aren’t going to last the way old Iowa farmhouses or Philly row houses or even NYC tenements do. With no maintenance, never mind squatters, they’ll crumble fast.
And billions more in real capital will be destroyed, while those who created this mess—the predatory lenders, the executives at the big banks, the money market honchos, and the government economists who hailed it all—will not only make out just fine, but are already waiting to invest and profit when the housing market does finally bottom out.
*And that's not including the losses in value of the CDOs, the collateralized debt obligations whose collapse triggered the credit crisis (no one has any idea how much), or in the bear market in stocks which has resulted from the credit crisis ($2.3 trillion just in the U.S. S&P 100 so far).