Looking for a place to live?

You’d be hard pressed not to find one.

New figures today from the U.S. Census Bureau show that more than 463,000 housing units in the state were vacant when the decennial count was taken last year. That’s close to one out of every six.

“If you want to put that in context, that’s enough housing to accommodate an entire decade worth of population growth — if the population were growing,’’ pointed out Marshall Vest, economist at the University of Arizona. “Of course, it hasn’t been here for the last couple of years.’’

Even factoring out vacation and second homes, that still leaves nearly 280,000 homes, apartments and condos empty, a figure approaching 10 percent.

What’s particularly alarming is that Vest said a normal vacancy rate for homes is closer to the 1 to 2 percent range.

Jay Butler, economist at Arizona State University, said his calculations show the historic vacancy rate at 1 percent. He said even apartments, which have a much more active turnover, traditionally have run in the 8 percent range.

Some of the reasons for all this are familiar, starting with the collapse of housing prices and the foreclosures that followed.

John Strobeck, who writes a monthly housing report for Bright Futures Business Consultants, said lenders were busy in the last decade writing adjustable rate mortgages to get people into homes. Then, when the rates got reset, many people found they could not afford the new payments and could not refinance as their homes were worth less than owed.

So they walked away.

But Butler said other factors are at work.

“In a bad economy, people find roommates,’’ he said. “So instead of having two occupied units, you have one occupied and one empty.’’

Butler said that is further enabled by the fact that there are cheap rentals for nice places. That means someone can rent a three-bedroom home for $1,800 a month, take on two roommates and have a great house for just $600.

He also said that when some people lost their homes, they simply moved in with their families.

And then there are the new laws aimed at illegal immigrants.

“In areas of Phoenix where you have old apartments, which would be prime for illegals and others to live in, their vacancy rate almost two years ago just shot up over 20 percent’’ as families decided to leave, Butler said.

There are other areas of the state with relatively high vacancy rates. But something different is at play there.

For example, in Pima County a census tract near Green Valley had the highest number of vacant homes, at close to 1,000.

Carolyn Fox of Coldwell Banker Success Southwest said that is not surprising. She said “maybe half’’ of the homes in the community, where at least one resident has to be at least 55 years old, are owned by people who live elsewhere at least part of the year.

That means on the day the census was taken, they could have been back in Minnesota or Michigan.

Fox said even communities like hers, though, also have been hit by foreclosures. And she said that, given the nature of a retirement community, there always are going to be a fair number of homes that are vacant.

“People here, as they get older, they need more assistance,’’ Fox said. That means going to live with family or elsewhere.

And the other fact of life, she said, is that people die.

So when does it get better?

Vest said it’s strictly a function of people moving here.

He pointed out that the vacancy rate at the time of the 2000 census was 15.1 percent, not all that far off from the current 16.3 percent. Then, as now, there was a recession.

But that recession, he said, was “very mild’’ by comparison. More significant, people kept moving to Arizona.

Now, said Vest, there is little, if any, population growth. And he said that is because the nation as a whole has the lowest “mobility rate’’ in six decades.

“A lot of that has to do with people being upside-down in their houses,’’ he said, unable to sell them to get the money to go elsewhere.

In the meantime, Vest said home prices are still declining in most markets.

“The lower prices go, the more foreclosures you have,’’ he said. “And the more foreclosures you have, the more downward pressure you have on prices.’’

Butler agreed that an improving economy is key to getting the housing vacancy rate back to near normal levels. He said once people have money they will once again want their own place.


Area Total vac rate For rent Rented, not occ For sale Sold, not occ Seasonal Other // Net*
Statewide 16.30% 4.20% 0.20% 2.30% 0.40% 6.50% 2.8% // 9.8%
Apache 30.00% 2.20% 0.20% 0.70% 0.10% 17.30% 9.5% // 12.7%
Cochise 13.80% 3.20% 0.20% 1.90% 0.30% 3.10% 5.1% // 10.7%
Coconino 26.20% 2.00% 0.20% 1.30% 0.10% 19.00% 3.5% // 7.2%
Gila 32.70% 2.50% 0.20% 2.20% 0.40% 22.80% 4.7% // 9.9%
Graham 14.30% 3.90% 0.20% 2.40% 0.30% 2.40% 5.1% // 11.9%
Greenlee 27.10% 10.70% 0.60% 0.80% 1.80% 6.20% 7.0% // 20.9%
La Paz 42.70% 3.70% 0.30% 2.30% 0.30% 33.10% 3.0% // 9.6%
Maricopa 13.90% 4.90% 0.20% 2.40% 0.40% 3.90% 2.1% // 10.0%
Mohave 25.60% 3.20% 0.10% 2.70% 0.40% 14.70% 4.4% // 10.9%
Navajo 37.40% 2.60% 0.20% 2.00% 0.30% 25.80% 6.5% // 11.6%
Pima 11.90% 4.00% 0.20% 1.70% 0.30% 3.40% 2.2% // 8.5%
Pinal 21.10% 3.10% 0.20% 3.60% 0.60% 9.70% 4.0% // 11.4%
Santa Cruz 14.30% 3.60% 0.10% 2.10% 0.30% 4.20% 3.9% // 10.1%
Yavapai 17.70% 2.70% 0.10% 2.50% 0.40% 8.40% 3.5% // 9.3%
Yuma 26.30% 2.90% 0.50% 1.40% 0.30% 18.40% 2.8% // 17.2%

* Net = vacancy rate minus seasonal housing

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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