A leading housing expert is calling on banks, mortgage companies, and secondary market agencies to help halt what he calls an alarming destabilization of large urban housing markets.
William Apgar, executive director of Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies, issued the call as the center prepared to unveil its widely followed annual report on the state of the nation's housing market.
The report, due to be released today , says urban problems are intensifying rapidly because of the success of housing markets in suburbia. Families with sufficient income are fleeing inner cities to buy homes in the suburbs, leaving the urban markets with mostly lower-income renters, he said.
"It's very important to diversify the income base of urban neighborhoods, and to do that we have to make homebuying a possibility," Mr. Apgar said in an interview.
Homebuying fairs and programs such as Fannie Mae's homeownership initiative have showed encouraging results, he said. "But will there be enough follow-through?" he asked.
Mr. Apgar said mortgage lenders should be taking advantage of business opportunities in inner cities, which he characterized as significant. "There is a pool of minority and immigrant loans there, offering bankable loans. Lenders looking at cities are finding a lot more than they expected," he said.
In recent years, a number of top mortgage executives have turned to the annual Harvard studies for guidance on major trends, especially in the market for lower-income housing.
This year's report finds that, despite the problems resulting from homeowners' flight from the cities, the nation's housing market is strong.
The number of homeowners continues to grow at a record pace, the study reports, with 1995's addition of 1.7 million homeowners, representing the largest single-year increase in two decades.
Lower interest rates and declines in real estate values nationwide are helping to make purchasing a home more affordable, the study said. These factors helped bring the national homeownership rate up to 64.7%, from 64.1% in 1993.
Minority homebuyers made up a large chunk of the increase - black and Hispanic homebuyers represented 28% of new homeowners since 1993.
In addition, the number of households is unlikely to drop significantly over the next 15 years - an average of 1.2 million new households will be formed each year through 2000, despite a decrease in the young adult population, which typically fuels the first-time homebuyer market.
New immigrants, economic growth, and stable home prices will counteract this decrease, the study said.
Because of solid demand, production of new homes - both conventional and manufactured - should remain basically stable for an average of 1.7 million annually until 2010.
Other observers are optimistic about the near future of the housing industry. Mortgage originations in 1996 will rise 18%, to $750 billion, according to Fannie Mae. This represents the first increase in originations in three years.
"Despite increases during the past six months, mortgage interest rates remain affordable enough that they should not significantly dampen the housing market," said David Berson, vice president and chief economist at Fannie Mae.
Mr. Berson said faster appreciation in the value of their homes, the first in several years in some areas, added to the strong outlook for the housing market. He added that increases had been particularly strong in California, the Mountain states, and the Southeast.
The Harvard study had support from Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, the National Association of Realtors, the National Association of Homebuilders, and other organizations.