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Steller column: Diane Keaton house aside, home affordability is slipping again in Tucson
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Steller column: Diane Keaton house aside, home affordability is slipping again in Tucson

When Diane Keaton dropped $327 per square foot on an adobe rowhouse in Barrio Viejo, it felt like a reminder of bad old days.

Out-of-town investor.

Sky-high prices.

Locals left out.

These were some of the factors that drove our housing prices into the stratosphere back around 2005, when I was a business editor at the Star and we were wondering what in the world was going on with Tucson real estate. Every home sale led to a bidding war, it seemed, and before long Tucson residents were grabbing any piddling property they could, or giving up on the idea of ever owning a home.

We all know how that ended. After the crash of 2008, some local home prices have still not reached the peaks they did during the run-up of 2004-2006.

But it turns out Keaton and her purchase are outliers. Nutty investors aren’t forcing prices up to places Tucsonans will never afford, for now. But affordability is still slipping. Even when we gain jobs and income ticks up, the prices seem to accelerate just ahead of the reach of many Tucsonans.

George Hammond, the economic forecaster at the UA’s Eller College of Management, said last week that Tucson’s housing is the most affordable among its peer cities. For that ranking, he used a measure by the National Association of Home Builders — the percentage of homes sold that were affordable to a family making the median income in the area.

In 2017, Tucson’s index was 71.1, the best among a set of a dozen western cities that Hammond’s Economic and Business Research Center considers Tucson’s peers. That was similar to Colorado Springs and Albuquerque, and much better than cities like San Diego and Portland, where the indices were 15.4 and 38.8, respectively.

But Hammond acknowledged, when we spoke Friday, that the index can be misleading. It only measures homes sold, not rentals and, of course, not homes that weren’t sold. It also misses a feeling that is growing in Tucson, that housing is becoming unaffordable again.

To capture that feeling, he pointed to a measure called “housing cost burden,” which reflects the percentage of households that must pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. That’s where we start to see why Tucsonans are feeling pinched by housing costs. In 2016, Tucson ranked ninth among its 12-peer group for housing cost burden.

In Tucson, Hammond said, “Housing cost burden is lower than average for high-income groups, but it’s higher than average for low-income groups.”

And Tucson, of course, has a lot of low-income residents.

The factor that keeps home ownership just out of reach for many is our incomes. Even though wages have begun rising in the last couple of years, Hammond reported, housing prices have risen faster. While personal income is forecast to grow by 4.1 percent, home prices increased by 7.9 percent over the year, Hammond reported.

Out-of-state investors aren’t necessarily to blame the way they were a dozen years ago, said Ginny Huffman, president of the Tucson Association of Realtors.

“We’re seeing a new style of investor,” said Huffman, whose realty primarily works in property management. “There are investors coming in where they’re not necessarily looking for screaming deals. They’re trying to find nice homes that they don’t have to do a lot of work on that they can turn around and rent.”

Some are out-of-state investors, she said, but they bear little resemblance to those who drove up prices years ago.

“I’m not seeing it,” she said. “In talking with some of my associates in the business, we’re really not seeing the craziness that there was.”

Many people had hoped that the market would loosen up in central Tucson, in the neighborhoods surrounding the university, as student housing towers were built. The idea was that students would move into the towers, leaving houses in the neighborhoods to families or other renters and buyers.

So far, it hasn’t happened that way.

“The narrative at the time the streetcar went in was that we would put in density by the streetcar and it would solve the mini-dorm problem,” City Council member Steve Kozachik said. “It hasn’t happened.”

The “mini-dorm problem” was the construction of multi-unit complexes for students in the heart of neighborhoods formerly dominated by single-family residences. They aren’t being built much anymore, but students have remained in the neighborhoods, despite the packed towers, and some rentals are being renovated for students even now.

Huffman and Michael Crawford, a former City Council member who is head of the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association, told me there are some houses being converted back to single-family use, but it’s not been a widespread transition.

“Jefferson Park could be the next young, family-oriented place,” Crawford said hopefully.

But it seems we’re going to need more building, more high-rises, more housing stock in general to help improve these neighborhoods and the affordability of housing in Tucson overall. Those planned high-rises along North Fourth Avenue that locals hate? Sadly, they’re part of the answer to our affordable-housing problem.

We can demand changes to the design, but the broad concept — more housing stock in high-demand central neighborhoods — is needed to keep Tucson from becoming unaffordable like Portland, a city we otherwise like to emulate.

The Diane Keaton property, it turns out, is not much of a sign of anything. It’s a unique property — an 1880s adobe south of downtown with four rowhouse units, one of which was demolished but could be rebuilt, as longtime Barrio Viejo developer David Carter explained to me. Keaton, who has long invested in unique and historic properties, had been scoping the area for years before making this $1.5 million purchase.

“I don’t know of many people who are coming in and buying investment properties,” he said. “It’s mostly people who think the barrio is a nice place, downtown is a nice place and would like to live here.”

Not many Tucsonans will be able to afford that neighborhood, where sales prices for homes at least 2,000 square feet are very high, at $244 per square foot.

But thank goodness Keaton’s purchase isn’t a sign of what’s going on in the rest of Tucson’s market, where affordability is slipping again anyway, even without highly inflated prices paid by out-of-state investors.

Contact: or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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